Record numbers of women ran for office in the last midterm election cycle, and as more women than ever won elections, 2018 became dubbed the “Year of the Woman.”

But despite these historic victories, women in the United States remain underrepresented in Congress and state legislatures. 

A program in Oklahoma hopes to close that gap.

While women make up over 50% of the American population, they only hold 23.6% of seats — or 126 of the 535 seats — in the 116th U.S. Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).

The proportion of women in state legislatures is slightly higher at 28.9%, but Oklahoma remains well below the national average. Oklahoma is currently ranked 43 out of 50 for the percentage of women in the state Legislature — the highest ranking the state has held in the past three decades, according to CAWP.

As of 2019, the Oklahoma State Legislature is 21.5% female. In the Senate, 9 out of 48 members are women and in the House 23 out of 101 members are women. The only state in America with gender parity in the state Legislature is Nevada, where 52.4% of legislators are women.

The program 

The Oklahoma program aiming to bridge the gap by increasing the number of women in positions of political leadership is NEW Leadership. 

NEW Leadership is an intensive five-day program that has taken place annually on OU’s campus for the past 18 years. The goal of the program is to educate and empower undergraduate women to be active participants in politics and public service.

Oklahoma is one of 20 states within The NEW Leadership National Network, founded in 1991 by The Center for American Women and Politics in order to “teach college women the value of civic engagement and the importance of having women in positions of political leadership,” according to the CAWP website.

Each year, around 30 undergraduate women from colleges and universities throughout Oklahoma are selected to participate in the institute through a competitive application process.

The program provides participants with a robust network of female mentors and allies working in public service positions by inviting more than 50 women leaders from public life to share their professional journeys and advice with the next generation of female leaders.

The divide

Increasing the number of women in political leadership roles is largely dependent upon providing them with exposure to those who are already established in the field, according to a study conducted by American University School of Public Affairs.

The study identified several key factors that contribute to the gender gap in running for office. One of these is that most women who run for office were compelled and encouraged to run by others, but women are significantly less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office, according to the study. Another factor contributing to women’s underrepresentation in office is that women are much less likely than men to perceive themselves as qualified to run for office.

NEW Leadership was created to help counteract these discrepancies by giving women access to role models who can help demystify the process of running for office and encourage women to become more civically involved, according to Lauren Schueler, director of NEW Leadership and civic engagement at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center.

Schueler has been the director of Oklahoma’s NEW Leadership chapter for three years since her predecessor, Cindy Simon Rosenthal, retired. Rosenthal originally brought NEW Leadership to the state in 2002.

“NEW Leadership at its core is about leadership and empowerment foundationally, so across sectors, across career paths, but obviously it has a very specific goal of getting more women into public service more broadly,” Schueler said. “I think a big picture goal of the program is to fill that pipeline of women that have the potential and the expertise and the knowledge to run for office and to step into those leadership roles.”

The participants

To date, Oklahoma’s NEW Leadership chapter has produced about 600 graduates, 10 of whom have run for office. Four graduates are currently serving in elected positions.

The first NEW Leadership graduate to get elected was Cyndi Munson in 2015, who currently represents Oklahoma house district 85. In 2018, two graduates from the 2003 alumni class won elections: Carri Hicks was elected to Oklahoma senate district 40 and Kassie McCoy was elected as the Associate District Judge for Rogers County. The most recent graduate to be elected was Amanda Sandoval-Lopez from the class of 2014 who is serving as the Ward 1 City Councilwoman in Bethany.

One 2019 graduate has already begun campaigning for the 2020 election cycle.

Emilie Tindle, a 24-year-old history student at Oklahoma State University, is running as a Democrat for the state’s 11th house district seat.

Tindle knew she wanted to run for office before attending NEW Leadership, but she said it took encouragement from other women and role models to convince her she was qualified and capable of running.

“Opportunities where we can have discussions about what it’s like or opportunities to listen to other women’s experiences are very critical for any woman running for office,” Tindle said. “I think NEW Leadership is really important, because there will always be people who reach out and women tend to draw each other in. We tend to offer a hand to the person behind us.”

Before the 2018 elections, Tindle imagined herself running for office later in life after she had pursued several other career paths and raised a family.

However, in 2018 District 11 did not have a general election, and Tindle felt called to step up and run. After watching candidates in the district run unopposed in the general election for the past four election cycles, Tindle knew she had to take action.

“I felt like it was the right time for somebody to show up and nobody had,” Tindle said. “And I see the value in having a nontraditional student run for office, and I see the value of having a young woman run.”

At 24, Tindle is the same age House minority leader Emily Virgin was when she first got elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2010.

Virgin said programs like NEW Leadership are especially important for women, who face a unique set of challenges while running for office.

“What I’ve seen is that women are much more likely to want to know the mechanics of everything, the ins and outs, what exactly they’ll need to do and how can we win,” Virgin said.

“So programs [like NEW Leadership] really give them the tools they need to be confident and successful.”

The trends

One trend Schueler has noticed during her decade-long involvement with the program is that young women today seem more ready and willing to run for office than they did a few years ago.

Schueler said that traditionally many young women felt like they had to attain major “life benchmarks” like getting married and having and raising children before they felt justified in serving their communities and launching a campaign.

“I think women are starting to push those barriers and saying why do I have to wait? Men don’t have to wait. I can do these things,” Schueler said.

This belief is supported by a recent Pew Research Center study that traced the number of millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — running for office.

A record number of Millennials were elected to Congress in 2018. There are currently 26 Millennials serving in the House, up from only five who were serving at the beginning of the current Congress in 2017, according to Pew Research Center.

Additionally, women who were elected to the 116th Congress were the youngest and most racially diverse class in American history, according to the Washington Post.

Throughout her 10 years serving in the state Legislature, Virgin has witnessed increasing numbers of women from diverse and nontraditional backgrounds continue to break barriers by running for office and winning elections at historically high rates.

But for this trend to continue, Virgin believes there must be a sustained effort to invest in programs like NEW Leadership. For although Oklahoma has made progress in the past few years, the state still has a long way to go before women gain equal representation.

“I think we are only seeing improvement because we have some structures in place now. Organizations like Sally’s List, NEW Leadership, Pipeline to Politics and the Carl Albert Center that are being mindful of these issues,” Virgin said. “But if those didn’t exist or ceased to exist, then I think that conversation and progress largely stops.”

This story was written as part of a public affairs reporting class at the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism.

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