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Pomp and Circumstance: Young Women and the Future of Politics

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GRADUATION

Somewhere among the estimated 1.7 million new college graduates of the class of 2011 is the future of American politics. By the numbers, this should also mean a surge of new women leaders on the horizon. But even though 57 percent of students enrolled in college are women -- a statistic that has held for more than a decade -- the gender gap does not favor women once they leave campus.

Once women enter the job market or public office they're no longer in the lead. While women make up 67 percent of the American workforce, they earn 17 percent less than their male counterparts. Women comprise only 16 percent of Congress. For women to achieve equal pay at work and equal representation in government, we must invest in young women after they leave the classroom.

The barriers to women entering politics are well-known and are not insurmountable: women need to be recruited, learn how to attract party support and raise funds, as well as overcome the increased scrutiny on how they will balance work and family. The Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers, in partnership with my foundation, studied women elected officials at the state level and concludes in their Poised to Run report that while women are underrepresented in state legislatures, the pool of women candidates is larger than commonly believed and more funding and training can help women win.

Several partisan and non-partisan programs throughout the country are working to funnel that pool of talent into the pipeline of future women political leaders. By providing critical education, training, inspiration, and funding, these programs are bringing more young women in the political process.

Focusing on early recruitment and training, Running Start encourages girls to channel their interest into politics by selecting 50 school-aged girls from across the country to participate in their week-long Young Women's Political Leadership Training Program (YWPL) in Washington, D.C. each year. This year's graduates included 17-year-old Maria Peeples, a student activist from Wisconsin, who encouraged her state legislature to pass a comprehensive sex education bill and was on hand when the Governor signed it into law. Maria honed her skills in the program and was named a "Woman to Watch" at the Running Start awards gala earlier in May. Running Start also recently launched Elect Her, a program designed to encourage women to run for student government on campus since research has shown that women who run for student body elections in college are more likely to run for office as adults.

Engaging women while they are still in college is another key element in building the pipeline for women in politics. Recent graduate Varina Winder said that in the Barbara Lee Women in US Politics Training Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government she learned from women experts and was inspired and supported by a network of women classmates. "I view politics as a way to affect change on the issues about which I care," said Winder. "I think it's important that young women: 1) Vote! 2) Know we can engage at any level and 3) Realize that having young voices in politics brings a different perspective and added diversity."

One of my Foundation's largest ongoing projects helps add more of those young voices to politics in Massachusetts. Our endowment to Simmons College -- my alma mater -- provides funding for an intern fellowship program at the Massachusetts State House. The program seeks to increase the number of young women who enter the pipeline of political leadership with exposure to and education in the nuts and bolts of Massachusetts politics. Over 80 young women have benefited from this mentor-based internship since it began in 2004.

Emerge Massachusetts is trying to bridge the political gender gap in my home state by training qualified women who may lack confidence that they are experienced enough to run for public office or who just don't know where to start. Emerge is the only in-depth, six-month training program that gives Democratic women in Massachusetts the tools they need to run and win. Judy Neufeld, Executive Director of Emerge MA and an alumna of the program herself, says that Emerge teaches women of diverse backgrounds how to think like a candidate. "I had run several campaigns before taking the program," Judy said, "and I thought I knew everything there was to know about campaigning, but I was so wrong! Emerge gave me the skills I would need as a candidate. Too often, women do not see themselves running for office so a pool of highly qualified Democratic candidates is being left untapped."

These are just a few of the programs throughout the country that are recruiting, training, and inspiring the next generation of women leaders. I invite you to learn about other impactful programs like Emerge America, Ready to Run, and the Women's Campaign Forum. Please post a comment if you have a favorite program of your own or want to share your experience as a participant.

And if you are a recent graduate yourself, Congratulations! Have you considered running for office?