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Barbara Lee Headshot

Want Women to Make History? Elect Them

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They say past is prologue. For me, that phrase could not be more fitting. A moment in history sparked my future.

My grandmother's story about watching the suffragists marching on Fifth Avenue, demanding the right to vote, prefaced my own story as an expert on women in politics, an unflappable feminist, and an eternal optimist. Inspired by this story, I've made my life's work changing the face of politics by electing women to office nationwide.

As we reflect on how far women have come on the road to equality this Women's History Month, we must also keep pushing forward to cover the ground we have left. For every peak, there is a valley. To reach meaningful equality, we need to elect more women. It is as simple (and as complicated) as that.

It is at the policy level that we can instigate widespread, systemic change for women. And that starts with getting women in office. (For the record: it was a woman, Senator Barbara Mikulski, who in 1981 sponsored legislation to establish a federally observed Women's History Week, the precursor to our current month-long observance. And she's been getting results in the U.S. Senate ever since.) As Meryl Streep narrates in the documentary "Makers", "Feminists decided that the only way to make sure new laws were fair was to write them themselves."

To which I say: Right on, sister.

Today, we are at a peak: Women are a record 18 percent of Congress, we've seen an uptick in the number of women in state legislatures, and we are on the cusp of another potentially barrier-breaking year as women run for governor in 2014.

This peak in representation is the first step in overcoming a plateau on the policy front. What can we accomplish with a tipping point of women in office? Imagine the results.

As I've said on this page in the past, a peak for women's equality would include Congress passing pay equity legislation, ensuring women get paid their fair share for doing the same work as men and have the tools necessary to combat disparity when it does occur. And paid sick leave policies would be mandated across the country, ensuring workers no longer have to choose between their jobs and their health. Paid family leave policies would be the law of the land, meaning all parents have the choice to care for their babies and keep their jobs.

With women's voices in office and on the bench, we passed the most inclusive Violence Against Women Act to date, upheld the Affordable Care Act, and got the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act on the books, to name just a few. Because of women's voices, we are finally tackling the issue of sexual assault in the military and addressing gun violence head on.

Even a century past suffrage, and with these successes, however, voters still hold women to a higher standard than men. Research shows that women candidates must exhibit a laundry list of traits: She must be likeable, a problem-solver, strong but not tough, prove expertise on economics, taxes, budgets, job creation (including a solid economic plan validated by a man), polished but not too pretty, and the list goes on.

And then there's high-profile races like Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential bid; Sarah Palin's 2008 run for vice president; the fact that we are nearly forty years into the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (and still waiting); and that the United States is still behind Afghanistan and Rwanda when it comes to women's representation in office.

The fact that these obstacles persist may feel like a valley. The good news is that despite these high hurdles, women are clearing the bar.

At the core of the women's movement, and any successful social movement, is a common denominator: resilience. It is perhaps the most marked characteristic of not only the women's movement but of the group it represents -- the women this month is meant to celebrate.

To be sure, the fact that women's struggles and triumphs are relegated to one month underscores how much work is left to do. I look forward to a time when our achievements are so widely acknowledged that it will take much longer than a month to celebrate them. But until textbooks tell America's history from not only men's perspectives, I will happily observe these 31 days dedicated solely to women.

I am celebrating by asking women to run for office. I hope you'll join me in recruiting women to run, too. That is the surest way we can write our own history.