08/27/2010 02:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Civic Responsibility

As we head into the fall voting season, I can't help but notice that, once again, female voices are significantly absent; all of the talking heads are male. Unfortunately, this absence means a lack of discussion of the issues most critical to women and our families.

Over the last 20 years, women have made some significant political strides. With the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation of Elena Kagan's nomination, we are nearing the historic milestone of having three women serve on the Supreme Court. As Speaker of the House, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is second in the presidential line of succession. And, partisan politics aside, both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin achieved a level of accomplishment in the 2008 presidential primaries and subsequent campaign that was impressive.

Despite these talented few, we have much work to do. To date, women hold only 90 (16.8 percent) of the 535 seats in Congress. On a state level it is not much better. In Illinois, of the 59 total state senators only 13 are women; of the 118 total House Assembly members, only 36 are women, equaling a total of 28 percent--ranking us 16th in the country for the proportion of women.

Elected women of color fare even worse. Of the 90 women serving in Congress, only 21 (23 percent) are women of color, all serving in the House. Of the nation's 100 largest cities, only one women of color currently serves as mayor--Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore. No woman of color has ever been elected as governor of a state.

What is ironic about these numbers is that women make up the majority of the electorate, and our issues are critical to the strength and stability of our communities. Women outnumber men among registered voters by 78.1 million. In recent elections, voter turnout rates for women have equaled or exceeded voter turnout rates for men. And in every presidential election since 1980, regardless of ethnicity, the proportion of eligible women voters has exceeded the proportion of men who voted.

But this voting power is not translating into more women running for or holding elected office, which means that issues critical to women fail to penetrate the policy bubble. When women enter public life, they are more likely to sponsor policies that focus on what women need: health care, economic stability, education, housing, child care, anti-violence against women legislation, etc. Moreover, the Center for American Women and Politics found that, when asked, women legislators are more likely to identify as top priorities women's rights, health care and policies benefiting children and families more than their male counterparts. Without women in office, the stability of our communities and families falters.

So what can we, as people committed to empowering women and families, do? On behalf of the 138,000 women, children and families my organization serves each year, I urge all of us who are passionate about social justice to leverage our strength to support women candidates who champion policies that address women's needs--but that's only a first step toward making social change. The next step? Run.