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Rebecca Sive Headshot

For California Women Who Dream of Political Leadership and Power: Some Rules of the Road

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As we begin Women's History Month, and celebrate International Women's Day (Saturday, March 8), I've been reflecting on the lessons today's women office-holders, and those who aspire to political office, can learn from those who've already traversed that path.

But, first, a bit of context: this ruminating comes on the eve of my visit to California, beginning in Los Angeles, as the special guest of Close the Gap CA's Stop the Slide tour.

This slide would be the slide (downwards) in the number of women in the California legislature: While there were a record 37 serving in the legislature in 2006, there are only 32 in 2014. (Sadly, California now ranks 19th in the nation for the number of women serving in its state legislature, down from sixth in 2003, according to Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics. That's 26 percent of the legislature, versus 31 percent.)

The Stop the Slide tour, whose purpose is to raise awareness of this problem and recruit women to work to solve it -- by becoming candidates themselves -- then goes to San Diego Sunday, when we will gather at the Women's Museum of California, at an event hosted by Run Women Run, a nonpartisan group that recruits and trains women candidates for office in the San Diego area.

At that gathering, whose co-hosts include Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, I will share my take on what it takes for American women to succeed politically in an ever-more fractious environment -- one in which women's experience, knowledge and perspective is needed more than ever.

My take is based on my experience as an advocate and strategist for women's political advancement; as a public official and observer of the political scene; and, most recently, as the author of Every Day Election Day: A Woman's Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House, (a handbook for women who seek public leadership roles).

It occurs to me that the most poignant and pointed recent story, illustrative of women's challenging political path, is that of Texas state senator Wendy Davis, now running for governor.

The February 14, 2014 New York Times Magazine cover story about Davis posed one of the main propositions women candidates, and would-be candidates, need to prepare for. TheTimes asked whether Davis is "a bootstrapping single mother," or "an ambitious careerist," as though, among other problems with this set-up, she couldn't be both -- just like most male candidates are -- i.e., both bootstrapping and ambitious (Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, anyone?).

Fact is, nobody -- but nobody -- gets anywhere in politics without believing in her (or him) self; doing what's necessary and then some, and then asking for the order --for her or himself, not for someone else. If that's not ambition and bootstrapping, I don't know what is. Yet, the Times posed this question as though boot strapping and ambition don't go hand-in-hand every day in American politics.

First point for women candidates: Sexism runs rampant. Would a single father have been presented this way? Probably not.

Then, there's the problem of not only being ambitious, i.e., wanting to achieve a lot, but of saying you want to be SOMEBODY, besides. Back-in-the-day, women were told in no uncertain terms that goal wasn't "ladylike." Today's younger women may not have heard that expression, but most, notwithstanding, have been inculcated with the notion that women should wait to be asked -- to do whatever.

The problem is that waiting to be asked is a big problem in any domain in which there is serious competition. And politics is certainly one of those domains. Consequently, women's recalcitrance has become one of their biggest barriers to their entry into politics. Even those women with burning ambition like, say, Wendy Davis, have waited to be asked (as Davis did in her first campaign).

Run Women Run and Close the Gap CA seek to change this paradigm by aggressively recruiting women candidates. Indeed, that's what we'll discuss Saturday in Los Angeles, Sunday in San Diego, and later in the week in the Bay Area: How we can we recruit, recruit, recruit.

Another one of the charges against Davis is that she obfuscated in telling her life story. Turns out, she didn't live in that humble trailer as long as her campaign implied she did. Turns out, there are competing stories (hers, her former husband's, and her daughters') of how often she returned home (from Cambridge, MA, where she was attending Harvard Law School) to visit her daughters.

Davis clarified these points, raised in a Dallas Morning News story, contesting her campaign's version of her biography. Yet, and rightly so, other feminists have noted -- for upwards of a month now -- that a male candidate wouldn't have been excoriated the way Davis was --for example, for leaving children with one's spouse in order to further one's education. Know any men who've made a choice like that? I bet you do.

Second point: Women are held to a higher standard in political life, particularly when it comes to behavior or decision making related to female traits, e.g., being a mother. While I'm not wading-in on the merits of the Davis campaign's strategy, I do think it's important for women candidates to recognize that what can be perceived as obfuscation, for example about one's role as a mother, can be a serious blunder, whatever the merits of one's argument. One has only to look at the fact that Davis is still dealing with the fallout from the Morning News story six weeks later to realize the validity of this conclusion of mine.

Now, none of this is a reason not to do what your head and heart want you to do; it is only to say, as with anything else, that you want to be smart about it.

So, time to join the Stop the Slide Tour, speak up, and speak out. For there is just no substitute for frank consideration of the challenges facing women office-holders, and then earnestly helping each other overcome them, en route to the political leadership California (and the United States) needs.