Political Activist Rebecca Sive: Every Day is Election Day

09/01/2015 06:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rebecca Sive is Academic Director of the Women in Public Leadership Executive Education Program, Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, where she has taught classes on women in politics. She was among Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson's inaugural appointees to the Illinois Human Rights Commission, on which she served for eight years. She is a contributor to The Huffington Post and a speaker on women and politics. She is the author of "Every Day Is Election Day: A Woman's Guide to Winning Any Office from the PTA to the White House." Learn more at RebeccaSive.com.

How and why did you become a political activist?

I was born in New York City and my parents were very political, but I went to college at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Do you remember Paul Wellstone [progressive Minnesota Senator from 1991 until his death in 2002]? He was my college advisor. That was an era when there was lots of campus political activity. The women's movement was getting going. One of the things Paul organized, along with colleagues at other schools, was an urban studies program in Chicago for people interested in urban affairs, political science and sociology. I came to Chicago for that program and fell in love with the city. The politics were endlessly fascinating.

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Were women's issues a focus of yours from the start?

When I came to Chicago there was a very important, recently published book, "Sisterhood is Powerful" [edited by Robin Morgan; 1970]. It made the case for women's equality of opportunity. That book had a great impact on many women of my generation, motivating many of us to become women's issue advocates.

The next year, I was in Cambridge, Mass. for a while as my husband finished his studies there. There was a newsprint pamphlet, 200 pages or so, for 25¢, called the "Boston Women's Yellow Pages." It was a guide to services for women in Boston. When we came back to Chicago, I decided to do that here. A group of us self-published the Chicago Women's Directory/Guia para las Mujeres de Chicago in 1974, a guide to women's services here.

Several years later a small group of friends and I formed the Midwest Women's Center, again in Chicago. It was from that base that I became increasingly involved in women's issues. During this time, I was appointed by then Gov. James Thompson to the inaugural Illinois Human Rights Commission.

What was that experience like?

It was rewarding. Prior to that time, Illinois and many other states had fair employment practices commissions but few had adjudicatory commissions related to matters of housing and credit and various forms of discriminatory behavior. I served for eight years and learned a lot about how government works.

Good and bad?

It was a good experience and a good grounding, and I have always appreciated the opportunity to serve in that way.

Did you accomplish important things?

I think we did. The important thing from a larger, systemic standpoint is that the state then had a mechanism for dealing with discrimination of various sorts, not just employment.

I think the combination of being a community activist, founding the women's center and then serving in public office gave me a good base for ongoing political activity and advocacy for women. As a result of these varying experiences, I learned about various sides of the policy-making desk.

What did you do during and after your eight years with the Illinois Human Rights Commission?

Being a commissioner wasn't a full time job. During the first year I was a commissioner, I was also the executive director of the women's center. Then, I became executive director of the Playboy Foundation, which funded civil rights and social justice projects. Later, I started my own public affairs practice. All of this broadened my perspective and allowed me to meet people nationally as well as here in Illinois.

Was what you learned from all this distilled into your book, "Every Day is Election Day: A Woman's Guide"?

Absolutely. When I started my public affairs company, I really wanted to work full time on women's and social justice issues. I spent a long time working in that way with lots of different people and organizations. In 2008, watching Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton run against each other for the Democratic presidential nomination, it hit me that this was a new era: that the two main candidates in a mainstream party primary, seeking to be the most powerful person in the world, were a woman and an African American was remarkable. When I was taking classes from Paul Wellstone, if anyone had told us that would happen we would have said they were crazy!

But it did happen. That meant that there were stories to be told and lessons to be learned and that a guidebook might be useful for successive generations of women. I felt that my experience, and that of colleagues, would be useful for a book that would be direct and frank but also inspirational on what this opportunity for women is about.

Did you do a book tour to promote it?

I did. It was fantastic. I joked, but it was true: I traveled from Mississippi to Manhattan to Minnesota: I was at Delta State University in Mississippi, in the heart of New York City at the Roosevelt Institute, and I did a Tedx talk at Carleton College.

In the process, I learned that there are a lot of women, of many different kinds, who want to be publicly engaged. I learned that though the women I met at Delta State were not the same as the women I met in Minneapolis, they shared a common dream of public engagement.

There were equal levels of eagerness to explore and understand what it means for a woman to be politically active. And now the time is right. There is a hunger for politicians who are open and honest and have good ideas. You can get discouraged so easily being involved in politics, but my book tour gave me hope and optimism.

The current political discourse often seems to address fears rather than policy issues. Do you think what we're seeing and hearing will encourage women to become more involved politically?

That's a good question. What I concluded from my travels, and that I continue to believe, is that there is a subset of women who really want to be in public life. Whatever they may think of what's going on, they want to be involved. This isn't a majority of women, just as it isn't a majority of men. But, not everyone wants to be a chef or a doctor either.

One of the places I spoke was at the founding conference of an organization called VoteRunLead in Minneapolis last November. They had 400 women in the room--black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American--who were not wealthy, they were working women, and they were fully aware of the political scene and wanted to be leaders in it. That was very encouraging.

My view is that if every woman who wants to hold a political position had the resources, support and training she needs (and deserves), there would be many more women seeking office, and it would be enough to make a bigger difference than we have seen so far. It doesn't have to be everyone; it just has be the women like those in that room in Minneapolis.

Is it lack of resources, support and training that keeps women out of the political process?

In many ways, it's no different for women than for men. It's deciding first that public policy is something you're interested in. Second, it's deciding whether you like engaging with others. That's not gender driven, but it is historically true that when women have decided to run for office they have had a harder time raising money. There have been other significant systemic barriers inhibiting women from doing this. They don't get asked to run as frequently as men do. Women have a lack of access to that table that men sit around and ask, "Who do we want to nominate for city clerk?" It's also true that sometimes women wait to be asked while men don't.

The research on these issues shows that, for instance, if a woman sees a problem with her local schools, she organizes her neighbors, and they work to do something about it. By contrast, when a man sees a similar problem, he declares, "I want to be on the school board."

You're a contributor to The Huffington Post. You recently wrote a piece advising Hillary Clinton to stop being deferential and to toughen up. Is much of your advice to would-be women politicians also applicable to women in business?

I absolutely think that's true. The women I know who have sought executive posts in business have run campaigns, just like my political women friends have done. You don't get to the top because someone asks you. You have to campaign. You also have to build a power base outside the company that puts you in a better position to bargain and advocate for yourself and to get internal sponsors.

What does your post at the Harris School entail?

I started teaching at the University of Chicago in the fall of 2012, teaching a course on women in politics. I've now done that for five semesters. Daniel Diermeier became the Dean last fall. He's very interested in the idea that women are increasingly becoming policy leaders. He feels that it is important for the Harris School to promote their education and opportunity. Historically, a majority of the school's graduates have been women; it's a place women come to.

He and I talked about it, and he invited me to put this program on women in public leadership together. It does stem from the school's commitment to train not just brilliant policy people but brilliant leaders, among whom should be as many women as possible.
We'll launch this fall. There are a lot of ways it can develop; we'll see where the interest lies.

I was going to ask what your next challenge might be, but this is so new that I have my answer, don't I?

Oh, this is it.

Do you think there's another book in you about this current presidential campaign?

I don't know, but it will be very interesting to watch this campaign, for sure. To see whether Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina are in it for the long haul; I imagine they will be, I think there will be things we'll learn that we didn't know before. To see two women go after this will be a chance to examine how women approach the highest office. Are there differences in strategy or style, compared with the male competitors?

Whether there's a book there is TBD, but I'm certainly watching and finding it all very interesting.