With more running for political office than ever before, women have moved beyond breaking ceilings and on to breaking records.
But there’s still more work to be done.
This year, more than 2,500 women filed for national- or state-level candidacy in a bi-partisan effort to increase female representation in politics nationwide, where women currently hold 20 percent of all congressional seats and less than 25 percent of state legislator positions. To ensure female political representation continues to grow, The University of Texas at Austin Center for Women’s & Gender Studies brought the national NEW Leadership™ program to Texas for its seventh consecutive year.
“I thought it would be interesting to learn more about why women are so underrepresented and what we can do about it,” said Rhie Azzam Morris, a history senior at Sam Houston State University. “I learned to compromise my strategies and not my values, and that many of my attributes that the world teaches women are deficits are actually gifts, such as owning my space, speaking up and not being afraid to ask questions.”
The non-partisan, weeklong summer institute, established at Rutgers University, is designed to empower women — especially women of color — to participate in political leadership roles by introducing them to current political professionals and creating an open dialogue about women in leadership and politics.
“This is the first and only program of its kind in Texas,” said the center’s director Susan Heinzelman, a UT Austin associate professor of English. “NEW Leadership™ Texas strives to instill the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for effective political engagement and community organizing and asks women to get involved in politics by working on campaigns and issues that further their own values and beliefs about how to improve society.”
This year had the most diverse cohort to date, conference organizers said. The 38 participants ranged from 19 to 45 years old, hailed from 28 colleges and universities across the state, and represented the full length of the political spectrum and diverse ethnic backgrounds.
“I learned that there are so many people from all walks of life that you will have a lot in common with,” said Kimberley Giden, a political science major at the University of Houston-Downtown. “I’ve learned that you should judge less, observe more and find a common ground with all those you come into contact with.”
According to the 2018 Texas Civic Health Index, political participation in Texas remains extremely low. Based on figures from the 2016 general election, the state ranked 44th in voter registration and 47th in voter turnout among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. NEW Leadership™ Texas would like to change all of that, Heinzelman said.
“I realized I was not at the conference to just work on my perceived weaknesses, but to see my strengths and understand how they can be used to make change,” said Meagan Biscamp, a social work junior at St. Edwards University who was inspired by the conference to start an Ignite Texas chapter at her school to empower young women to become civically engaged and run for office.
Other graduates of the program have gone on to run for city councils, lead campaigns, intern in Washington, D.C., and work in groundbreaking areas of political technology, conference organizers said.
“The self-care sessions, meeting amazing women, and learning about women and their role in politics made me feel empowered,” said A’breanna Harrison, a junior education major at Hardin Simmons University. “It fueled me to help myself to help the world. I felt like I could accomplish anything I put my mind to.”