Increasing Female Representation in U.S. Politics: Non-Partisanship and Confidence-Building for Political Empowerment

Increasing Female Representation in U.S. Politics: Non-Partisanship and Confidence-Building for Political Empowerment
Running Start CEO & Founder Susannah Wellford (r.) with two of her program graduates.

Running Start is a U.S. nonprofit that trains diverse young women to run for public office. Recognizing the lack of female representation at all political levels, the organization aims to encourage women regardless of partisan affiliation to seek political office and supports them through mentoring and skill-building in leadership, campaign strategy and teamwork. Under CEO & Founder Susannah Wellford’s leadership, Running Start has trained over 20,000 women from high school to college in more than 100 annual programs. 90% of alums who ran for office have won. SHE SAID spoke to Susannah Wellford about her vision for female political empowerment.  

A core value of Running Start is non-partisanship. Accordingly, your more than 100 programs across the U.S., all of which encourage women from high school through college to seek elected office, are issue-neutral. Why is it important for your work to put women and not their politics into the center?

As a Democrat myself, I noticed when founding Running Start in 2007 that almost every other effort that is trying to get women into politics makes women choose a side on the political spectrum. The reason that Running Start is issue-neutral and non-partisan is because there’s such an intense need to get more women in, that we did not want to limit ourselves to women that we believed would represent certain values. With this conviction, we wanted to impact as many women as possible regardless of political affiliation. However, over the years, the United States has gotten more partisan and polarized, thus making non-partisanship the value we are most proud of. We want to continue bringing together young women regardless of identity and ideology to debate issues because we believe young women need to first and foremost engage as people. I think it is so rare in the U.S. that you ever get out of your bubble and have a conversation with somebody who comes from a different background and sees the world differently. Although these conversations outside of your bubble are not easy, I think it’s one of the more important things that Running Start fosters. As our graduates have been exposed to a broader universe of ideas, we hope that, if they do get elected for political office, they will be much better at talking across the aisle. 


In the U.S., women are less likely to run for public office than men. Accordingly, women are underrepresented at all levels of government with only 1 in 4 of elected leaders being female. Why do you think this is still the case in 2021?

I think that we still are a very traditional society, and that the power structure has always favored white, older, straight, Christian men. As girls grow up, they see a political landscape that does not look like them. Although this is changing, the role model effect for girls wanting to change the world is real: since they do not see a lot of people modeling what they could become, they are less likely to seek public office themselves. This is also the reason why many women, instead of running, decide to engage in nonprofits or community advocacy to try to change the system from outside of official structures. To empower young women to seek public office, we focus on building confidence, capabilities and connections as all of these represent barriers for women stepping into power. This involves trying to overcome the pervasiveness of imposter syndrome, teaching public speaking, fundraising & advocacy skills, and connecting our participants with powerful men and women. These connections, through internships or informal advice, are particularly important because women tend to not have as many deep connections to decision makers due to not historically being in power. 


Running Start firmly believes in the value of female leadership in the public sector. What are some of the key benefits that make increased female representation in politics socially desirable?

Women bring something different to leadership and politics but I think that this is hard to define. Since women have traditionally been outside the power structure, their whole way of looking at problems and of leading is different than that of men. Just by being in Congress, women are changing things up, because they are leading in a different way, which is also a result of their differing lived experiences when it comes to topics like female health care. My real desire is to get more women in so that women’s lived experience can influence policy. Beyond that, adding women should contribute to greater diversity in leadership in general, not just understood in terms of sex but also in terms of race, sexual orientaiton and age. Bringing more diverse identities into power can change things for everyone because it can lead to better decisions. With more diverse perspectives, government as a whole can be strengthened and everyone in society wins.


The U.S. has its first female Vice President. Seeing such female representation at the highest levels of government can have an empowering impact on younger women considering public office. In this spirit, Running Start offers mentorship opportunities, which aim to increase women’s confidence in running. Considering this context, what makes you hopeful about the future of women in politics? 

Seeing Vice President Harris take the oath of office obviously made me very hopeful. Since 2016, when women joined women’s marches all over the world, many have translated their fight for more rights into running for office. This led to record numbers of women running and joining Congress and state legislatures in the U.S. in 2018 and 2020. Interestingly, also many young and diverse women with very different day jobs won, which has added to my optimism about the future of women in politics. Despite all the hardship faced in 2020, American women seem to have woken up for the first time in years and committed to using their voice. Committed to their communities and their country, women running for office have showcased their ambition and their suitability for public office. It is young women’s dedication to change the world for the better that makes me very optimistic about the future for women in politics in America.

Svenja Kirsch is a Masters in Public Policy (MPP) Candidate at Harvard University and previously studied International Relations at Jacobs University and Sciences Po Paris. She specializes on business and government policy and focuses particularly on corporate government affairs, CSR, female economic empowerment and sustainability. Before joining GRI, she worked in academic reviewing, political campaigning, think tank research and corporate sustainability management.

Categories: North America, She Said

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