Women for Election hit Washington

Guest Blog by Clare Duignan, @clare_duignan

Could there be a more exciting time to visit Washington than in these first weeks of the administration of newly-elected US President Donald Trump?

Having spent the days since his inauguration waking to RTÉ’s Cathríona Perry on Morning Ireland telling us what Mr. Trump had done overnight, following his actions across traditional and social media all day, being absorbed with TV coverage of his latest initiative each evening and drifting off to sleep with late radio news of reactions to all of the above, I was thrilled to be asked to accompany Women for Election co-founder and chair Michelle O’Donnell Keating to Washington.

Michelle had been honored with an invitation to speak at a major event hosted by the Embassy of Canada in Washington on Tuesday 7th February. The purpose of the event was to celebrate women’s participation in politics and to honor all of the women elected to the 115th Congress. WfE board members Alison Cowzer and I were invited to accompany Michelle, to ensure that WfE got as much exposure as possible, both in the room in Washington and across media, including social media, back home in Ireland.

Michelle was invited to speak at the event by Susannah Wellford, founder of Running Start, one of 15 non-partisan not-for-profit groups which organized the event. The Canadian Embassy had partnered with them to put the event together. All of these organisations are dedicated to increasing and improving women’s participation in American politics.

They included All In TogetherCenter for American Women & Politics at Rutgers University, GlobalWIN, IGNITE NationalPLENProfessional Women in Advocacy, Project Mine the Gap, Representation 2020She Should Run,  VoteRunLeadWomen & Politics Institute at American UniversityWomen in Government RelationsWomen in Public Service ProjectWomen Under Forty PAC, and Running Start.

We were blown away by the number of such organisations in the US, by the support they have from so many philanthropic and governmental funds, business and professional organisations and academic institutions. We were also blown away by the many hundreds of women from across the political divide who came together on that warm Washington evening to celebrate the representation of women in politics.

The event was hosted by Canadian Ambassador to Washington, David MacNaughton.  The really impressive Canadian Embassy building is at 501 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, Washington, D.C. between the Capitol and The White House.  Before the event started, we were able to go out onto the terrace, enjoy the amazing views, and grab a few ‘selfies’ with The Capitol (home of the US Senate and Congress) in the background.

Michelle O’Donnell Keating, Co-founder and Chair of Irish association Women for Election, delivered the keynote address at the event. Attendees included former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, current Canadian Minister of International Trade, Canada Chrystia Freeland, Katherine Baird, Canadian Minister of Congressional, Public & Intergovernmental Affair, and almost 30 US congresswomen, including many elected for the first time last November.

Along with Michelle, the other speakers were Minister Freeland, who spoke about about why it is important to have women in senior political leadership position. The Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues Leadership- Congresswoman Susan Brooks, Republican Chair, Congresswoman Lois Frankel, Democratic Chair, Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, Democratic Vice Chair, Congresswoman Jennifer Gonzalez, New Woman Member also spoke, introducing all of the newly-elected New Congresswoman.

While the event was strictly non-political, one speaker couldn’t resist some comment on wider issues. Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, an African-American Democrat from Michigan, spoke of the advice given to her by her grandmother who had not completed high school. She told her: “There is no seat that you do not deserve to sit in at any table, no door that you’re not worthy to walk through.”

“With that, I stand here today as a member of Congress, and I want every woman in here to know that you have a gift and a skill that no one else can give to this country that is uniquely yours,” Ms Lawrence said.

Michelle gave a terrific speech, speaking about Ireland’s progress in increasing female participation in politics and the role of WfE in that progress. She traced the journey Irish women have made from the early 1970s, when women were forced to surrender their public-sector jobs on marriage, to the election of two female presidents.

She said a huge cultural shift had taken place over the intervening years, but that it now seemed that that progress had “plateaued”. She explained the purpose of Women for Election, and what it has achieved to date, noting that since it was set up, Women for Election had engaged with 1,400 women through its various programmes. There had been a 100 per cent increase in the number of women who ran in the last general election and a 40 per cent jump in the number elected. “The message is: where women run, women get elected,” she said. She also highlighted the role the introduction of gender quotas had played in increasing female participation in Irish politics. “Nobody likes them, but the reality is they work,” she said. Michelle also took the opportunity to thank our generous sponsors The Ireland Funds who were acknowledged at the venue.

             

It is interesting to note that only 19.4% of Members of US Congress are women, (Ireland has 22%) and the US is in joint 100rd place in the World Ranking for Women in Parliament (Ireland is in 78th place). There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, but the American groups which we met who are working to improve things were very interested in Ireland’s introduction of quotas for women candidates on the ticket.

Susannah Wellford, founder of Running Start, an organization that encourages young women to run for office, said Women for Election’s insights on quotas were hugely instructive. Quotas were currently “off the table” in the US and something people thought could never happen there. So it was a “powerful statement” to hear people from Ireland saying that they thought quotas could never happen there, but that they had.

Referring to the participants in the recent women’s march in Washington, she said: “They had one thing in common: a passion and a desire, and a built- up energy to say: ‘I will not be silent, I will be heard. This is my America, I’m a woman and I deserve to have a seat at the table.’’

We had reached out to our Irish contacts in Washington and were delighted that (L to R below) Suzanne Lynch, Washington Correspondent, The Irish Times, Siobhán Miley, First Secretary, Embassy of Ireland, Washington, and Mary Davis, CEO, Worldwide Special Olympics came along to support WfE, as did Mary’s husband Julian Davis.

          

Siobhán brought with her the best wishes of Ambassador Anne Anderson, Irish Ambassador to the United States, who was unable to attend. The busiest woman in RTÉ, Cathríona Perry, RTÉ Washington Correspondent, also came along, pictured above with Women for Election’s Alison Cowzer.

The next day, we were fortunate to be invited to The Capitol by Anna Terrell, daughter of Cynthia Terrell, Chair/Founder of Representation 20/20. Anna is currently interning for a newly elected congressman, and she arranged special Visitors Passes for us. The Capitol is an amazing place, housing two legislatures, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The week that we were there had seen several very late night sittings with Democrats filibustering late into the night to indicate their objections to the appointment of some of President Trumps nominees to senior positions such as Education Secretary. To no avail, however-the Republican majority ensured that all the appointments were confirmed.

We toured The Capitol, admired the art and statues, the grandeur of the buildings themselves, and were genuinely moved by the sense of history all around us. As a bit of a geek about US politics, seeing where Lincoln’s desk had been in House of Representatives and standing in the room where the great debates of American politics on issues like slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights had taken place was an overwhelming experience-one I will always remember.

In the Old Hall of the House, now the National Statuary hall, we admired the statue celebrating American Suffragettes Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony….

   

……as well as the one of Rosa Parks, who helped ignite the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama. She is the first black woman to be honored with a life-size statue in the Capitol.

Inspired by these amazing women, and by the energy and passion of the individuals and groups we met in Washington, we headed for home.

Our Washington trip gave me a real sense of pride in what WfE has achieved since its establishment. Alison and I were especially proud of our Chair, Michelle O’Donnell Keating, who represented the organization so very well amongst the power brokers of Washington.

Our visit made us more determined than ever to continue our work to increase the number of women running for, and being elected to office in our local, national and European elections.

Having more female leaders — from politics to the boardroom — is important.

Simply having female leaders changes the norms about who can lead and what qualities are necessary in leadership. Looking at the qualities of some current world leaders, it seems clear that the need for different leadership qualities has never been greater.

I want more women at the table where decisions are being made. To quote again the advice of Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence’s grandmother “There is no seat that you do not deserve to sit in at any table, no door that you’re not worthy to walk through.”

 

(L to R) Alison Cowzer, Clare Duignan and Michelle O’Donnell Keating

 

Hannah Deasy
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