The women sitting around six tables were a little uncomfortable. Asked to imagine they were running for political office, they were composing 30-second elevator speeches for their candidacy. They gave caveats before it was their turn to speak and asked if they could sit instead of delivering the speech standing.
But by the second time they gave the speech, it was more polished — and closer to 30 seconds — and the women were more commanding. And that was the point, said Susannah Wellford, president and founder of Running Start, a group that trains young women for political lives, who spoke at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church on Sunday.
“There isn’t one piece of legislation that is going to fix” the lack of political power of women, she said. “There is one solution that can do more good than almost anything else — getting women into positions of power.”
Taking up space — physically, verbally and politically — is often difficult for women, who are socialized to do the opposite. But 2018 is poised to be a breakthrough year for women in
politics. Since the 2016 election, since the #MeToo movement, since the women’s marches, women have been channeling their momentum into the campaign trail in unprecedented numbers.
In January, there were 390 women running for the House of Representatives, higher than at any point in history. And 49 women are running for Senate, more than double the 22 women serving there now.
Sunday’s women’s empowerment event built on this phenomenon. Wellford asked the audience of about 60 women who had thought about running for office.
A few hands went into the air.
Then she asked who thought the world would be a better place with more women in positions of power.
Everyone raised her hand.
“That [disparity] is at the crux of what I want to address with Running Start,” Wellford said. “That is my goal today — that each one of you think about what it would be like to run for office.”
Running Start’s target groups are high school and college students, but Wellford told the group of mostly older women that this issue should be important to everyone.
The elevator speeches touched on issues from leveling the playing field for everyone and increased funding for low-income schools to helping released convicts become productive members of society and fixing potholes in Alexandria.
Each of the six tables sent the person they felt had given the most powerful speech to the front of the room to compete with the five others for top prize.
The honors went to Sarah Davidsson, 25, who spoke on the low-income schools.
“It was not my comfort zone, definitely,” Davidsson said. “I did not realize this was going to be a participatory event. But it was worth doing.”
During her talk, Wellford spent more than half her time answering questions. Some were about the work of Wellford’s organization, but many grappled with the realities women face in running for office.
One woman brought up the double bind of women not being taken seriously without experience but then later dealing with the negative perceptions of being experienced — and older.
Wellford agreed that there are numerous systemic barriers such as sexism and societal expectations that make it harder for women to run but that women also can get in their own way. For most political offices, she added, there aren’t any qualifications to run.
Men will just decide to do it, she said, while women make excuses, thinking they need more experience or more background. She said that in Kansas, several teenage boys are running for governor, having discovered there was no age requirement in Kansas law.
“You can’t wait to be the perfect person,” Wellford said. “You have to realize what you can bring.”
In answer to another question about how to fundraise and foster ties in one’s community — setting a stage for a potential run — Wellford said women should find issues they’re passionate about and work on them, whether that’s volunteering with a nonprofit or getting involved in the local political party. It’s about networking, and it’s about becoming someone who’s known around the community, she said.
And as it has the past several months, the #MeToo movement was part of the discussion. Wellford said the impact of the movement had been positive not just for the conversations it was fostering, but in inspiring women to become civically engaged.
“I feel like we’ve always known this has been out there,” she said. “But just the idea that we’re all going public with it, and not only that, but we’re being taken seriously, and people are being held to account. I think it is a major confidence boost for women.”
The program helped Kristyn Greco-Seyfi, 27, realize that maybe she was doing exactly what Wellford said and coming up with reasons not to run instead of the other way around.
“It definitely made me think about how I should stop making excuses,” she said. “If a 15-year-old in Kansas who can’t vote can do it, I can do it.”
And while the older women outnumbered the younger ones at the event, the specters of young women were not far from anyone’s thoughts.
Said Rodef Shalom member Susan Lerner, who snagged an extra copy of the 30-second elevator speech outline sheet: “I wish I’d brought my granddaughter today.”