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Alumnae in the Political Area

More American women than men may be graduating from colleges these days, but they aren’t choosing to run for political office in equal numbers. Men still outnumber women in elected office at all levels, including the national. In the U.S. Congress today, only 17 women serve in the Senate and 73 voting delegates in the House of Representatives (three additional female territorial delegates have limited or no voting rights). Women make up just 24 percent of state legislatures. To find out why women still lag behind in politics after making great strides in other careers, Barnard talked to alumnae with a wide range of political experience. Some are just starting out; some have said good-bye to political campaigns after spending years in elected office.

Not surprisingly, their thoughts varied as widely as their life experiences. Some talked about how women need support and mentors to overcome the family and cultural constraints that keep many from running for office. They discussed the need to work and volunteer in their communities and build a base of support. Others focused on the difficulties women face trying to fund their political campaigns.

But whatever their point of view, the alumnae did agree on one thing: The future for women in politics is anything but bleak.

Betsy Flower Gotbaum ’61

It was New York City’s 2001 Democratic primary, and New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum had time to ponder why only one woman was running for a citywide office; she herself wasn’t running for reelection.

Much needs to change in America to encourage more women to run for political office, Gotbaum says. Many women find it hard to handle the constant criticism that comes with holding office. Sometimes it was too hard for her. “I’m tired of being beaten up. And I know many women feel the same way.” Women politicians also face closer scrutiny than men do for their personal appearance. Their hair, clothes, weight, even their laugh, are frequent fodder for the press. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

It’s also harder for women to raise money. They often don’t have connections in the financial world. “And making connections to raise money on the grassroots level isn’t any easier,” Gotbaum says, admitting that she had help because her husband was a well-known union leader in New York City. And she did know people in the financial and political world. “I was always raising money from Wall Street,” she says. “They returned my calls.” That’s because she had worked in New York Mayor John Lindsay’s office and was director of the New York City Police Foundation. She had also served as New York City Department of Parks & Recreation Commissioner. Gotbaum decided to run for public advocate, in 2001, when she was president of the New-York Historical Society.

“A lot of people encouraged me to run for mayor,” Gotbaum says. “After running for office twice, I don’t think about that now.”

Ronnie Myers Eldridge ’52

Ronnie Eldridge is a born idealist. (Maybe it’s because she shares a birthday with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.) But ask this lifelong Upper West Sider why more women don’t run for political office, and her answer is decidedly practical. Political campaigns require cash, and lots of it. Too often, women don’t have the same access to campaign cash that men do, and she knows this from experience, having served on the New York City Council from 1989 until 2001, when term limits went into effect. Raising money was never easy. “You’ve got to fight for it all the time,” Eldridge says. “I think campaign-finance reform would make it easier. If we just had a more even society and debunked some myths.”

Eldridge knows how to debunk stereotypes. She worked as the special assistant for New York City Mayor John Lindsay in the early 1970s, which was also when her first husband died, leaving her to raise three children alone. “That was the turning point in my life,” she says. She went on to work at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Eldridge also served in Governor Mario Cuomo’s cabinet and had a stint at Ms. Magazine.

Twenty-seven years ago she married Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin. She credits Breslin for pushing her to run for city council, but it was her own experience and connections that helped her win. “I always thought I was a shy person,” Eldridge says. “But for some reason, in politics, I was able to be strong. Not noisy, but strong.”

Eldridge hasn’t completely left politics. She’s the host of CUNY TV’s Eldridge & Co., covering the issues, politics, and institutions of her favorite city.

Chelsea Zimmerman ’10

For the past four years Chelsea Zimmerman has run for class president and won. There’s just one problem, she says: No one has run against her since her first year. She blushes and shakes her head when classmates say no one thinks they can beat her. It’s not just the Midwestern modesty of a young woman from Minnesota. Zimmerman says she’s lacked competition for the same reasons it’s hard to get women to run for political office across the country. It’s a huge time commitment, and it’s a little scary. “I think it’s intimidating for people who haven’t been involved in elections before,” she says.

That’s something she’s determined to change. “No more uncontested elections” is one of many goals written in color on large sheets of white paper taped to the walls of the Student Government Association’s office. “That’s my addition,” Zimmerman says. So she’s always at campus events telling classmates that running for student government is anything but scary. It can change they way they view the world. “You really need other women encouraging you along the way,” she says. “I’m so glad I did it.” Her determination also landed an essay she wrote in the book She’s Out There: Essays by 35 Young Women Who Aspire to Lead the Nation (2009).

She’s leaving campaigns behind after graduation, at least for a while, possibly joining the Peace Corps, or applying to law school. But one day she might run for public office again, maybe even for president. “If we have more women in the upper echelons of political office,” Zimmerman says, “then more young women will say, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up.’”

Constance Hess Williams ’66

Constance Williams will mentor any young woman who wants advice about running for office. And she has plenty of guidance to offer, spending 12 years as a Democratic state legislator in Pennsylvania, first as a representative from 1997 to 2001, and then as a senator from 2001 to 2008.

Young women need encouragement from experienced politicians to run their own successful bids for political office. Sure, running for office isn’t easy. There are long hours and plenty of attack ads, “but I’ve always believed that politics can be rewarding and satisfying,” Williams says. “Even though it really is rough and tumble.”

She was disappointed when no women ran for her seat in the Pennsylvania state Senate after she decided not to run for reelection. “Though I knew that I was a model for someone else who would want to do it, the man who ran and won is as good on women’s issues an any woman.”

Williams disagrees with those who say women can’t raise money to campaign for political office. Lots of female candidates are out there raising money. “If you believe in yourself, if [you have] a compelling story to tell, then you can demonstrate you’re going to use the money wisely,” she says.

Young women just need to get out there and work on local campaigns, meet people, and build their own constituencies. Williams is hopeful, seeing more and more women doing just that. “There’s one young woman I have hopes for in a few years,” she notes. “I’m trying to give her suggestions about how to get her self-confidence up. She’ll be a wonderful elected official.”

Maryangela Moutoussis ’06

There’s no shortage of ambitious young women like Maryangela Moutoussis vying for junior policy positions in Washington, D.C. But that doesn’t worry her. It shows that women are now a force in American politics. “I’m very optimistic,” Moutoussis says. But she admits there’s a shortage of women willing to run for political office. Women need a little more convincing.

There are organizations on both sides of the aisle that help women raise money for political campaigns, such as Emily’s List on the left and the Wish List on the right. But women also need forums where they can discuss ideas and strategies. A friend Moutoussis met in Washington, D.C., recently started Americanmaggie.com, a Web site for Republican women who want to discuss politics. “That’s how you empower people,” she says.

She also believes women need help figuring out exactly what kind of time commitment it takes to serve in political office, and knows it’s not easy having a balanced life in politics. She worked 18-hour days at the White House, first as an intern for First Lady Laura Bush, then later in President Bush’s office of correspondence. Moutoussis also worked for three months on President Bush’s transition team.

She may not want to run for office right now, but should there come a time when she can help change her community or country by entering a political race, she avers, “I will definitely not shy away from the opportunity.”

Candace Chin ’04

Back in 2000, Candace Chin read Nine and Counting written by the nine women who then served in the U.S. Senate. Today, Chin points out, there are 17 women in the Senate. Much work needs to be done to increase that number. “However, I believe there is tangible progress,” Chin says.

Chin doesn’t have any specific ideas about how to get more women involved in politics. She’s leading by example instead. She’s currently serving as the deputy chief of staff for the White House Presidential Personnel Office.

Her love of politics began when she was just 10 years old and had the opportunity to lunch with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who was then preparing for her first U.S. Senate campaign in 1992. “I am not sure if there was something she said that really sparked my intrigue and interest,” but, Chin recalls, “I know that I came away from that exchange with awe and wonder that a single person can have such a large impact on people’s lives.”

In high school, Chin interned for Feinstein. While at Barnard, she interned for the Democratic Elections Counsel to the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee, where she grappled with policies aimed at reforming federal elections.

And one day, she herself may serve in the U.S. Senate, or maybe on her town council. “It would be an honor to earn public support and serve on behalf of my local community,” Chin says.

Alice Kliemand Meyer ’41

Promoting higher education has long been Alice Meyer’s bailiwick. She remembers clearly how privileged she felt attending Barnard College during the Great Depression. Ever since, she’s tried to help more women achieve the same goal. In fact, it was her volunteer work with the American Association of University Women after graduation that got her involved in politics. Working with community leaders and local politicians across Connecticut, she decided to run for a seat on the state legislature in 1976 as a Republican. She held that seat until 1993. Over the years, she’s watched the number of female state legislators steadily climb. “But I think we can do better,” she says.

Meyer believes more women would run for political office if they spent more time working in their communities. “You have to be active in politics,” Meyer says. “Democracy isn’t a passive game you just sit and watch. You have to participate in some way. That’s the only way democracy works, and works for the benefit of all people.” Women who are active in their communities are out there meeting many different groups of people from all walks of life. That experience helps women build a broad base of support if they one day run for political office. Many people worry that women are overextended, trying to have careers and families, too. But workplaces are great places for women to build a network of future contacts and supporters, Meyer says.

She does have a piece of advice for future female politicians: Don’t focus your efforts solely on women’s issues. “When you are working for everyone,” Meyer says, “you are also working for women.”

Lauren Belive ’06

Lauren Belive says she just has to look around her to see that women can do just about anything they want in politics these days. She works at the White House as a special assistant to the director of legislative affairs, and smart, ambitious women surround her. “Women really can do the same job as a man, and make the same strong decisions,” she says.

Whether you agree or disagree with Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin, both women fostered much excitement as candidates during the last presidential election. She believes that’s “a really good temperature gauge of how we view women in politics now.” Still, it can’t be overlooked that there are more men than women in elected offices. Balancing a career in politics and family life is hard, especially for women. Belive works long hours every day, except Sunday, when she may only work six or eight hours.

Over the next decade, we’re going to see more and more women running for political office, she predicts. It’s becoming more acceptable. “The last presidential election was a catapult to get to the next round.” Belive says President Obama is doing his part by appointing many women to high- level political posts. “Even though the president isn’t a woman,” Belive says, “I don’t think he could do a better job representing women.”

Jean Boeder Wetherill ’46

Politics seduced Jean Boeder Wetherill late in life. She didn’t become interested in running for local office until after her husband died in 2003. “We all get older,” she says. “I thought, Now who am I going to take care of?” Three short years later, she decided she’d take care of Beverly, New Jersey, one of the smallest towns in the Garden State with a population of about 2,600. She ran for mayor on the Republican ticket, won by just four votes, and served until the end of 2008. “At first people underestimated what I could do,” she says. “But they voted for me because they liked what I said.”

While there still may be a glass ceiling for women in politics, just as there is for women in business, she has some advice for women who are thinking about trying to break some glass while juggling a family and a political career. Learn to withstand attacks and be persistent. Wetherill is now running for a seat on Beverly’s city council. “If women can get through raising a family, women can do anything,” she says. “If [running for office is] approached from that point of view, [it’s] helpful.”

In the meantime, she’s mentoring at least one prospective female politician, a granddaughter she hopes will one day follow her example. Wetherill says, “She’s one of these kids—if she’s read it, she can recall [it]. She’s going to be president, at least.”

-by Amy Miller, Illustration by Shane

Student politicians have more to discuss at alum.barnard.edu/magazine.