When Jo Ann Davidson ran for the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, city council, she picked up a book that explained everything a candidate needed to know about running for office. It had just three pages tailored for females.
“There really was nothing out there at the time,” said Davidson, “to help a woman candidate.”
Davidson lost that first race in 1965, but she returned strong. And won. And continued winning. She held that seat for 10 years until she was elected and re-elected to serve a total of 20 years as a state legislator. Her legislative peers elected her as the first female Speaker of the Ohio General Assembly — her enormous portrait graces the walls of the Ohio House Chamber and a second one is in the Ladies’ gallery. Davidson also served as co-chair of the Republican National Committee.
Now, she holds an eight-month program to encourage and train Republican women about how to run for office.
‘I can do this’
With a strict application process and a cap of 25 students, the waiting list for The Jo Ann Davidson Leadership Institute is unending. Davidson says women sometimes lack confidence and knowledge of the political system. Her goal is for them to finish the training, fearlessly stating, “I can do this.”
Davison’s training is one of only a few geared toward Republican women. Dozens of training groups are aimed at women who are Democrats, non-partisan, or cater to specific gender, age or ethnic demographics.
Gail Dixon is a founding member of Oasis, a Florida organization dedicated to empowering women. The three-day non-partisan conference, titled “Women Can Run,” is held in partnership through the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. While women are a slim majority of the U.S. population, CAWP figures show women hold just 19.6 percent of the seats in the U.S. Congress and 24 percent of statewide offices.
Just ask them
“I think that the world changes in the halls of power,” said Gail Dixon, a founding member of Oasis. Dixon says those numbers are low because of how males are socialized to be leaders, making a steeper “trajectory for women in perceiving themselves to be to be entitled to a seat at the table.”
Samantha Politano, the youngest woman at the conference at age 18, says her fellow coeds at Florida State University have grown up believing they should maintain traditional female roles, like nursing. But she’s pleased to see more women running to prove, “We can take on masculine traits without fear of being less of a woman.” Politano says someday she may run for president of the United States.
The trainers who spoke with VOA said one basic motivation would encourage more women to run. They simply need to be asked. For Suzanne Van Wyk, that took several times. She’s now running her first campaign. “My husband has suggested, prodded and encouraged me to run for probably the last seven years.”
2016 prompts female Democrats to run
For some women, the inspiration was Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party.
“For me, it was definitely the last straw,” said Becky Anderson Wilkins, who’s running for Illinois’ 6th district. She’s running against Republican Representative Peter Roskam, who’s held that position since 2007.
But what sets that Illinois race apart are the numbers.
Anderson Wilkins is one of six women running against Roskam. They first have to win the Democratic Party primary in which one of the six — or one of the four male candidates — will advance to the general election.
Wilkins calls it “a slew” of women and that “it shows that we really care that we have to make a change.”
‘I’m going to run for this!’
The numbers of women entering politics are increasing, slowly, yet not as quickly as some had hoped. But if you ask Jo Ann Davidson, with her more than 50 years in politics, how females have changed she sounds optimistic.
“Younger women are getting better at stepping up,” the sprightly 90-year-old says with a smile,” and saying ‘I’m going to run for this!”
Katherine Gypson contributed to this report