Point of view: Unfinished business

Political strategist Ny Whitaker ’97 writes that increasing leadership opportunities for women can change the trajectory of our democracy.

When I first visited Elon College as a high school senior, it was the women I met in the admissions office and on campus who helped me make the life-changing decision to leave my home in Harlem, New York, to attend a small private college in the South. One woman in particular, Priscilla Awkard ’95 — now a member of the Elon Hall of Fame, a cofounder of the Elon Black Alumni Network and notable alumna — was my tour guide and remains a dear friend to this day.

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I recently had the opportunity to speak at an event in honor of the fourth annual Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Watching the snow quietly fall upon thousands of women of all ages, ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds while singing songs of solidarity, I thought about how far we have come as women in this country in the 100 years since the passing of the 19th Amendment.

I have made it my life’s mission to champion the needs of women, families and the underserved. As the former executive director of a national organization that recruited and trained women to run for office and in my current role as a vice chair for the Manhattan County Democratic Party, I have traveled the country to meet amazing women who are stepping up, raising their voices and daring to run. I have run for office three times, and each time, I was moved by the sisterhood of women who have surrounded me with their wisdom, their time and their generosity.

Increasing leadership opportunities for women is needed now more than ever to change the trajectory of our democracy and our world.

I’ve come to realize that women who represent us in leadership often face great personal and professional challenges in their efforts to transform hearts and minds, increase opportunities for women and girls to follow in their footsteps, and implement legislation to expand access to quality health care, education and equal rights for all.

Increasing leadership opportunities for women is needed now more than ever to change the trajectory of our democracy and our world. Our country needs to elevate the voices of women and girls. But that’s no easy task. A study by the Brookings Institute found women often have to be asked to run for office while their male counterparts simply self-identify as candidates. Once they run, 44 percent of women non-incumbent candidates outperform their male counterparts by winning their first-time primaries. And, when they win, women leaders are innately more collaborative, have more success and sponsor or co-sponsor legislation five times more than their male colleagues.

Though women are 51 percent of the population, they only hold 20 percent of the elected offices nationally and those numbers are even less for women of color and mothers, according to research by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Yes, we have seen great strides — from the first African American woman elected as mayor of San Francisco (London Breed) and the first Native American women elected to Congress (Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids), to the first transgender representative in Virginia (Danica Roem) and the first Latina/Puerto Rican supreme court justice (Sonia Sotomayor). And yet, we still have a long way to go.
Mothers, for instance, have even more obstacles to overcome as they attempt to balance family responsibilities from the campaign trails. A recent Federal Elections Commission win by Liuba Gretchen Shirley spearheaded the first law to allow mothers to use a portion of their campaign funds to pay for babysitting during their run for office. Through her votemama.org campaign, she is creating new pathways for the voice of mothers to be present in the chambers of our democracy.

Entering 2020, we are faced with a Census count that will reallocate resources and electoral representation, tense local and national elections, and multi-million-dollar campaigns aimed at dismantling or protecting the ideals we value most. We must all take a pause and do our part to level the playing field by remembering that Elon prepared us to be global citizens and informed leaders motivated by concern for the common good.

In this new decade, I urge all members of the Elon community to make a commitment to support women in leadership, from our new university president to the local women business owners in our communities. Let’s encourage women artists, teachers, scientists, nurses, mothers and entrepreneurs to consider running for elected office, and support women candidates up and down the ballot.

Not just because they are women, but because they are the most qualified for the job.

How you can help

  • Encourage women to seek leadership positions in public service from school board to the White House
  • Donate to women candidates who share your values
  • Develop paid internship programs for women and girls in public service
  • Support organizations that empower women of color to lead
  • Support women-owned businesses
  • Use your social media to highlight women’s achievements

Other resources

Ny Whitaker ’97 is a mother, political strategist, educator, small business owner and county committee woman in New York’s Assembly District 68. She lives in Harlem with son Taj.