Debbie Walsh was born into politics--not political office but certainly political engagement.
"Politics was served every night at the dinner table," said Walsh. "I come from a family where politics reigned supreme. My parents were active in the peace and Civil Rights movements. Politics is just what you did."
Walsh's father was an artist--she still owns some of his paintings--and her mother was, in her words, "quite a feminist."
Today, Walsh is living proof of her heritage. She serves as director of the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Prior to her participation in Go Lead Idaho's second-annual leadership development conference, BW spoke with Walsh about her hopes for 2012, why the United States ranks as one of the worst nations in the world for women holding public offices, and about all things political.
Did you have a role model as a young woman?
I grew up in the West Village of New York City. One of my earliest memories was of my mother taking me to a debate when Bella Abzug first ran for Congress. It made me think, "This is what women can do."
According to your organization, the United States ranks 71st in the world when it comes to women in national legislatures.
That's one behind Turkmenistan. No matter how you cut it, it's pretty dismal. It's an interesting number because a lot of countries have quota systems that require a certain percentage of their parliaments to be women. For instance, in Iraq: When the new government was being formed, the United States said Iraq needed to have a quota in its constitution that said 25 percent of the parliament needed to be women. In one fell swoop, Iraq had a higher proportion of its women in national politics than we did.
But surely you don't advocate for a quota system in our country.
It's not going to happen because of the way our political party structure is set up.
Are you a fan of the two-party system?
It's the system that we operate in. From our perspective, we study the trends and analyze the numbers, and then we look at how women fit into the system that exists.
But no matter how you look at those numbers, it's currently not a good fit for women. Congress and state legislatures are overwhelmingly male.
I'm not sure if more independent parties would change that or not. The real issue here is that there's not enough good recruitment of women candidates going on. We know from research that women need to be asked to run more than men do.
I've heard you say that potential male candidates look at themselves in the mirror differently than potential women candidates.
When we ask them why they ran in the first place, men say they had a long-standing interest in politics and women say they ran because there was a public policy issue that they cared about. Men run to be somebody. Women run to do something. A lot of women work really hard to make change, but they do it from the outside. What we've learned is that the best way to make systemic change is definitely from the inside.
Your work must be doubly difficult because the public perception of politics is diminishing.
I'm very distressed to see someone like Olympia Snowe pull out of the U.S. Senate. When somebody like her says, "I can't take it anymore," it's hard to go out and tell women, "You should do this." But without getting new faces and fresh voices, we're going to get more of the same.
Sens. Snowe and Barbara Boxer are marquee names in politics, but don't high-profile personalities feed the illusion that more women have been elected to higher office than is the reality?
You have Nancy Pelosi in the paper every day and you see Michele Bachmann running for president. The reality is that only 17 percent of members of Congress are women, only 24 percent of all state legislators are women, and of 50 governors only six are women.
What are your organization's specific goals for 2012?
We would like to best the record number of new women that were elected to the U.S. House in 1992. That was 24 new women.
I'm certain that you've been briefed on women in Idaho politics.
You rank 15th in the nation as far as your legislature. You have no women in your congressional delegation and you have only one woman in statewide elected office.