With the 2012 male-dominated presidential and congressional election campaigns reaching new heights of intensity, bitterness and expense, Siobhan "Sam" Bennett's high-energy support for female candidates is even more critical.
She is the president and CEO of the Women's Campaign Fund, the oldest organization to financially support female candidates and unique in its exceptionally early endorsement of women at all levels, from all parties who support reproductive choices and options, because choices can only be protected from both sides of the aisle, says Bennett.
A former small-business owner who was active in local politics and the nonprofit sector, Bennett decided that putting women into office was crucial to achieving her personal ideals.
Bennett knows firsthand that it's no easy task to change the gender balance in politics. In 2001, she ran for office as a first-time candidate against a 26-year political incumbent for the Allentown, Pa., mayoral race. At the first campaign debate, with press in the room, she says she was asked by the moderator "Sam, just what are your measurements?"
"This was a wake up call for me. However, I did not let this discourage me," says Bennett.
In November 2008, Bennett ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in Pennsylvania's 15th congressional district. Flexing phenomenal fundraising skills, she received nationwide attention and successfully won endorsements from over 35 national organizations, including the Women's Campaign Fund, League of Conservation Voters and EMILY's List. Although Bennett did not defeat her opponent, Charles Dent, she did get more votes than any other Democrat ever received for that seat.
However, Bennett describes how her opponents used gender as a means of bias during the congressional race. For instance, she says an article that ran on the front of the local newspaper, with a color photo of her, described her as "a phony political whore," among other sexist insults. The incident spurred her to engineer "Name It. Change It," a collaborative campaign between the Women's Campaign Fund, Women's Media Center and Political Parity to fight media sexism against female candidates.
In April 2009, Bennett stepped to the helm of the Women's Campaign Fund. The organization endorses, raises funds for and provides networking opportunities for female candidates. Its sister nonprofit, "She Should Run," seeks to eliminate the barriers preventing women from ascending to public leadership and encourages women to be asked to run for office via www.sheshouldrun.org.
"After years of working to make a difference, it became clear that the most significant way was through politics. If more women were in office, health care and other issues would improve," she says.
Deedee Corradini, president of Women's Ski Jumping USA, is a leading figure in the battle to have female ski jumpers included in the Olympic Winter Games. While having one women's ski jumping event at the Olympics is a huge victory, she says she won't stop advocating until they have an equal number as men: three.
As the first female mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah (elected in 1991 and re-elected in 1995), and a member of the Olympic Organizing Committee's Executive Board, Corradini fought hard for gender-equal games during the years leading up to the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Salt Lake won the battle to have women's bobsled and skeleton included, but at the time she was unaware that women were still excluded from ski jumping.
In 2004 she learned about the exclusion from a female ski jumper and quickly became part of the campaign to get women accepted in the Olympics; first as a board member of Women's Ski Jumping USA, and soon as its president. Corradini led the fight, a battle that included multiple trips overseas to lobby members of the International Ski Federation and the International Olympic Committee; press conferences that attracted major media outlets from around the world; and a lawsuit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee to get women into Vancouver 2010.
After seven years, she won. In April 2011 the International Olympic Committee announced that there will be a women's ski jumping event at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
As of October 2011, Corradini is also the president of the International Women's Forum. The organization has advanced women's leadership around the globe since 1982 and today provides opportunities for members to connect with other female leaders in 26 countries.
Corradini's goal at the organization is to add chapters in five additional countries. She is also working to expand the forum's Fellows and Executive Development Roundtable programs, which give high-potential leaders globally the chance to participate in leadership training programs.
Her interest in international affairs is rooted in her childhood. From ages 3 to 14 she lived in Lebanon and Syria, where her father taught at local universities. Though she lived in urban centers, she often traveled to rural areas with her family. Corradini remembers outings to tent camps and villages where homes were made of mud and straw. There she observed women and their daughters doing much of the hard work. Those many experiences helped guide her into a lifetime of advocacy.
"Ever since, I had a sense that women could change the world if we could get them educated," Corradini says.
--By Maura Ewing
Mary Hughes' mission is to make this election year, and perhaps every election year in the foreseeable future, a "year of the woman."
She is the founder and director of The 2012 Project, a national, non-partisan campaign of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Launched in July 2010, the project aims to increase the number of women in Congress and state legislatures by taking advantage of newly created and competitive seats resulting from redistricting and reapportionment.
Hughes is a political strategist and president of Hughes and Company (previously Staton Hughes, from 1989-2009), a strategic communications and political consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif. She has advised candidates for president, Congress and state and legislative offices. Although the firm has counted many women among its successful candidates, and advised many women's political organizations, Hughes observed that progress toward parity for women was moving too slowly. Women simply weren't running in the kinds of numbers she had hoped.
After 20 years of running campaigns and advising candidates, she decided to try a different approach, and The 2012 Project was born.
"With more women in public office issues that affect women and girls come to light. When women legislate, the discussion changes and ultimately affects the outcome of votes," she says. "The country needs women's talent and participation in governing."
From very early on, Hughes knew she would do something outside of the home. "Both my mother and grandmother encouraged me to be entrepreneurial. My father was very supportive of me exploring; I always felt like I could do a lot of things," she says.
Hughes is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the University of Virginia Law School. She credits her education for opening her mind to great possibilities. "Mount Holyoke opened me up to the bigger world; what I could change and the differences I could make for the better," she says.
During her senior year, she served as president of the student body. It was then, she says, that "I became so taken with women leaders, with their confidence and clarity. Activism related to advancing women was something I was very much drawn to."
And Hughes shows no signs of stopping.
"I'm happy to say I don't know what's next. I've learned a lot and I'm going to keep going. If I had to guess, what's next is probably coming at the same problem of too few women political leaders in the United States but with a wider variety of solutions," she says.
--By Stephanie Yacenda
By the 2012 elections, award-winning actress, producer, writer and political activist Kamala Lopez expects to be a long way toward her mission of educating American women about their lack of equal rights under the U.S. Constitution--and what the Equal Rights Amendment can do to correct the imbalance.
"Until we're equal participants in this society," she says, "I don't think things are really going to improve in any systemic way that can save our nation, or our globe for that matter."
As the founder and executive director of the ERA Education Project, a nonprofit media initiative to raise awareness about the Equal Rights Amendment, Lopez aims to leverage pop media and humorous celebrity public service videos to educate the vast majority of the population who believe that men and women are legally equal in the United States.
Lopez has always considered herself a feminist. In 1995, she formed the production company Heroica Films to create media for, by, about and with women. In 2009, she released her award-winning feature directorial debut, "A Single Woman," about Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, before women gained the right to vote.
In researching women's history for Rankin's story, Lopez was shocked to learn of the states' failure to approve the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s and became determined to undertake a huge public education project to support its passage.
Lopez has acted since she was 7 years old. At 14, her family moved to New York City, where she appeared on "Sesame Street" for two years before studying at Yale University. As an actress in television and film, Lopez has witnessed firsthand the limited roles the industry offers women. "I became more proactive when I realized it was up to me to be a part of changing that," she says.
In addition to her media campaign and production company, Lopez, winner of the 2011 Woman of Courage Award from the National Women's Political Caucus, is the founding director of GlobalGirl Media's Los Angeles bureau; on the board of Girls and Gangs; vice president of media for the National Organization for Women (Pacific Shore); and blogs for the Huffington Post. But for Lopez, the power of these programs is limited.
"Women's equality is the global civil rights issue of the 21st century," Lopez insists. "Without the legal basis for equality, all the rest of our work amounts to building skyscrapers on quicksand."
Karen Middleton's goal is not modest: "To change the face of American politics."
What that means for her is to have more Democratic women in public office.
Women now comprise 23.6 percent of state legislators, down a bit from 2010, which in turn was down a bit from the previous year. As for the U.S. Congress, women hold 17 percent of the House and 17 percent of the Senate seats.
Bringing new energy to the battle, in 2010 Middleton took on the leadership role at Emerge America, an organization dedicated to changing those percentages by training Democratic women to run for office. Emerge offers an intensive, cohort-based seven-month training program that is very unique. They currently work in nine states, where they open new state programs and build capacity to train more women. To date, Emerge has trained over 800 Democratic women to run for office across the country.
Since she has taken the helm, Middleton has launched a national alumnae network, established a national Council of Allies, who are political campaign experts, and launched a new annual event that sold out. She has also formed numerous new national partnerships as a collaborator and is engaging directly with entities and individuals who are part of the larger political infrastructure to elect Democrats. Her ultimate goal is to train candidates who are targeted to win key elections that may change the balance of power in states, cities or school districts across the country.
"There is a pool of highly qualified Democratic candidates that are fully capable but are being left untapped. Too often, women do not see themselves running for office. They do not think they are experienced enough or they just do not know where to start," she says.
Before Middleton joined Emerge, she was an elected member of the Colorado state legislature and had served on Colorado's elected board of education. She was also a trainer for the White House Project and the Center for Progressive Leadership.
Middleton obtained her B.A. in women's studies and politics from Mount Holyoke College and her masters in political science from the University of Colorado. She grew up in Massachusetts and lived in Colorado for 18 years, but now resides in Danville, Calif.
To meet the challenges ahead, Middleton says she is eager to make strides now to ensure more women are represented in public office in the future.
"At the moment we are not seeing the needle move so we need to make our influence bigger and broader," she says.
--By Victoria Fitzgerald
Robin Read may be the only person to head an organization that includes Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Gabrielle Giffords as members.
She is the president and CEO of the National Foundation for Women Legislators, the largest and oldest organization for elected women at all levels of government, with members from every state and U.S. territory. The foundation is a nonpartisan educational organization with a mission to provide strategic resources to female leaders and networking at both the state and federal levels.
"When I joined in 1992, they didn't have an office, not even a pencil," Read recalls, "and they said I'd have to raise my own salary." That was okay with her, she says, because she "had a passion for the foundation, for these elected women."
Since then, she has grown the foundation from a few members to an organization with over 2,000 members, including both current and former female elected public officials.
"I'm determined to be a support system for women as long as we can. When we have a woman leader it makes all the difference in the world," Read says.
Before taking on the foundation, Read served at the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. She is also an international spokesperson on leadership.
A graduate from the University of New Mexico, where she studied English and journalism, Read went on to host a radio show, as well as become a real estate broker and a developer and contractor. As she describes it, she had always worked in a "man's world." Her passion for women's rights was one that evolved over time.
In the late-1960s "I tried to get a JC Penny credit card, but couldn't because I didn't have a husband," she says. "I owned a car, my own house and my own businesses. It never occurred to me that we didn't have those rights. I wasn't a liberated woman until those years."
Read currently serves on the board of directors for the National Women's History Museum and the advisory boards for the Women's Information Network and RightNOW. She worked with the late Geraldine Ferraro as co-director of the International Political Institute for Women. Ferraro was the first woman to be nominated as a vice presidential candidate by a major party.
"I don't think I'll ever move away from this mission for women and girls all over the world. Women take care of everybody. You help a woman, she helps the world," she says.
--By Stephanie Yacenda
Attention pro-choice Republicans: You are not alone.
Ann Stone is the founder and chair of Republicans for Choice, a political action committee formed in 1990 in response to the 1989 Supreme Court "Webster" decision, which came within one vote of overturning a woman's right to choose.
When Republican President George H. Bush took office in 1989, Stone couldn't help but ask, what was the party going to do about abortion? Certainly real Republicans should be against government involvement in this most personal decision, she thought. Stone quickly got her answer.
Stone organized her pro-choice committee and set out to locate and network pro-choice Republicans and to recruit like-minded candidates. She wanted the public to know if you care about this issue you have to look past the party label.
"I wasn't an activist for choice until then," Stone says, "but I believe a person's position on choice demonstrates those who trust and respect women and those who don't."
Stone would tell you that her life has been about promoting personal freedom and women's rights. She has been involved in political campaigns from the age of 12. In high school, her activism to end the racist policy of "red-lining" in her hometown of Stratford, Conn., which promoted under-the-table housing discrimination, drew the attention of, and a death threat from, the Ku Klux Klan. On a more personal note, her sister, 18 years her senior, became a victim of domestic violence when Stone was very young. Witnessing that violence and abuse had a profound impact on her and cemented her dedication to promoting women's rights.
As the pro-choice committee's public figure, she recalls being "verbally savaged by people, friends and colleagues. "I even received death threats," she says. But the heat does not deter her. She is determined to keep the pressure on until Republicans have a platform that truly matches what the average Republican believes: that the individual should have maximum control over their lives.
Stone is also one of the three original incorporators of the National Women's History Museum. She played a significant role in the museum's campaign to pass legislation to move the "Portrait Monument," the statue given by the suffragists to Congress to celebrate the 19th Amendment, from the basement of the Capitol to its Rotunda.
Stone attended George Washington University and during her junior year was elected president of the College Republicans. She is also the founder and president of The Stone Group, Inc., an award-winning direct marketing business; the president of Overlook Foundation; and chairwoman emeritus at Empowered Women International, where she continues to serve on the organization's board.
"All the work I have been involved in on behalf of women has been building to this moment in history . . . I truly believe the time for women has come. I feel a shift," she says.
--By Stephanie Yacenda
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