Lisa Marie Cheney

(WOMENSENEWS)–Which country has the fewest women represented in its government? A) Sierra Leone B) United States C) Vietnam

If you answered the United States you’d be correct.

The United States ranks 60th worldwide in women’s representation in government, according to this year’s book “Closing the Leadership Gap:Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World,” byMarie Wilson, founder and president of The White House Project. Only 59 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 14 of the 100 seats in the Senate are held by women.

While organizations such as Wilson’s White House Project are working to close the gap and advance women’s leadership in both business and government, Women Under Forty Political Action Committee is focusing solely on putting women into federal office by helping young women raise money and network with Washington’s power brokers.

Their essential idea: women have to start young if they’re ever going to fill out the ranks and make it to the top-levels of government.

“We’re trying to get more young women elected to federal office,” says Susannah Shakow, president of the group. “We’re trying to do everything we can to encourage young women to become more interested in politics, take politics more seriously and understand the impact of politics in their lives. We need to have more women in the pipeline in order to end up with more women who want to run for Congress.”

Bipartisan Agenda

In 1999 Shakow and several legal associates were lobbying for their clients, which included state governments and trade groups, on Capitol Hill. They noticed that few members of Congress were women and that none was young. The lawyers and lobbyists began to talk about the discrepancy and from their discussions the group was born.

Unlike EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice Democrats, the group supports female candidates, without regard to whether they are Republican or Democrat. The “big-tent” approach puts off some potential members and donors who don’t want to mix with an effort that could wind up helping an opposing political camp. But many candidates endorse the approach.

“It’s key that they are bipartisan,” says Lisa Marie Cheney, 39, a Republican from Virginia running for a House seat. As a mother, for instance, she says she is particularly interested in education and can benefit from bipartisan ideas on the subject. “When you bring a lot of women together we speak about things more openly, we put more ideas on the table and share more. That’s important because that’s how you grow policy.”

Focusing on Women Under 40

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 37, a Democrat in the Florida state legislature for 12 years who and is now running for Congress, believes that regardless of party, women of prime child-caring age can have a lot in common. “If someone who is 35 or 36 and I don’t agree on an issue, we can put those differences aside and focus on those things we do have in common,” says Schultz. “Because of our similar demographic there will be several other issues we do agree on.”

The similar concerns–such as issues of work and family–held by this demographic is one reason the group focuses on women under 40. “There are so many issues that are unique to women under 40,” says Shakow, who points to reproductive rights as a prime example.

If Schultz or Cheney are elected they will be the only women with young children in Congress.

“There are a lot of dads in Congress who have little kids,” says Schultz. “But I don’t think they struggle with the same issues that working moms deal with. Those are all issues that women come to naturally because that’s traditionally been their responsibility in the family. Without women in leadership positions those issues become a secondary part of the agenda.”

Reaching for the White House

The group’s mission is also to get women elected to federal office including the presidency. Citing Wilson’s book, Shakow says 12 of the last 19 presidents were elected to political office by the age of 35.

“It just shows that to gain the highest prize, which is president, almost everyone realized you had to get into politics early,” says Shakow. “Young women are not getting in early. That’s something we really need to work on.”

The group is open to men and women of all ages and its members believe the homogenization of our leadership causes problems for all Americans and that having women in leadership positions like president is good for everyone.

“As a democracy we should have a balanced group of people making decisions,” says Shakow. “We need women to offer a balanced take on different issues.”

In 2000 the group supported 11 women and five won. In 2002 the group’s funds supported 10 women and only one, Linda Sanchez (D-CA) won. This year, the group started out supporting 15 candidates. Four lost in the primaries, one dropped out. Two have won their primaries and the other eight still have primaries to face.

This summer the group will open up a nonprofit side of the organization. It plans to offer programs to high schools and colleges on how to work for a campaign and how to run a campaign. Schultz, who first ran for state office at 26, believes that kind of support would have been incredibly helpful.

“I realized the issues that were important to my generation were only dealt with tangentially,” says Schultz, referring to affordability in housing and other issues young families face. “I thought it was important to turn up the volume on those issues, but it was a lot of work. I walked around and knocked on over 25,000 doors. I scraped together $20,000 which covered some flyers, but mostly my method of communication was on shoe leather. It’s extremely difficult and you have to be committed, but you can do it.”

The group is also partnering with The White House Project to get out the vote. Getting women to vote is the first step in getting women involved in politics, says Shakow.

“If you don’t vote then you can’t complain about the decisions made about your life,” she says. “There are so many decisions being made that affect young women. We need to have a voice. We need to make our point of view heard. The strongest way to do that is to vote.”

Kelly DiNardo is a freelance writer.

For more information:

Women Under Forty Political Action Committee:

The White House Project: