(WOMENSENEWS)–As far back as I can remember women’s empowerment issues have always resonated with me. My grandmother told me about how she watched the suffragists march on Fifth Avenue, demanding the right to vote. She was a young mother when she finally went to the polls for the first time, and did not miss an election from then until the end of her life at age 96. Her stories and her example have made a lasting impact on me.
The Jewish concept of "tzedakah" has also shaped me from my youth. Loosely translated, it means charity, but it actually comes from the Hebrew word meaning justice. The notion is that while charity is a choice, tzedakah is the obligation to pursue justice. These values informed my early years as a Girl Scout; as a student at Simmons, an all-woman’s college; and then as a teacher and a social worker.
Initially, my philanthropic activity could be characterized as reactive. I would give to local women’s shelters, schools or hospitals who requested my support, engaging in very traditional giving in support of my community.
A turning point came after my divorce when I was serving on the women’s studies board at Brandeis University in Boston and I was introduced to the concept of "strategic philanthropy."
Using focused giving to promote systemic social change was an "Aha!" moment for me. I began to search for the right form and forum to combine my charitable nature and conviction for women’s rights.
Project to Elect Women
In approaching organizations to learn about their biggest ideas regarding women’s empowerment, I met Laura Liswood, an expert on women’s leadership and founder of the Council of Women World Leaders, and Marie Wilson, who was running the Ms. Foundation at the time. Our conversations resulted in the three of us co-founding the White House Project in 1998.
That November we unveiled our first initiative: a ballot listing 20 women who could be president. We received responses from 100,000 people nationwide. At that same time, 10 women across the country ran for governor; only the two incumbents won. It was clear that female candidates seeking executive office face special challenges. That’s when I realized that to elect a female president we needed to elect more women as governors.
I established my private family foundation in 1999 as a way to help women overcome these obstacles and develop strategies for success. We have examined the female gubernatorial candidates in every election cycle over the past 10 years. We publish our bipartisan research as a series of guidebooks offering strategies and insight for female candidates running for governor.
Today, the guidebooks are widely used as training manuals for women running for office at all levels and as part of the syllabus used in college courses on women and politics. Recently, our research has shown that female governors rate higher than their male counterparts–more than 10 points higher–on a number of key attributes, including crisis management and getting things done. Furthermore, voters find female governors more likeable, genuine and authentic.
My passion for this mission led me to engage in more partisan political activism. I began hosting fundraisers in the Boston area featuring female candidates from across the country. My hope was for women to see women in powerful elected positions. We did not yet have our own homegrown role models in Massachusetts, and you can’t be what you can’t see. These events have grown from the first dinner I hosted for 60 people in my home to include thousands excited about supporting female candidates.
When the Democratic National Convention came to Boston in 2004, I was able to use this opportunity as a platform to showcase women’s leadership to everyone inside and outside the convention hall. The event we called Revolutionary Women brought together a lively mix of Massachusetts women, along with delegates to the convention. Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Carol Moseley Braun, Nancy Pelosi and our local sheriff, Andrea Cabral, were among those who spoke to the audience, 4,000 strong.
Despite its progressive reputation, Massachusetts has lagged behind other states in electing women. But in the past two years we have achieved several important firsts, including electing the first female state senate president, the first female attorney general, the first female Boston City Council president and the first woman elected to the U.S. House from Massachusetts in 25 years.
By every measure 2008 has been a milestone for women running for higher office. I am proud to have supported Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency and am honored to be co-hosting a Women for Obama luncheon this month as I continue to work to engage women in the democratic process. I am deeply encouraged by the fact that 18 million Americans voted for a female president during the primaries.
One Lever at a Time
My foundation’s research suggests that once someone has pulled the lever for a woman at the top of the ticket, that person is more likely to vote for women again. When we started our research, only 16 women had ever served as governor in the history of the United States; now 29 women have ascended to the highest office in their states.
What motivates my passion for electing women? It’s about the desire to fulfill the promise of democracy.
One project that I funded at the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) shows that female state legislators are more progressive in their policies. They are more likely to advocate for families and social justice, for education and the environment, and for nonviolent resolution to conflicts. The nature of conversations changes when a "critical mass" of women sits at the table. Social justice depends on our equal and visible participation in political life.
I hope my story helps women understand that they can become empowered through political giving. Matching charitable dollars that you may give to a cause with a check to a candidate who can legislate for that cause is an important way to make a greater impact on issues that are meaningful to you.
The Women’s Campaign Forum uses the example that if your family has been affected by breast cancer, you may choose to support research groups. In addition, a political contribution to a candidate who embraces this issue can result in sizeable government dollars going toward finding a cure. The dollars going to a well-chosen female candidate can make changes that benefit not just women but all of society.
I’m convinced that women’s leadership is a path to social justice. It is also "Tikkun olam," repairing the world.
Barbara Lee, a leader in the effort to promote women’s political leadership and powerful participation in our democracy, brings energy and enthusiasm to social justice activism. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which Lee created and leads, is recognized nationally for investing in change. Lee is the driving force behind the groundbreaking "Governors Guidebook" series that combines original research with a nationally distributed practical guide for women candidates seeking executive office.
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