Chapter 3 of 5

Chapter 3: Building Support Infrastructure

Existing support infrastructures for women are helpful but insufficient to see gains in women’s political power across sites, groups (racial/ethnic, partisan, class), and stages of the political process.

Georgia Story

Especially in recent election cycles, national attention has been paid to the leadership of Georgia’s women – and specifically Asian, Black, Latina, Native, and MENA women – in the fights to protect voting rights and preserve democracy. From the especially visible leadership of former state representative and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams in founding Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project to the women leading day-to-day strategy and operations, a broad community of predominantly women of color activists, organizers, and elected officials have fueled pro-democracy actions in the face of local, statewide, and federal attacks.

Especially in recent election cycles, national attention has been paid to the leadership of Georgia’s women – and specifically Asian, Black, Latina, Native, and MENA women – in the fights to protect voting rights and preserve democracy. From the especially visible leadership of former state representative and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams in founding Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project to the women leading day-to-day strategy and operations, a broad community of predominantly women of color activists, organizers, and elected officials have fueled pro-democracy actions in the face of local, statewide, and federal attacks.

Recent efforts to increase women’s political representation and power in Georgia have leveraged tools of collective action and coordination among organizations and individuals similar to those used by voting rights activists. As Kimberlyn Carter, executive director of Represent Georgia, told us, “Here in Georgia there has always been a spirit of coalition work.” She has drawn on that spirit in recent cycles to develop a statewide recruitment coalition that brings together local, state, and national organizations engaged in recruiting progressive candidates for Georgia elections. Out of this effort emerged a smaller coalition made up of organizations specifically focused on recruiting and electing women in the state and facilitated by Represent Georgia, which is not gender-focused but prioritizes the elevation of voices from marginalized populations. These groups – including Emerge GA, EMILY’s List, Georgia WIN List, Her Term, and Vote Run Lead – represent the majority of women-focused political organizations currently operating in Georgia, as well as the most targeted support infrastructure for women in Georgia politics. Coalition members we interviewed acknowledged the benefit of coming together to share information, monitor trends, and discuss effective approaches to building women’s political power.

In an environment of limited resources, this approach can maximize both the efficiency and reach of individual organizations. For example, while each group has historically run their own candidate training and/or education programs, they have more recently joined forces to facilitate a day-long training on first steps for women who want to run for office. This willingness to collaborate may help counter the lack of resources available to women’s political organizations, both in Georgia and nationwide. At the time of our interviews between late 2021 and early 2023, each organization’s state-level work relied primarily on one full-time staffer and some mix of additional part-time and volunteer support. Staffing limitations, which are rooted in funding constraints, reduce the capacity of these organizations to reach diverse communities of women, including women in rural areas, women not already a part of existing political networks, and women who bring diverse professional backgrounds and aspirations to build political power outside of candidacy and officeholding.

Working together might also promote innovative thinking to fill gaps in the existing support infrastructure for political women. Carter outlined the steps she has taken to reduce financial barriers to access for women and men alike that go through her programs, including providing gas cards, hotel rooms, or on-site childcare to allow for program participation as well as subsidizing travel or fees necessary to qualify for candidacy. Other coalition group leaders pointed to the increased focus on holistic needs of women candidates, including providing mental health support for women candidates, as informing each other’s understanding of the range of needs among women navigating state political ecosystems. While coming together to share information about current initiatives and approaches does not guarantee that resource gaps will be filled, conversations between the most active stakeholders can help to more clearly identify needs and motivate efforts to address them.

Represent Georgia’s collaborative approach extends to building partnerships with organizations serving diverse communities ripe for recruiting and developing political leaders. As Carter explained, “We partnered with Rev Up, who is an organization that represents people with disabilities. [We] have partnerships with Asian American Advocacy Fund, partnerships with the NAACP.” These partnerships facilitate program reach and accessibility, as do efforts to ensure that programming is culturally-competent and attentive to multifaceted realities of diverse participants. Carter added, “We have brought in different instructional designers…[to] look at the curricula to make sure that it is accessible at all levels and not making broad assumptions about…our cohort members.” By not limiting their work to a specific identity group, Represent Georgia can leverage expertise and capacity from a wider variety of political organizations to meet their mission of recruiting and developing political leaders in ways that combat the marginalization of underrepresented groups from political power.

Carter, who is Black, is also particularly attentive to how she brands her organization to signal its inclusivity of racially diverse communities. She said of her organization’s website and marketing materials, “We have women that look like [Supreme Court Justice] Ketanji Brown Jackson. …We are very intentional about what the people look like on our website, on our materials, and all of that.” Carter’s efforts are especially important among a woman-targeted support infrastructure that has historically been controlled by white women organizational leaders. There is greater racial diversity among the leadership of women’s political organizations in Georgia today, demonstrating at least one step toward building a more inclusive support infrastructure that serves all women.

More work is needed to ensure that there are supports for specific communities of women in Georgia politics. When we asked Black women in the state whether there exists a distinct support infrastructure for Black women in Georgia politics, their responses were mixed. Black women are 51% of all women state legislators and 67% of Democratic women state legislators in Georgia as of November 2023. But no statewide organization exists specifically focused on increasing Black women’s political power in a state where Black women are nearly 20% of the population and no Black woman has ever held statewide elective executive office. Likewise, while supports exist for Latina/o political engagement, there are no targeted resources or programs that interview subjects could identify to increase Latina political power specifically. The need, however, is evident in the fact that Latinas make up 5% of Georgia’s population (and growing), but no Latinas currently serve in state legislative, statewide elective executive, or congressional office. And as the Asian American/Pacific Islander population in Georgia continues to grow, the infrastructure to foster political engagement and power at the intersection of race and gender remains limited.

Finally, in a state where Republicans hold legislative and executive control, the support infrastructure for Republican women in Georgia politics is sparse. Existing organizations almost exclusively support progressive and/or Democratic women candidates. Seeing this gap in support, the national Women’s Public Leadership Network invested in the creation of VoteHer Georgia, an organization to increase the number of women participating in Georgia politics and prepare women to run for all levels of government. Their focus, consistent with that of WPLN, is on women who lean center-right. While they have sought to fill a void in the state’s support infrastructure for women in politics, VoteHer combats similar challenges to other women’s political organizations, including capacity and reach. And unlike Democratic women’s political organizations, who have leveraged partnerships with progressive political organizations in the state and nationally, there appears to be less interest and/or incentive among Republican political organizations to engage in gender-targeted efforts (as detailed in chapter two). Perhaps as a result, women are just 16% of the state legislative Republican majority, while Democratic women make up 59% of their party’s state legislators.

Building and sustaining a support infrastructure that serves all women navigating Georgia’s political ecosystem is not a simple project, and not one that can be done without resources, broad engagement and collaboration, and a multifaceted approach informed by the experiences, perspectives, and needs of women at diverse intersections of identity, ideology, and political goals.

Read The Story

While we did not provide a specific definition of “support infrastructure for women in politics” to interview subjects, our analysis is based on a broad definition of support infrastructure that includes formal or informal resources that aid in education, preparation, recruitment, mentorship, camaraderie, coping, and achieving professional success for women seeking and/or holding political power within a state’s political ecosystem. Our emphasis in both our interviews and this section is on state-based over national organizations and efforts.

Robustness of Support Infrastructures

Support infrastructures for women in politics exist across and within states, but few political actors perceive them as sufficiently robust.

We asked all interview subjects if a political infrastructure for women in politics exists in their state and, if so, what makes up that support infrastructure. Most interview subjects reflected on the presence (or lack thereof) of formal organizations and/or programs focused specifically on women’s political participation as elements of that infrastructure. It was rare for them to describe this formal support infrastructure as robust, even in states with higher levels of women’s political representation; instead, many emphasized that while supports specifically for political women exist in their state, they are limited in scope, capacity, and reach. Multiple interview subjects lamented the lack of coordination among organizations and programs, suggesting there is potential for more coalition-building and partnerships – similar to Georgia’s recruitment coalition – to support a diversity of women in politics. Their responses also reveal that sustainability of existing infrastructure elements – both formal and informal – is often dependent on the willingness of women leaders, including those who are elected, to create and/or bolster sites for support.

“I know we live in an EMILY’s List world and we live in a world where there’s Emerge. And there needs to be more. There just needs to be more…like the aggressive recruiting and preparation and training. …I know that these groups exist; we work with them. We love them and support them. And it’s not enough. It’s just not. And so we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that like, ‘Oh, we’ll be duplicating efforts.’ It’s not enough.”

Nsé Ufot (NP-GA)
Former Chief Executive Officer of the New Georgia Project

We are 100% doing this by the skin of our teeth and by the conviction of our hearts.”

Donelle Harder (r-ok)

President of the PowHER PAC and Republican Political Consultant

Those of us who are committed to doing this [work to support women] will do it, volunteer, you know, because we’re committed to doing it. But I do think if it could be resourced…we could really make a difference.”

Kathy Dahlkemper (d-pa)

Former U.S. Representative and Current Erie County Executive

It sucks that we have to [build a support infrastructure for women] this way…this underpaid, no pay, volunteer movement of women. But I think that’s the history, so I guess we just have to keep pushing.”

Katie Muth (d-pa)

State Senator

I have never taken a salary from She Can Win, I’ve never gotten paid. …I think in year three of me just doing it [myself], more people took notice, more philanthropies took notice. …I would say 2016, obviously the pink wave I guess they still call it, was good for us because we had already established a track record in the place and we were a trusted voice. So I do think that the influx of resources came then. The problem with the influx of resources is when something else then becomes hot and sexy. Like now, right now it’s defending voting rights, right? You kind of got to pivot to keep up with the market. And I wasn’t interested in pivoting. I think that there are really great established organizations right now that are doing voting rights and voting access and voter registration that we don’t necessarily tackle. That’s not our space. So it’s the trends of politics that affect the resources. But oh my goodness, if I could I would have 100% hired a staff. We never made enough in operating to really hire staff because I was always nervous about taking in a large influx of money but then not being able to sustain it. …I’ve always been very careful and cautious about sustainability of a program and funders like to fund you in one shot, not necessarily multi-year grants for an organization like ours. [Interview conducted in February 2022.]”

Jasmine Sessoms (np-pa)

Founder of She Can Win

Thinking that there aren’t resources out there to help [is a hurdle to women running for office]. …A big part of the work that I’m doing with Sally’s List is to make sure that people know that this organization exists, that it’s free, and that this is the first place you can turn to if you are considering running. But I think it’s just that feeling of a lack of support. …It makes a hard thing even harder.”

Shalondra Harrison (d-ok)

Executive Director of Sally’s List and former Democratic Committeeperson

Sometimes men don’t understand why women need special groups of women – like, ‘Oh, if we had a special group of men, you’d think it was discriminatory.’ It’s because we haven’t been in these positions of leadership and power as long as men have. But I think it’s really, really important that women have sounding boards, that they have mentors, that they have groups that they can go to and share their vulnerabilities and be helped up into the political process. I will tell you that is a major goal of mine.”

Susan Wild (d-pa)

U.S. Representative

I think being unapologetic about needing that level of support is something that we need to do. …We need a space just to talk because men will be men. Men take up a lot of air no matter Black, white, green, whatever. [We need a space] where can we come together and work through the realization of what it means to be in politics, number one, being a woman in politics, and then adding being a Black woman in politics and what does that mean? And the hurdles and the stress and consequences that come with that.”

Kendra Brooks (wfp-pa)

Philadelphia City Councilmember

It does become overwhelming as a Latina legislator. …I want to be good. I want to make a positive impact on my community. And I feel like oftentimes it’s just on my shoulders, like I have to [wear] all these hats. And it’s like with what capacity, right?”

Selena Torres (d-nv)

State Assemblywoman

I would say there’s a support infrastructure to some degree [for women in Illinois politics]. And it’s in silos. …There is some support system [for women in politics in Illinois] but it’s not centralized. There’s no real centralized support system. That’s my view.”

Heather Wier Vaught (d-il)

Democratic Lobbyist and Consultant and Former Chief Counsel to Speaker Michael Madigan

I’m going to say there’s not a cohesive [support infrastructure for women in politics] because there are so many silos of these different support systems. And you have to go find them. So if there was, you know, just like a guide – like you’re running for local office, you’re running for office in Oklahoma, who do you contact? What are your first steps? That, to me, would have been most helpful.”

Nikki Nice (d-ok)

Oklahoma City Councilmember

Alternative Sites for and Styles of Support

Rethinking women’s political power requires rethinking support infrastructures for women in politics, expanding beyond candidate training and targeted campaign giving to consider alternative sites for and styles of support that will foster sustainable political engagement for a full diversity of women.

When we asked interview subjects about support infrastructures for women in politics, we did not provide any single definition of this term. Responses from interview subjects revealed the tendency to first point to organizations and/or programs explicitly committed to training and electing women, but further discussion showed the importance of thinking more broadly about who and what makes up an infrastructure that is not only available to women candidates but also provides supports to all types of women within a state political ecosystem to increase their political power. Interview subjects cited needs that go beyond campaign preparation and education, including mental health supports, access to diverse personnel, and financial assistance beyond campaign donations. Women frequently cited building support networks and sites for peer-to-peer engagement, as many women’s political organizations do in our case states and nationwide, as especially valuable. Chapters four and five provide more detail on interview subjects’ perceptions of types of interventions needed to address structural and social/political barriers to women’s political power.

We need to make sure…that the infrastructure is in place so that when a woman runs…they are supported not just politically but financially, emotionally, relationally. These things have to be in place…in order for a woman legislator to be successful.”

Kim Schofield (d-ga)

State Representative

I think one of the supports that we need to be giving is some mental health, right? …Because that’s having to deal with people who don’t believe in you every day, who want to question you every day. That is very draining. And that’s why people who run once, they’re like, ‘I don’t think I want to run again. Too much. Somebody [else] can step it up and run.’”

Daniela Rodriguez (np-ga)

Immigrant Advocate

The toxicity of our politics [gives me pause for concern]. It’s definitely a disincentive for…everyone, but I think it’s particularly a disincentive for women because the vitriol that we get is much worse. I lost count of how many people over the last two years during the pandemic got their first death threat and called me first, [telling me] ‘You were the first person I thought of to ask what I should do about this,’ because I’ve been getting them forever as a lesbian, as a woman, as a big target – they’ve been coming for me for a long time. So that was a really interesting moment. The first time somebody called me…[I thought] ‘Oh God, I didn’t realize that’s who I was, you know.’”

Kelly Cassidy (d-il)

State Representative

I think that there has to be the infrastructure…[in] terms of when women decide to run…that they can pay people to help them to run and they can live when they run. And that’s what I’m experiencing right now. I didn’t think it would impact me but it does. The economics of running is just not discussed and it’s not easy for women to run if you’re head of household, if you have children, even when you may have a partner you both may have to work, so I just think we don’t talk about money enough in politics and…what it really takes to win. …You don’t want to say to people, ‘Don’t run,’ but if we don’t have real conversations about…how money affects our politics then that’s a disservice to women, too. [Interview conducted in July 2022 before Mayes was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in November 2022.]”

La’Tasha Mayes (d-pa)

State Representative

With the recruitment coalition this year we provided hotel stays for people who had to travel far to come up [to the capital] to qualify [as a candidate]. We have a qualifying fees fund. We did gas cards and, in all of the events that I do, I provide childcare onsite. So we’re doing a lot of things to help with breaking barriers for women. …We are constantly thinking about and looking at the different ways that we can break barriers. [Interview conducted in April 2022.]”

Kimberlyn Carter (d-ga)

Executive Director of Represent Georgia

The other thing that’s happening, I think nationally but in Nevada…is we are recruiting women – Emerge and PLAN [Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada] and all sorts of groups – but…there [are] probably three campaign managers left in the state. …You can recruit everybody up the ying-ying but if you don’t have people to actually help you execute that race from school board on up, then we’ve got…problems. …So that is part of what hurts women.”

Chris Giunchigliani (d-nv)

Former Clark County Commissioner and Former State Assemblywoman

I was just talking to another consultant the other day. She and I were talking because we’re like okay, we’re doing all the work…can’t sleep, can’t eat because all of these candidates need us. …We need more firms of color doing mail. We need more firms of color doing phones, more firms of color doing digital. …When it comes to really having influence on campaigns, as far as execution and as far as where the economics [are], you don’t have a lot of minorities in those positions. …Then when it comes to myself and this other young lady I was talking to, a lot of stuff we do, we just do it. Like I have six campaigns right now, two are paying me because I have to help these women and I have to help these candidates. I have two men, I have to help them, you know because there are not enough other people out there to really help them. So it’s kind of like a love offering per se but if I could have time to start doing mail or phones or something else with somebody else, that could give me the revenue that I need to do all this charity work that I’m doing, you know. [Interview conducted in April 2022.]”

Erica Pines (d-ga)

Democratic Strategist

I could barely find a campaign manager. …And then when I did, they didn’t have the skillset that I needed for that level of race. There was no diversity in terms of race and gender and background. …Not even just women running, Black women running, we don’t have anybody to work on our campaigns. And I actually was able to raise money. So I wasn’t trying to get people to work for free. I couldn’t find people. …There was nowhere for me to go to find them. …And so that is the other piece that I think we’re missing. [Interview conducted in July 2022 before Mayes was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in November 2022.]”

La’Tasha Mayes (d-pa)

State Representative

Honestly, I think [providing financial support to women candidates is] a part of [the strategy to move the needle for women] but I don’t think that’s the end all be all…especially with campaign finance laws and things like that. A PAC like Georgia WIN List could only contribute $2,800 or something like that. So in the grand scheme of the campaign, $2,800 is great, an endorsement from Georgia WIN List is great. But I think the real support comes in with how much work can an organization do? Or how much work can a network of people do to actually help to get voters in that district to show up? Because I think that that’s what some people forget. …It’s not about getting the endorsements. It’s not about getting the money. It’s about actually getting the voters in that district to support this person. …I think obviously PACs and those organizations play an important role. I don’t think that alone is enough.”

Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood (d-ga)

Executive Director of Asian American Advocacy Fund

We’re not doing any endorsements for the primary…mostly because it runs up into issues of…we might have a male incumbent who is incredibly passionate about helping women and then you have a new challenger and it was like okay, then what kind of spot are we putting ourselves into? We can’t just support someone just because of one reason. There’s a whole multitude of things that are included in that, including ability to win the election.”

Tiffany Elking (np-il)

Bipartisan Political Consultant and Board Chair of The Women’s PAC

There are these pioneer women who did things like fight for the abortion protection amendment in the 1990s and women like [Congresswoman] Dina Titus or [former state Senator] Helen Foley who at one point were the only women in a room who had made a concerted effort across the years to say, ‘I’m going to bring you with me.’ And it may not mean that tomorrow you are in elected office but let’s just keep opening this door, and I think we’re seeing the results of generations of women empowering each other to be in leadership.”

Yvanna Cancela (d-nv)

Former State Senator

I think there [are] a lot of women who are…mentors and either have run for office and won or lost, current [and] former elected officials. It’s a small state where people are willing to sit down, have coffee with you, give advice. And that may seem trivial or not important but I think that that sharing of experience and information is incredibly important and there is a legacy of women mentoring women in Nevada. And I know that because I feel part of that and grateful to the women who are there.”

Former Democratic Party Leader (d-nv)

Supporting All Women

Existing support infrastructures, where they exist, do not serve all women equally.

After asking interview subjects if a support infrastructure exists for women in their state, we asked most subjects if they felt that support infrastructure serves all women equally. This interrogation revealed disparities in access and availability to woman-centered supports. Beyond the disparities by race/ethnicity and party detailed below, political insiders across states noted that access to and availability of existing support infrastructures varies by geography, level of office, type of political engagement (candidates, officeholders, political professionals), and individual capacity (financial, time) and relationships. Responses suggest that efforts to create more robust support infrastructures for women in politics should be attentive to prevailing disparities and to sites for power-building beyond candidacy.

And some of these groups will actually charge money to go to some of their trainings, right? There’s that barrier, too, especially if you are a new candidate who doesn’t have the funds yet. …Like okay, I’ve got to raise money to apply, or raise money to even go to this panel — do I go? Stuff that’s done during the workday becomes very inaccessible to working-class families, working-class individuals. Or if I have to travel for it, if there’s no opportunity for travel scholarships, I guess I won’t go. Those kinds of decisions, I think, are some of the conversations that people are having.”

Selena Torres (d-nv)

State Assemblywoman

Most of these organizations tend to operate like sororities and fraternities and if you are not someone that fits the model, if you’re outspoken on certain issues…or you say something that puts a blemish on the party on the organization or the apparatus, they tend to kind of shy away. …So when you asked me the question, ‘Do you feel there is a pathway or a support system [for women in Georgia politics]?’ – yeah there is, if you fit the model.”

Keisha Waites (d-ga)

Atlanta City Councilmember

I believe from what I have experienced and seen here [in Northwestern Pennsylvania], you need the local support. You need some local women that other women know, who they trust, and who they have faith in, [that] would come forward and support them. And that’s why we’re going to create something locally here.”

Kathy Dahlkemper (d-pa)

Former U.S. Representative and Current Erie County Executive

So there is [a support infrastructure for Democratic women in politics], but…not for the local level. That is what I found.”

Marci Collier Overstreet (np-ga)

Atlanta City Councilmember

Running for state legislator was fairly different than running for [district attorney]. …A lot of those organizations that endorse [in legislative elections], don’t endorse DA races. …I had to find…different groups that would endorse, but they were all concerned about, ‘Oh, it’s connected with judiciary and that should be nonpartisan. And so we can’t do that.’ And I’m like, ‘No, guys, you need to really look at these races.’ …These races…are determining what’s happening in our criminal legal system.”

Deborah Gonzalez (d-ga)

District Attorney of the Western Judicial Circuit District and Former State Representative

I think that what we’re not seeing at the pace that we need it [are] supports for women who are already elected. And I think that’s because so few have gone there, right? So if you have walked in those shoes to know what supports we even need…we’re still figuring out how to do that.”

Summer Lee (d-pa)

U.S. Representative

Maybe the gap that exists is maybe not even necessarily getting women into office but getting women to the next level of office. …Because I do think there are a lot of times…people are really excited to elect a woman for state representative, for school board, for city council, for borough mayor, but then there isn’t necessarily the investment to get them to the next level. …And the recruitment that happens for those positions from the pool of elected leaders, if you will, often falls to men.”

Emily Kinkead (d-pa)

State Representative

I think that [the support infrastructure for women in politics] also needs to be beyond just women who are running for office or who are in office because being in politics is multifaceted. I often feel like the women who are the campaign managers or the finance directors or the communications staff are often not…looked at when we’re having these types of conversations. But these are the women that are helping people win or that are maintaining the agenda, right? Or the backbone of whoever it is, right, you know? …I’m thinking of so many city council representatives that have key women who are really shaping either their campaigns or their day-to-day, right? And so how are those women part of the overall conversation as well?”

Emily Persaud-Zamora (np-nv)

Executive Director of Silver State Voices

Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Support Infrastructure

Racial/ethnic disparities persist in the availability and control of support infrastructures for women in politics.

While many interview subjects across states felt that a support infrastructure, even if weak or informal, existed for women in their states, few agreed that formal support infrastructures existed specifically for women within historically-marginalized racial/ethnic groups. With some exceptions, the formalized organizations and programs available to women in politics at the state level are rarely specified to serve women at distinct intersections of race and gender.  Asian, Black, Latina, and Native women leaders we interviewed pointed to their reliance on informal networks of support and engagement with race-based support programs as filling the void. New research from Pearl Dowe sheds additional light on this reliance on alternative networks among Black women, detailing the internal networks – such as Black Greek letter organizations, Black female civic groups, and HBCUs – that have, among many other things, provided Black women with political support. Interestingly, Black women we interviewed rarely pointed to these organizations as part of a “support infrastructure for women in politics” in their state, likely demonstrating the narrower focus assumed in this characterization to organizations centering women candidate recruitment and training. Recent efforts to address diversity and inclusion across institutions are evident among women’s political organizations and commended by multiple women of color leaders we interviewed, but continued work is necessary to ensure that inclusion efforts yield parity not only in presence but in power. In many cases, women’s political organizations are led and/or resourced by white women, creating conditions under which access to gender-targeted support depends on the priorities and decisions of white women. While we did not ask explicitly about racial/ethnic disparities in organizational leadership and sponsorship in our interviews, limiting our ability to generalize, the candidness that some women of color leaders offered illustrates the need for both more discussion and more action to address disparities in trust, understanding, resources, and power within existing communities seeking to support women in politics.

No. I don’t think [a support infrastructure for Asian women in Nevada politics exists] at all. And I think if you talk to the Latina women in our state, I think they will tell you the same exact thing. …I can’t imagine a woman of color not saying the same thing.”

Rochelle Nguyen (d-nv)

State Senator

I think the biggest gap to me is that we don’t have…organizations that specifically recruit Black women, Latinx women, Asian women, and Native women. …And, you know, within Sally’s List we have initiatives…they’re doing stuff to do that. But I think that in order for it to really be successful, it needs to be its own standalone thing. …So whether it’s its own thing or maybe if there was capacity within Sally’s List to have standing initiatives or standing committees that are only…really to recruit and train Black women, only to recruit and train Native women, and that type of thing. …I know that they want to do some of that. But…where do we build those relationships and get to that trust? I think that’s just something that’s lacking. [Interview conducted in December 2021 before Benjamin became Board President of Sally’s List.]”

Andrea Benjamin (d-ok)

Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma and Board President of Sally’s List

I think we’re doing our best – myself, Josina, other women of color – we’re doing our best to help bring in other women of color. …We’re trying our best to get other women of color involved and plugged into this informal network of other women and making sure we support and continue to foster the love of public service and politics and outreach and organizing. …And we’re going to need to, even myself, [to] make space for those people to bring in their experiences and their issues and so they can solve other issues that maybe I did not experience but that they are more in touch with. So just continuing that cycle of inclusiveness and just bringing other people in. I think that will also help us build up more women of color in politics.”

Stephanie Mendoza (np-il)

Evanston City Clerk

When I look for gatekeepers…it’s white women. Your gatekeepers are white women. Look at every organization…any program that trains people how to run for office is run by white women. …It’s like we have to prove to the white women and not necessarily that they are holding office. They are running these spaces that become key when you want to run for office. …Going back to infrastructure, where will Latinas go? Where do we go? Anything Latino or Hispanic is run by Latino men and…[we] might as well go with the white women and give them the sense of the white savior. …And to them, sometimes it feels like we’re some sort of charity work to help a Latina that wants to run for office. …And then you walk into these spaces and [there’s a] disconnection. …They just don’t understand how the system works for us, Latinos and immigrants. …[It] goes back to what does [the] infrastructure look like for Latinas or for women of color? …It’s almost like I have to put up with [white-women-led organizations] if I want to run for office because they put it like ‘the sisterhood.’ We have each other’s back, we help each other. …So yes, they have a board that…looks diverse but it’s still white women teaching women of color how to be leaders in our community.”

Cecia Alvarado (d-nv)

Democratic Political Consultant

So I think from my perspective, it’s less [white women] gatekeeping and, in my perspective and in the position I’m in, more of a tokenization. The white women that I take issue with are very keen to have me in a space to be like, ‘Look, I have this Indigenous leader. I have this Indigenous representation. She’s a woman. She’s native. I’m so excited.’ As soon as I’m there to bring perspective and be like, ‘Hey, this is what you’re doing wrong. This is how we should move this forward. This is what’s going to be best for our community.’ Then it gets shut down. And so I think it’s very keen to keep us in a very specific space right now. And it’s interesting because it’s continuing to uphold sort of that same power dynamic and structure they experienced.”

Taylor Patterson (d-nv)

Executive Director of Native Voters Alliance of Nevada

I think [women’s political organizations] are needing to also shift especially around women of color. I think that…we need to push our allies to identify some of that inherent bias that they have within their own organizations, and a lot of them are doing that. …I think it’s important for people that are in positions like I am to call out some of that disparity.”

Rochelle Nguyen (d-nv)

State Senator

Partisan Differences in Support Infrastructure

Where they exist, gender-targeted support infrastructures are more robust for Democratic than Republican women in politics.

State-level and national mapping of existing organizations and programs shows that the support infrastructures for Democratic women in politics are more robust than those available to Republican women. This is true as well in our case states, where fewer gender-targeted resources are available to Republican women than their Democratic counterparts, even where Republicans hold statewide control. Partisan disparities are exacerbated by perceptions among conservatives that nonpartisan programs primarily serve progressive women. While limited in capacity, Pennsylvania’s Anne Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series offers a possible caveat to this conclusion; while Republican organizations for women are not greater in number in the state, the tenure, established reputation, and reach of the program is strong. State affiliates of the same program – the Excellence in Public Service Series – have struggled to achieve the same level of sustainability and influence in Illinois or Nevada, with the Nevada program now defunct.  In Oklahoma and Georgia, the success of more recent efforts to create Republican-serving women’s political organizations – PowHER PAC in Oklahoma and VoteHer in Georgia – will depend on both organizational capacity and the buy-in from Republican insiders to back woman-focused efforts. As noted in chapter two, Republican aversion to identity-based efforts to increase political power serves as a hurdle to building a support infrastructure specifically for women.

Well, you know, when I ran for office I got lots of info on EMILY’s List and Sally’s List and those PACs that are really progressive and want you to vote their way and stuff like that. And there was never any group of women that said, ‘We’re so glad you’re running. We’d like to throw our support your way.’”

Lee Denney (r-ok)

Current Payne County Treasurer and Former State Representative and Cushing City Commissioner

I mean all of those organizations [for women in politics] – you rattle them off in your head or [are] making a little list talking about support [for] women to be in office – name one of them that support Republican women. …Not everybody is a cookie cutter in terms of ideology. And honestly I don’t think an echo chamber of ideas or litmus test of ideological purity benefits anyone in the world that we live in.”

Regina Quick (r-ga)

Former State Representative

As far as where we are today, what kind of resources that [are] available [for women], I will have to say the Democrats I feel like have us beat on that. [Interview conducted in January 2022.]”

Lori Callahan (r-ok)

Founder of Oklahoma Women Run and Former State Legislative Candidate

What I see with some of the [programs] that are just nonpartisan in the state of Oklahoma, they are actually seen as partisan. So, you know, I think once you see the players and everyone involved, then you start to see, well, it may not be as nonpartisan as we think. And so I think conservative women tend to take a step back and look for other ways to be able to get involved.”

Republican Woman Leader (r-ok)

A lot of these organizations that get set up, they present themselves as bipartisan and then you go and look at who they supported and they really do tend to be one side or the other. I can’t think of any one organization that is truly focusing on women [that] supports both Republicans and Democrats.”

Karen Handel (r-ga)

Former U.S. Representative and Former Georgia Secretary of State

I think it’s extremely important [to have a support infrastructure for women in politics] because naturally we are emotional beings. And…we do have sensitivities that I don’t think our male counterparts deal with as much as we do or the way we feel it. Understanding how to operate in leadership and still have compassion and not lose yourself are things that I think we do need. …We need that support. I’m not opposed to that. I think that there’s strength in having support and seeking help and having assistance. And so I think it’s extremely important and I would love to see more and more of that. I just don’t want it to be biased. I don’t want to look like…we are so broken that we need all this help, right?”

Janelle King (r-ga)

Former Deputy State and Data Director for the Georgia Republican Party

And the Democrats have done a really good job, even though it’s identity politics, which Republicans, I think, are now kind of starting to lean towards to some degree but that’s not really in our DNA. Democrats have done a really good job with identity politics. And they still have the group, I believe, called Emerge. …We had Silver State [Excellence in Public Service Series] on our side and that fizzled out. Why? I don’t know.”

Amy Tarkanian (r-nv)

Former Chair of the Nevada Republican Party

Prescriptions for Building Support Infrastructure

Expand and/or build support infrastructures for women in politics to better serve all women – across race/ethnicity, class, party, geography, and political role or profession – in more sustained and holistic ways.

In characterizing existing support infrastructures for women in politics as limited in capacity and scope, political actors across states offered ample evidence for the need to expand this infrastructure (or build an infrastructure where it does not exist) in multiple ways. Beyond expanding the overall magnitude of supports to serve more women, greater support is necessary for women political practitioners (staff, consultants, lobbyists), elected women, and women candidates and officeholders in local and judicial offices. Formal programs and resources to support women and politics must also be accessible and responsive to working-class women and women outside of metro areas, necessitating attentiveness to financial costs, schedules, program content, and disparities in awareness or information across groups of women. Women political leaders emphasized the value of creating safe spaces and durable networks – whether formal or informal – of women navigating the same political ecosystems. These relationships address the more holistic needs of political women and go beyond the ‘nuts and bolts’ information provided through one-time trainings. A holistic approach to building support infrastructures for women also includes addressing mental health, personal barriers to participation (see chapters four and five), and personal safety.

Invest in support targeted to Asian, Black, Latina, MENA, and Native women in politics and disrupt the dominance of white women among women’s political organizational leaders and donors in ways that re-allocate power and build trust between communities of women within state political ecosystems.

Building more robust support infrastructures for women in politics requires recognition that women are not monolithic in their experiences, needs, and prioritization of gender identity. The persistent racialization of U.S. politics creates distinct conditions for political actors at diverse intersections of race and gender. Additionally, historically-justified mistrust of white women from women of color is exacerbated within systems where white women maintain power and privilege. This includes the women’s political organization space, where white women are the bulk of both organizational leaders and funders and where few programs exist at the state level that are focused specifically on Asian, Black, Latina, MENA, or Native women. Investing in resources, including programs and organizations that serve women at specific intersections of race and gender, is a start to creating a more attentive and competent support infrastructure for all women in politics. Fostering racial/ethnic inclusion in existing women’s political organizations must go beyond increasing diversity of program participants or contributors. It must extend  to re-allocating power over organizational decision-making, planning, and resource distribution in ways that disrupt white dominance while setting women in power up for success. Within our case states, some of this work has already begun. But the project of power disruption and trust-building between communities of women within state political ecosystems will require long-term commitments and continued dialogue to ensure that prescribed interventions are informed by insiders with diverse experiences and perspectives.

Increase recruitment and support for more women and racially/ethnically diverse campaign staff and consultants.

Interview subjects across states repeatedly referenced both the need for and hurdles to a more diverse class of political professionals, especially campaign staff and political consultants. Building support infrastructure for unelected professionals is part of this work. But increasing the representation and power of women and individuals from historically-marginalized racial/ethnic groups in campaigns also requires addressing barriers to access such as low compensation (see chapter four), work/life incompatibility (see chapter four), and gender and racial biases in hiring and promotion. Persistent sexism and racism within campaign environments can also act as a deterrent to both recruitment and retention (see chapter five), demonstrating the importance of disrupting established institutional norms and culture to attracting and retaining diverse talent. Targeted programs within our case states to recruit and train political professionals from underrepresented communities – such as the BLUE Institute and the New Georgia Project’s cultivation of political organizers – offer models for future and expanded efforts to create a class of campaign professionals that can best serve the full range of diversity among both candidates and voters, and who themselves shift the balance in who holds political power.

Listen to diverse communities of women in addressing disparities in availability and accessibility of support infrastructures, especially along partisan and race/gender lines.

Addressing existing disparities in support infrastructures for women requires dialogue with diverse communities of women, especially those who feel underserved by the existing supports that target women and/or for whom gender-targeted support is not a priority. And promoting women’s political power across these communities might mean strengthening support infrastructure that is not targeted exclusively to women in ways that ensure women have equal access to resources. For example, recognition of the ideological aversion to gender-specific assistance among Republicans, as noted in chapter two, should inform how efforts to support Republican women in politics are developed, framed, and executed. Beyond creating women-specific programs or organizations, advocates might consider how best to incentivize Republican-serving programs and organizations to be attentive to gender disparities in access, programming, and outcomes. A similar approach might be applied to other communities of women that do not prioritize building political support infrastructures that serve women specifically, instead seeing greater need for resources that support power-building within historically-marginalized racial/ethnic and/or class communities. Perspectives and priorities from women in these communities must be integrated into strategic planning and resource development, including more vigorous consideration of how uplifting and promoting inclusion among non-gender-specific resources can benefit women in politics. Notably, the vast amount of resources in state political ecosystems are invested outside of gender-targeted work, only further affirming the importance of advocating that those who control those resources are attentive to the needs of women within diverse communities.

Increase financial investment to create robust and sustainable support infrastructures for women in politics.

Expanding the magnitude and capacity of support infrastructures for women in politics requires financial support. Most organizations committed to increasing women’s political participation are financially under-resourced and, thus, under-staffed, particularly at the state level. They rely heavily on volunteers, including women political leaders they are also trying to serve, and are reluctant to expand without the promise of sustained and reliable investment. Finally, in an environment of sparse resources, women’s political organizations may be reluctant to build coalitions and partnerships that create greater efficiency due to concerns about organizational self-sufficiency.

Create coalitions that enhance reach, capacity, and coordination among organizations and individuals committed to increasing women’s political power.

Organization leaders and advocates for increasing women’s political power described the benefits of coordinating efforts with like-minded groups and individuals. These include expanding capacity and efficiency, increasing reach, and maximizing available resources. Additionally, coalition-building with other, all-gender organizations committed to fostering political engagement and power creates opportunities for tapping into more diverse communities and resources. Expanding the pool of organizations and individuals engaged in work to increase women’s political power can also allow for more attentiveness to cultural competency, ideological differences, and supports serving non-candidates.