Energize the Women's Vote in 2004

Twenty years ago this summer, former Vice President Walter Mondale made the historic decision to select New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. For a campaign that was fighting an uphill battle against a popular president, the bold move helped to spark new energy in the Mondale campaign and a bright new chapter in women's politics.

Since then, women have made significant progress on numerous fronts, from corporate boardrooms to elected office. Today, women hold prestigious positions in government. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, for instance, is the highest-ranking elected female official in U.S. history.

But, 20 years after Ferraro made the idea of a female president seem far more possible, women remain an extreme minority on Capitol Hill. Women hold only 73 of the 535 seats in the U.S. Congress, roughly 14 percent, and the United States ranks 58th in the world in gender parity in its national congress.

And all of us may be paying a price for the lack of parity for women in positions of power. Time and again, researchers have found that the more women in government, the more humane the policies -- from allocation of scarce resources to provision of government safeguards.

To rectify the situation, we should heed the exhortation of Eleanor Roosevelt, who liked to say, "It's up to the women!" as she pursued her numerous reform movements, which included boosting the participation and representation of women in government.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt understood that in order to make progress or significant changes in our country, we need leaders who can both motivate and inspire people to act in their self-interest. As women, we must learn how to vote our self-interest.

There are currently millions of voting-age women in the United States who are not registered and millions more who are registered, but frequently don't exercise their franchise.

Diversifying the Message

To pull more women into the voting process -- and to win votes -- the two major political parties should drop any idea of a "one size fits all" approach to women. Instead, they should target their messages to diverse groups of women. For example, both the Republican and Democratic parties are now training Spanish-speaking surrogates. This strategy will enable them to broaden their message and outreach to a key group of undecided voters. Female business owners are also important strategic targets and the candidates should use forums with these potential voters to discuss health care, tax reform and other important economic issues.

Political campaigns will have to address single women, married women, suburban soccer moms, security moms, on-the-go female professionals, urban-bases voting women, Jewish women, Latinas, senior moms, want-to-be moms and soon-to-be moms.

These messages -- more affordable college tuition and better access to healthcare are two issues hotter for women than for men -- must be planned well in advance to reach enough voters before the beginning of the final months of campaigning.

Who's going to handle this? Well, as Eleanor Roosevelt would remind us, "It's up to the women."

Women in Leading Roles

Although our male counterparts have often been seen as foot dragging and waiting until the right moment to give women a seat at the table, in this new political season, women are already playing leading roles in the presidential campaigns.

Just recently, Karen Hughes, the Republican media savvy wordsmith and spokesperson announced she was coming out of semi-retirement to help guide the Bush-Cheney reelection efforts. Hughes is not only a strong willed and determined Texan, she is smart enough to know what plays in small town America before pollsters and others dial around for answers.

On the Democratic side, which happens to be my side in this highly charged and deeply polarized campaign season, my money is on Mary Beth Cahill.

Cahill, John Kerry's campaign manager, is a relative newcomer to presidential campaigns, but she's no stranger to making waves for women.

A veteran of the Clinton White House, a key lieutenant for EMILY's List, which supports Democratic pro-choice women running for higher office, and Senator Edward Kennedy's former chief of staff, Cahill is one of those rare personalities. She understands how to keep the trains running on time, while fine tuning Senator Kerry's message and outreach across America.

Strategic Importance

From my vantage point, I know both campaigns understand the strategic importance of female voters.

In the early paid advertising campaigns, both Kerry and Bush have decided to use the voice and image of their wives to help define them. Kerry also had one of his daughters appear in his first biographical spot. This is a good move on the part of both campaigns, but more needs to be done in order to maximize the potential of each campaign in gaining the majority of women voters.

For starters, I would urge the parties to target young women ages 18-35 for a strong, direct appeal. I have found that these women are not only politically untapped, the sheer volume of them who are not registered represent the potential to change the face of U.S. politics for years to come.

Based on some preliminary research I have seen from Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, this group will be most responsive to candidate's positions on education, economic growth, health care and the environment.

Once campaigns get those messages developed, they should advertise and fine-tune the overall campaign message to reach these young women where they live, work, play and shop. Candidates, for instance, should spend quality time again this electoral season -- as they did in 2000 -- attending youth-oriented forums hosted by entities such as MTV and female-oriented forums hosted by the likes of Lifetime TV or Oxygen.

As in Eleanor Roosevelt's time and as it was 20 years ago with the candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro, its still up to the women to make waves, push harder, speak up, register and vote. Only by doing so will we attain a seat at the political table that corresponds to our greater-than 50 percent share of the population.

Donna Brazile is an author, lecturer and Democratic strategist based in Washington, D.C.

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