Is 2006 Another 'Year of the Woman'?

November 7 is likely to be, in the words of the Washington Post's political dean David Broder, "an insurgency of gender politics." On October 15, Broder reported that the total of 136 women nominated for House seats is only one less than the record set in 2004. Only six women running for reelection are considered vulnerable, all Republicans. And, of course, all women are poised to celebrate the possible elevation of Nancy Pelosi to speaker of the House in the event that at least 15 house seats swing towards the Democrats.

The Year of the Woman has a familiar ring. The last time we hear those words was in 1992, fresh on the heels of the Clarence Thomas hearings, when five freshly minted women senators stood arm in arm in their primary-colored Chanel suits -- Carol Mosley Braun, Patty Murray, Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein on the left, Kay Bailey Hutchinson on the right -- and announced that a new age of women and politics had arrived. At last, said the pundits of conventional wisdom, the single digit percentage of women officeholders would begin to be remedied.

Eight years later at the arrival of the millennium, the power surge had stalled. The single digits had increased only slightly, to 14 percent of federal offices held by women. We may lack women officeholders, but we have no shortage of possible explanations. According to the White House Project, women suffer from a lack of mentors, women candidates cannot match male candidates dollar for dollar on the fundraising trail and women have a gravitas gap. I wonder if perhaps women are just smarter than men and don't want to sacrifice their lives for the aggravation, personal and financial sacrifice -- and harsh scrutiny -- that running for office entails.

Given the ongoing barriers to women running for and winning federal elections, what makes the Year of the Woman 2.0, different from the 1.0 version 14 years ago? Support for women candidates has increased dramatically in scope and volume over the past 10 years. Candidates can get high-quality training, networks of donors and mentors through organizations like Emily's List at the national level and Emerge America! at the local and state level. But something else is going on as well. The advent of the Connected Age and social media are providing women with opportunity and advantage that gives Year of the Woman 2.0 a new dimension.

The new millennium has ushered in a "Connected Age" powered by social media -- digital tools such as Web sites, cell phones, chat rooms, personal digital assistants, iPods, and other gadgets and gizmos that are inexpensive and easy-to-use. Unlike last century's Information Age, power in the Connected Age comes from letting information go, intentionally pushing power to the edges through social networks, and freeing supporters and peers to work side-by-side to develop strategies and organize locally without top-down, command-and-control structures.

We have witnessed how social media tools transformed the way we listen to music through iTunes, report events through blogs and organize locally through Meetups. We had a taste of how these tools can change a presidential election during Howard Dean's 2004 campaign. Now we are bearing witness to how the use of social media can level the playing field for women candidates.

Three characteristics of social media benefit women candidates especially. According to the Pew Internet and American Project, women are avid e-mail users:

Women are more likely than men to use e-mail to write to friends and family about a variety of topics: sharing news and worries, planning events, forwarding jokes and funny stories . . . And women include a wider range of topics and activities in their personal e-mails.
Combine the way that women use e-mail with the fact that -- according to the 2002 National Study on the Changing Workforce -- women's combined work and life responsibilities take up a greater percentage of their overall day than that of men and the use of social media to provide easy and fast ways to participate in the political system becomes critically important to their involvement. Social media allow for participation by women volunteers in the time and space of the volunteers' choosing. Midlife women -- those who are more likely to vote for women candidates -- are often juggling careers, marriages, children and, with any room left, hobbies and volunteer efforts. Squeezing in political volunteering would not be possible if it demanded going to a campaign headquarters to stuff envelopes or make calls. However, participating online a few minutes a day, maybe at midnight or 6 in the morning, is possible.

To illustrate how social media expands opportunities for women to get involved in politics, consider Andrea Stewart Cousins' state senate race. In 2004, Cousins lost by 18 votes to Nick Spano in her bid for the 35th electoral district of New York for state senate. She is trying again this year with a campaign targeting women that has outlined discreet tasks that women can do from their homes or computers in the time they have available. In keeping with the campaign's theme that 18 votes can make the difference, the campaign encourages women to e-mail 18 girlfriends under the age of 35 to remind them to vote, make 18 calls, or recruit 18 volunteers to make calls on Election Day.

Much has been made of the possibility of powering elections by small-dollar online contributions. Not as much attention has been paid to using social media to decrease campaign costs. According to Susan J. Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, "there is no doubt that fundraising is a psychological deterrent for women. Women are unlikely to be hooked into big money networks, and a lot of women don't want to ask for money for themselves."

Patty Berg, a member of California's state assembly, has overcome this fundraising issue by billing her website as "Patty Berg's Paperless Campaign." Patty has decided to forgo expensive mailers and yard signs in favor of a campaign that operates primarily online through friend-to-friend e-mails. Supporters are invited to join a two-way conversation about the election, blog about their ideas, fill out a survey of issue priorities and e-mail Berg their comments and questions. Berg is an incumbent, so her path is automatically easier. Nonetheless, she is making a statement for her own campaign as well as forging a new pathway for other cash-strapped but friend-rich challengers.

Finally, social media enhances and supports what many women do a lot of in their daily lives -- which is to reach out to our social networks and connect with other women. The Connected Age requires a new mindset, a shucking of the layers of mistrust, closed doors and secretiveness. Participating in open, growing social networks is the pathway to knowledge and strong, resilient relationships. Who has been doing this on land, for centuries, but women? Women can move their connectedness online and organize and mobilize countless of women for causes that reflect what we most value in life, developing trusting relationships.

Social media networks aren't beneficial just for those running for office either. Ellen Miller has combined her passionate interest in effective government with the Connected Age to help create the Sunlight Foundation. Sunlight is using the transformative power of the Internet and new information technology -- through grantmaking and its own projects -- to enable citizens to learn more about what Congress and their elected representatives are doing post-elections, and thus helping to reduce corruption, ensure greater transparency and accountability, and foster public trust in the vital institutions of democracy. As importantly, they are putting new tools in citizens' hands so they can do it themselves, leveraging the powerful new "social Web." Sunlight's focus on transparency, accountability and clean government are issues that will likely to speak to voters disgusted with business as usual. These are issues that energize women voters and sustain women candidates. According to research conducted by the Women's Law Center for Women's Voices Women Vote, 20 million single women don't vote in large part because they feel left out of the political system of decisionmaking and issue discussions.

Social media enables political outsiders -- male and female -- to level the political playing field. An increased number of competitive races where incumbents are tested and challenged by outsiders -- regardless of gender -- is a good thing for our democracy. But the promise of providing greater access for women candidates, more volunteer opportunities that fit into the busy lives of working women with children and issues of good government that resonate with women candidates and supporters can only be a net gain for women.

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