With elections to student organizations at Washington and Lee coming up at the end of March, women undergraduate and law students took part in a training program, "Elect Her: Campus Women Win," designed to encourage increased participation in the political process on campus.
"We want to see more women running for office," said Jill Fraley, assistant professor of law and organizer of the program, "and I hope to see a tangible and immediate increase in female candidates during this round of elections."
"Elect Her" is a national initiative of the American Association of University Women. Launched in 2010, the program "aims to close the long-standing political leadership gender gap by empowering and training women to run for office at all levels."
Fraley believes the issue is especially critical at a school such as W&L, which was all-male until 1972 (for the Law School) and 1985 (when it admitted female undergraduates). Women students excel in the classroom and lead many organizations on campus, but they are under-represented in student government. In recent years, said Fraley, "the number of women running for student government has, in fact, declined."
While the University is composed nearly equally of men and women students, women are under-represented in the two primary governing boards, composed of students, that oversee policy and student conduct. The Executive Committee currently has one undergraduate woman and two law women serving out of 13 members. And since 2008, women have participated in the Executive Committee at a rate of only 7 percent, or four out of 54 students. The Student Judicial Council has had no woman chair for the past six years (records do not go back further).
The idea for the training arose from a discussion among Fraley and the co-presidents of the Women's Law School Organization (WLSO) at W&L's School of Law—students Monica Tulchinsky and Haley Schaefer. "They asked me for ideas for developing their service commitments and mission to promote women, so I raised the issue of inadequate representation of women in our campus-wide student government," said Fraley. "I suggested that WLSO apply to the AAUW for a grant to provide this training."
The AAUW “Elect Her” program emphasizes that students who want to become involved in the political process run for office on their campuses first. "Women need to get something small and manageable under their belt, so that later on they could potentially consider running for office after they've graduated," Fraley explained.
The AAUW selects 10 colleges or universities to support each year, providing everything from meals and travel to accommodations and all materials. They also sent a facilitator to W&L for the program.
"The AAUW facilitator showed the students what kinds of messages you can develop that fit into the sound bites that work for a political campaign, plus the basic things that people who have never run a campaign before just don't know about," said Fraley. "Essentially, within the day, they campaigned with the other women there. It was a simulated exercise of sorts. We also had a communications speaker who talked about how to get your voice out, get your message heard, using Internet tools, blogging and things like that to write about the issues that concern you."
Other speakers included Mimi Elrod, the mayor of Lexington; Toni Locy, the Reynolds Professor of Legal Reporting in the W&L Department of Journalism and Mass Communications; and Virginia women alumni who work in politics.
"The talks by Mimi Elrod and Toni Locy about their personal experiences were very inspiring and motivating," said Tulchinsky. Another attendee, sophomore Sally Platt, a politics major, wanted to learn the nuts and bolts of running a campaign. "It was great to hear from fellow students what it is really like to campaign," she said." I also learned that you must compromise a lot in politics."
Fraley is pleased that the WLSO ran the program for female students. "Our training was filled with women who are engaged in their communities and committed to their futures," she said. "I'm excited to see what they'll do in the future—which, hopefully, will include running for office. I spoke with many of the attendees, and they seemed very grateful for the opportunity and excited to hear that we expect to do this again next year."