Women win elections, but first they have to run

Susan Dabaja, a Lebanese-American lawyer and mother of three, had never run for public office. But she wanted to bring more jobs and quality public services to her Dearborn, Michigan, community, so she ran for city council.

Not only did she win, she got more votes than all other candidates and became Dearborn’s first Arab-American city council president in 2014.

Dabaja, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon in the late 1970s, credits old-fashioned, door-to-door campaigning, a supportive husband and another hardworking Lebanese-American woman, Mallak Beydoun, who ran her campaign. “The majority of my other volunteers were female as well, and what was exciting was having ladies in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who had emigrated from Lebanon and were excited to be involved in the democratic process here in the U.S.,” Dabaja said.

Dabaja’s election is one of many firsts for women in American politics. Women currently hold a record 20 seats in the U.S. Senate, 88 seats in the House of Representatives and more than 2,000 positions as governors, state legislators and mayors.

Harnessing the female vote

Women had the right to vote in some states in the 19th century, but full suffrage was not extended to women until 1920 through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Female voters have an enormous influence on elections, whether the candidates are male or female. Women don’t necessarily all vote the same way, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but candidates pay attention to their preferences and interests. Why? More women than men have voted in every single presidential election since 1964.

Balancing politics with gender

The two major political parties are still trying to elect more women.

The problem isn’t that people won’t vote for a woman — it’s that many women need to be convinced they are qualified to serve, says Marcy Stech of EMILY’s List, an organization that recruits and helps Democratic women to run for office.

“What we see is that when women run, women win,” said Stech. “But they need to be asked.” Many also need to be reassured that they can have a political life and a family life.

Republicans have their own program, called Project GROW, to recruit more women to run for office. It helps would-be candidates organize and fund their campaigns and matches new female candidates with mentors, says Andrea Bozek of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Being female can be a real plus, adds Rae Chornenky of the National Federation of Republican Women. “We’re told consistently that women have a greater responsiveness to citizen needs.”

A woman’s election can have a big impact on the younger generation. Dabaja’s daughter Joel, then 10 years old, approached Beydoun after Dabaja’s win, asking Beydoun to be her own campaign manager.

Joel plans to run for city council when she grows up.

Adapted from an article by freelance writer Susan Milligan.