She Should Run, a nonpartisan organization that aims to help more women run for public office, exists for a pretty straightforward reason. Women are 51 percent of the population but account for just 21 percent of the Senate, 19.3 percent of the House of Representatives, and 12 percent of governorships. And of the 105 women in the 115th Congress, just 38 are women of color.
While the organization has been around since 2011, it experienced a surge in interest after the 2016 election. (It would be impossible for me to speculate why.) Since then, according to founder and CEO Erin Loos Cutraro, about 15,000 women have joined the She Should Run community, with 11,000 of them saying they want to run for office. Their new campaign, launched this week, aims to bring that number up to 250,000 by 2030.
To try and accomplish what is an admittedly ambitious target, the organization provides mentorship and skills training to women interested in holding elected office, whether it’s a local or national seat. The basic idea is to build out the kinds of networks and pipelines that have long existed for men, but fill them up with women instead.
Having more women in politics is a good thing, but also not the same thing as having politics that better serve more women. So I reached out to Cutraro to talk about gender, representation and its limits, and the whether or not She Should Run could ever be an incubator for, say, the next Donald Trump.
Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
So 250,000 women in 13 years is an incredibly ambitious target. What does the ground game for something like that even look like?
So much of the work of She Should Run is really based on the very clear research that shows that women are not recruited and encouraged to run for office at the same rate as men. Yet, it is also very clear that, when women run, they win at the same rate as men. So we really need to dive deep into what’s needed to propel them forward and get them on the ballot, and that’s not going to happen overnight. There has to be an ecosystem to support them. In terms of a game plan, you know it really falls into three main areas for us. One is about mentorship, so we’re calling on some veterans of the campaign trail to help us. The second piece is organizing women in the community. Since election day, we’ve had 11,000 women indicate [to us] they want to run. There are some really incredible leaders in those groups, some of which aren’t thinking about running for a very long time but are prepared and willing to organize within their communities. And then the third big component is really building out the resources that will help make the process seem more doable, seem more approachable. It’s skills-based. These women really want to hear the stories of others who did it.
Where does money come in here? Beyond women’s tendency to self-assess as less qualified to run and the lack of recruitment, is the financial barrier to running for office different for them than it is for men?
Yes, absolutely. Look, money is a reality. In our political system right now, it requires, depending on the level of office that you’re running for and what kind of name recognition you need in order to get elected, there’s a direct correlation there with generally the amount of money that you spend to run a winning race. And so most certainly as women come into the community and they’re exploring the idea of running for office, fundraising is one of those kind of key flags that comes up often. A fear of fundraising—that it could potentially be overwhelming to go out and ask for money.
Recruitment, or I guess the lack of recruitment among women, must play a role here too, right? If you’re being tapped by a party or a well-financed local network to run, then there’s probably some expectation that it will open the money doors. Does She Should Run work on that piece—interacting with the people who already have the money and networks to make that kind of thing happen for someone?
Because we’re really about building the talent pool, and as a 501(c)3 we can’t actively fund campaigns, we help give women the skills and abilities they’ll need to make those asks. For us it’s about demystifying that process. This is a different experience for women. There is that boys network that is very real, and that is very supportive of male candidates. So we really have to invest in the side of building that ecosystem [for women].
I know you guys are nonpartisan, but when there’s political rhetoric right now that is violent, explicitly racist, I wonder if there’s a kind of candidate who can’t be in your incubator? Representation, and bringing more women into office, is certainly important, but does it matter here that the woman is looking to policies that put the ladder down for other women as opposed to pulling it back up?
Well that’s one of the core values at She Should Run, that women who come into the incubator know immediately that this is a community about lifting other women up. That’s not for everyone! But what I think is really compelling is that because we are a nonpartisan organization, we’re able to make the point that no one can run for office on their own, it takes a community, and our community is one that transcends state lines, it transcends party lines. Women are coming to She Should Run because it is a unique experience to run for office as a woman. We offer perspective at the table when policies are made, but we also have different experiences on the campaign trail. The system was not built for us. So being able to share those stories, I think that takes somebody who is absolutely committed to seeing other women succeed. It is what lights us up in our work every day, to see the exchanges that happen in the private community. And women who identify from all political parties are jumping into the conversation. What’s important about that is, we are doing a disservice to suggest to individuals who want to run for office that they can do so in a bubble. That they’re only going to talk to people who are just like them. So we have to branch out, we have to be able to talk to other women who don’t agree with us on all the issues.
So if someone comes to you and is like, I want to be the next Sarah Palin.
I mean, look, there are always going to be women who the community isn’t right for. And I would say those are the women who aren’t interested in being part of a community that lifts women up. There are women where that is not what motivates them, it’s not why they’re getting into politics. And there are other places for them to engage.
I know there’s research to suggest that women govern and legislate differently than men. Women tend to be more likely to co-sponsor bills or collaborate on legislation, as an example. This might feel true for someone like Susan Collins in the Senate, but then you have Joni Ernst as a more traditional partisan. I wonder what you make of this—are women actually different?
I think it’s pretty undeniable that women bring a unique set of perspectives to the table. They live their lives differently, they’re experiencing a very male-dominated power structure differently, and because of that I think it’s not surprising to see the research that says that women are more collaborative. It’s not surprising to see research in the business world that when you add women to boards organizations are more successful financially. What’s most important at the end of the day is having a government that’s representative of the people, and we cannot possibly have that if 51 percent of the population is women and yet such a small percentage is serving in elected office. There’s a fundamental disconnect. I think there’s always going to be a wide spectrum, there’s no One Woman who represents all women and women’s perspectives. Nor do we want that. But I think it’s in everyone’s interest to build the talent pool of women who are running. Because we want to be in a position where you’re not going to the polls an thinking, I want to be able to support that one woman who is running. I want to select between many women who are running and I get to pick the one who identifies most with the issues that matter to me. That’s the democracy I want to live in.