Ready to Run
Ryanne Olsen, SSH’15, on why she's helping train more women to campaign for office.
In March, a photo of lawmakers gathered around a boardroom table went viral. The scene was unremarkable except for one detail: The lawmakers—who were discussing details of an overhaul of the Affordable Care Act—were all men.
The photo didn’t surprise Ryanne Olsen, SSH’15, executive director of Emerge Massachusetts, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for offices ranging from school board to the U.S. Senate. Olsen can recite from memory statistics about the dearth of female politicians in the Bay State. In the 229 years since its statehood, Massachusetts has elected only five women to the U.S. House of Representatives, one woman to the U.S. Senate, and has never elected a female governor. Only one-quarter of Massachusetts state legislators are female.
Similar statistics are mirrored in both red and blue states across the nation.
“Diversity matters, and female voices are not at the table right now in numbers that are anywhere close to the female population,” says Olsen, who has campaigned for both female and male candidates since she was a child growing up in a politically active Wisconsin household. “If women run for city council, maybe next they’ll run for state rep, and then for Congress. We want diverse and talented women at all levels.”
Emerge—an organization with offices in 22 states—offers women three-day boot camps or immersive, six-month trainings in campaign topics such as networking, public speaking, media strategy, and field operations. Since its 2008 launch, Emerge Massachusetts has trained 252 women; 54 percent ran or are currently running for office, and 57 have won so far.
We asked Olsen the about Emerge’s techniques, strategies, and successes.
Q: What makes a good candidate?
Sometimes people think they need to be a lawyer or a doctor or be from a certain socio-economic class to run. But there really is no education requirement and no professional requirement. You need to care about your community and be willing to put in the work. We’ll have a better government when we have people with different life experiences running for office.
ONLY 19% OF THE MEMBERS OF THE U.S. CONGRESS ARE WOMEN.—Inter-Parliamentary Union
In terms of qualities: It helps to have a thick skin, the ability to inspire others, and the willingness to ask for support. I’ve heard women say, “I can’t run because I’m too much of an introvert.” Or “I curse too much.” Or “I have embarrassing photos on Facebook.” Well, delete the photos or use them to show your humanity. Traits that seem like flaws aren’t always disqualifiers. We often put elected officials on a pedestal, like they’re unreachable, but they aren’t.
Q: What are the land mines and challenges faced by female candidates that male candidates don’t have to deal with?
To some degree, politics still is a boys club. Very rarely are men told that they are too loud or too shrill, but that’s something that woman candidates are told quite often. Men are also likely to make more money and be connected to other men who make money. Women don’t always have access to that level of power, so fundraising can be more difficult. Also, women are, by and large, the main caregivers for children and aging parents, which can cut into the time they can spend campaigning.
In the U.S., men in public office outnumber women by 5 to 1.
Q: Can you really teach someone to be a better candidate, or is an innate “you have it or you don’t” thing?
It is not “you have it or you don’t.” You can get better at networking and public speaking and knocking on doors and asking people for money. The thing you can’t teach is passion and commitment to making your community better. That’s what we look for. We’ve worked with and trained ministers, teachers, lawyers, scientists, public employees, and people who have never touched politics in their life. You don’t need a resumé identical to every other woman’s resumé.
Q: What are the most difficult skills for most candidates to learn?
It varies from woman to woman. Sometimes fundraising comes easy to them because they’ve been involved with campaigns before. Sometimes that’s a skill they need to develop. Some women have difficulty “pitching” themselves and their accomplishments. Women are not usually encouraged to brag about themselves, so we help them overcome that and practice touting their achievements. Emerge women who train together form powerful bonds, and they often help each other with fundraising or attending each other’s campaign events. So there’s this continual growth and feedback.
Q: Can you give an example of a female candidate trained by Emerge who had minimal political experience but waged a successful campaign?
Sabrina Heisey, an alumna of the Emerge Class of 2017. She is a mother of six and ran for School Committee in Dracut, Massachusetts, while completing the Emerge program. Between challenging a nine-year incumbent, being a vocal Democrat in a town that votes Republican, and openly campaigning to increase resources for the public schools, she faced an uphill battle. But Sabrina ran a strong campaign, stuck to her values, and won. It really shows the power of Emerge because she was newer to politics.