Feminism at the GOP Convention

August 2, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

The fact that I am bringing my women’s empowerment organization to the GOP convention has raised some eyebrows and sprinkled hate mail in my usually cheerful inbox.

Sixteen years ago, I helped create the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC) to support young women from all parties running for Congress. My work with the PAC illuminated a much larger issue: There were not enough young women of either major party running for political office. This realization led to the 2007 creation of Running Start, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to educating high school and college-age women on how and why they should run for office. At Running Start, my goal is to make elected office accessible and acceptable for young women, regardless of political party. My job is not to shape the political ideologies of these young women but to give them the confidence and tools they need to fight for the issues they believe in at the highest levels.

downloadThe Republican National Convention is a perfect place to spread the word about Running Start. The convention will be attended by politically minded women from all over the country who are interested in politics and curious about what it takes to run. There aren’t a lot of role models for women in Republican politics. Democrats outnumber Republican women 76 to 28 in Congress, and many conservative women tell me that it is refreshing to find a nonpartisan group interested in getting them elected.

The nonpartisan nature of my organizations has raised eyebrows before. Years ago, the head of a major women’s organization pulled me aside at an event to tell me, “Honey, we all say we are nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean you have to allow Republicans on your board!” There seems to be an unwritten rule that if you are working to empower women, you must be a liberal group. And even when women’s groups do support Republicans, many of them only open their doors to the pro-choice crowd. At a meeting of women’s organizations that I attended, a prominent Democrat declared that women who aren’t pro-choice aren’t real women.

I disagree. I made Running Start nonpartisan because I believe that electing women from both sides of the aisle is the key to a better functioning, more effective government. And the research bears me out: Women are more likely to cosponsor legislation across the aisle and to work harder to find common ground. The idea that only certain women should be encouraged to run is extremely counterproductive. There should not and cannot be a standard for how women in politics should think and act. Right now Congress is arguably the most divided it has ever been. The collective effect of having women in office is strengthened by having women on both sides of the aisle working together to sponsor legislation and push important issues otherwise left untouched. Bipartisan legislationsuch as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, The Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention Act, The Women’s Business Ownership Act and The Violence Against Women Act, to name a few, shows that regardless of a woman’s political ideology, she understands what is it to be a woman, and will legislate accordingly.

All of the Republican women I know believe in gender parity. As one of our alums, Antonia Okafor, told me: “Being a feminist and being conservative are not mutually exclusive. A conservative feminist believes that women should be able to reach any height because of ‘equal opportunity.’ True feminism does not diminish the role of men but rather focuses on the right of women to become everything they want to be.”

My goal at the RNC is to offer conservative young women a home where they can learn how to rise up in a party that doesn’t always do the best job to encourage women’s participation. There is no EMILY’s List for Republican women; they need all the help they can get to increase their numbers in politics.

Running Start’s presence at the convention is in no universe an endorsement of Trump. (In fact, as a nonprofit Running Start can’t endorse.) Trump’s misogynistic, racist rants are an affront to everything that Running Start stands for. My dislike of Trump isn’t a partisan thing’ it’s a moral thing. There have been plenty of strong Republican women who have spoken out against him, including Rina Shah who was removed from her position as a Washington, D.C. delegate as a result, and Kendal Unruh, a high school teacher and RNC delegate who raised $3.5 million to spread the message that convention delegates can and should vote their conscience.

We need to embrace strong female leaders who will force party officials to think about women’s issues and sponsor legislation that affects women. I am a Democrat, but my organization is not a reflection of my party views. Running Start embodies the idea that if Congress is a more representative body it will serve all people better. Staying home next week sends the message that Running Start doesn’t care about all women. So stop sending hate mail and come watch us inspire young women to run in Cleveland!

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

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