In 1998, women made up just 16.7 percent of New Jersey’s legislature—a percentage that  was more than cause for concern for the  members of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “We were the major national  center studying and promoting women’s participation in American politics, and frankly, it was embarrassing,” says Debbie Walsh, CAWP’s director. To help rectify the situation, CAWP launched Ready to Run, a bipartisan program that trains women to run for public office (the Ready to Run National Network now has 19 partners nationwide). With the 2017 and 2018 elections around the corner, Rutgers Magazine asked Walsh GSNB’80 about the current legislative prospects for women and how Ready to Run has been instrumental in improving them.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: How has the New Jersey legislature changed since Ready to Run was founded in 1998?

DEBBIE WALSH: Women now represent 30 percent of the legislature, and the state ranks 14th in the nation, up from 39th in 1998. We still face the challenge of a closed party system—in New Jersey, the parties are very tightly held by a handful of men who make the decisions about who’s going to run. 

RM: What’s your track record for actually helping to get women to run?

DW: Quite a few of the women who serve or have served in the legislature have participated in Ready to Run. About a third of the women who attend the program run for office at every level, and about 70 percent of those women actually win.

RM: Why is it important for women to run for elected office?

DW: Our research has shown that women bring a different set of life experiences to the making of public policy. They’re more likely to be transparent and to champion not just issues that affect women, families, and children, but also those that affect people who aren’t normally at the table in the same ways—low-income people and people of color, for example.

RM: Why is it still the case that far fewer women than men run for office?

DW: When we asked men and women serving in state legislatures why they ran for office initially, the men were more likely to say they had an interest in politics and a political career, while the women tended to tell us there was a problem they wanted to fix. That motivation often leads women to think about other ways to have an impact—because if you look at government the way it’s functioning, you might well think it isn’t the best place to solve a problem. So, a lot of women end up working for nonprofits, where they think they can have more of an impact. At some point women will start to say, “I want to be on the inside, where I can make systemic change.” That’s when they decide to run.

RM: Does Ready to Run recruit women to mount campaigns?

DW: Because we’re nonpartisan, we can’t do that. So, we cast a very broad net to spread the word about the program. We reach out to both parties, to the unions, to organizations of political women—to all kinds of groups that have women in them with the potential to run for office. We’re trying to get different kinds of women to think about running.

RM: What kind of feedback do you get from the women who attend Ready to Run?

DW: It’s overwhelmingly positive. They feel empowered when they leave, and they come away with that confidence that they need to run.