April 29, 2014

When Mary Ellen Miller first ran for a public office in the 1980s - a trustee position for North Iowa Area Community College - she was told she should not run because she would embarrass her husband's parents when she lost.

She was told she would lose for two reasons: first, because she was a "suspect' woman for having not changed her last name when she married; second - because she was a woman.

She took this well-meaning advice in stride - and defeated her opponent on election day.

Though the cultural views of women have changed in the last 30 years, women remain underrepresented in political offices across the country, and particularly across Iowa - a state that has never sent a woman to Congress or placed one in the governor's seat - a distinction shared only with Mississippi, said Miller last week during an event focused on challenging this statistic.

Miller is the executive director of the 50-50 in 2020 organization - a statewide, bipartisan effort to see half of the Iowa Legislature seats filled with women by the year 2020. The organization, started in 2010 by Jean Lloyd-Jones, a former Democratic legislator from Iowa City, and Maggie Tinsman, a former Republican state senator from Davenport, works to train and recruit women for office - it does not endorse candidates or educate on issues.

The Carroll workshop, held Thursday evening at the Carrollton Centre, was designed to "NUDGE" women to run - No Use Denying Gender Equity.

The challenge in Iowa in the past two decades has not been facing off with men, but facing off with incumbents, said Miller. In the last 20 years, the gender bias in voting has disappeared, she said - women win and lose as often as men - when they run.

As longtime Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Tom Latham leave the Senate and House, respectively, women have a fighting chance at a seat in both congressional houses in the next two years, said Miller.

But only if they run.

That is the real difference between men and women - women must be asked or encouraged to run for office because it is not something they usually consider on their own, Miller said.

The 50-50 in 2020 organization collaborates loosely with the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University to train women how to run for office - where the Catt center provides training for local bodies such as city councils or county supervisor boards, the 50-50 organization provides training for women interested in running at the state level.

It also connects women with peers in the statehouse who act as mentors, providing both inspiration and guidance - "demystifying" the back halls and establishing common ground between women across party lines and legislative houses.

One of the most significant myths that hold women back from running is the belief that they must run a campaign like men - often more negative - but women can be successful running positive campaigns, Miller said. The organization recommends several books to help women understand this difference in communication styles between men and women.

In 2016, the organization hopes to have a program running to invite high school girls to the capital throughout the presidential election year - an effort that could "fill the pipelines" and encourage women at an even earlier age to count political leader among their career options, said Miller.

Sometimes the first step in getting involved can be serving on a city, county or state board - 50 percent of which must be filled with women as of 2012, said event host and local leader C.J. Niles. To learn what positions are available, contact the county auditor or a city clerk, or consult the state website, Iowa.gov.

Mary Bruner, a Carroll resident who ran for state Senate in 2012 but lost to Mark Segebart of Vail, shared her experience Thursday night, stating her belief that running a campaign is a great learning experience for women, win or lose.

"Women often think they're good worker bees, but don't want to be the leader," she said.

During her campaign, she knocked on more than 8,000 doors, learning how to "think on her feet." She also discovered a new network.

"It's overwhelming and humbling what people would do to support you," Bruner said.