If women represent half of the U.S. population, why are so few women in elected office? In fact, less than a third of the country’s elected leaders are women. Take Florida, for instance, with a population of more than 10 million women, only 34% hold elected seats in the state and Florida has never had a woman governor or U.S. senator.
Two women are running for the governorship in the upcoming midterms, Nikki Fried and Annette Taddeo. That’s the most women since 2018 when Gwen Graham ran for the position. So while women nationwide are half of the population, several groups are working to bring more to elected office and are starting early by exposing girls and young women to politics. The sooner, the better, they say.
Washington, D.C.-based Running Start is one of the organizations supporting and inspiring young women to run for office. Susannah Wellford, a former Senate aide and Clinton White House staffer, founded the nonprofit in 2007 after launching the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC) in 1999 and seeing what she said is a missed opportunity.
“Susannah kind of came to the conclusion, looking at research, talking to experts, talking to elected officials, that young women who are younger than 40 actually need to get started as early as possible to actually build leadership skills, the capabilities and the confidence to be able to run for office later on in life,” said Running Start communications and program director Serena Saunders.
For Running Start’s founder, doing so meant reaching out to girls in high school through its first program, Elect Her, and the congressional fellowship. The high school program was the first initiative at the organization. It gets teen girls their foot in the door as soon as possible.
Girls spend the summer learning how to run for office, which includes how to raise funds and how to write a press release, among other skills. They learn from high-level political mentors and other women in Congress how to apply the skills they learn in the program to succeed politically.
“We bring in speakers and trainers who actually teach hands-on,” Saunders told SFMN. “This is how you run a campaign. This is how you fundraise. So we have them competing in a campaign simulation against each other.”
Many alumni of the high school program say it helped them gain what they call the three c’s on Running Start: confidence, connections and capabilities.
Program participant Sandra Ochoa, 17, is a high school senior from Miami.
“It was such a nice environment,” Ochoa said. “It was just so positive. It was all girls my age who had a similar passion for politics, so it was always so collaborative.”
She credits Running Start for helping her secure internships because it is such a well-respected program, and employers notice it on her résumé.
She says that before the program, she struggled with anxiety, and the encouraging attitude of her peers and mentors helped her confidence levels rise.
She gained skills that transferred over into other internships.. Since her time at Running Start, Ochoa has participated in three other civics and political-related internships at only 17 years old.
“I got to learn skills that you don’t learn until you’re in a position like an internship,” Ochoa said. “It was things like how to write a fundraising email. It just made me feel so much more prepared and I had so many other skills to list on my résumé.”
She feels that running for office in the future could now be a real possibility for her.
Another high school program participant, Aminah Syed,17, also feels that Running Start gave her the skills and confidence she needs to kick start her career.
Though she is not sure if she wants to run for office as her main focus is journalism, she feels the program gave her the tools to pursue political journalism.
“I’ve thought about running for office before and I also believe journalism is probably the best for me,” Syed said. “I like journalism a lot better because it helps democracy in a different way than a senator or (member of) Congress. But with Running Start, it is definitely something that crossed my mind.”
Syed is half Pakistani and a Muslim. Through Running Start, she was able to meet mentors who are also Muslim and understood her experiences.
“I was able to meet two amazing Muslim women,” Syed said. “And we also got to hear from different people of color. It made me feel confident that there were people like me who believe the same things as me and are working towards that goal.”
The second program Running Start provides is Elect Her, a day-long workshop that teaches how to make a successful elevator pitch, refine your public speaking skills, and develop a platform. These are skills all aimed at developing a successful elected official.
“It’s generally a three-and-a-half-hour-long workshop where we run through a couple of exercises such as teaching young women how to run for student government,” Saunders said. “So they actually get to better understand why they should run for office.”
During the workshop, they practice networking and asking others for help on their campaign. Just like the high school program, they also have a campaign simulator with a primary and general election. At the end of the workshop, they elect a winner.
Another program is the Congressional fellowship. This is for college seniors or recent graduates looking to learn first-hand how things work in Congress. In the semester-long program, fellows travel to Washington, D.C., and receive housing and a stipend.
“So we bring in mentors and speakers and trainers to teach the young women in the fellowship program how to run for office and really getting to network in D.C. and hopefully beyond,” Saunders added. “There is also the same kind of training I’ve been talking about.”
Running Start has trained 153 Congressional fellows since 2009. The fellows have worked for more than half of the women in Congress and in over 85 different offices.
Running Start alumni include Illinois Representative Lauren Underwood, the youngest Black woman elected to Congress; Shannon King, the youngest-ever elected official in West Lafayette, Indiana; and congressional candidate Rana Abdelhamid of New York.