Women’s History Month – Careers In Politics

There never will be complete equality until women themselves
help to make laws and elect lawmakers. ~ Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)

Although it took nearly three-quarters of a century, American women made good on Abigail Adams’s threat in 1776 to her husband, John Adams, as he participated in the creation of the United States Constitution: “…we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” Once underway, that rebellion — begun at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 — lasted another nearly three-quarters of a century, but it resulted in the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, which guaranteed all women nationwide the right to vote. Prior to that, each state decided whether to grant women the right to vote, and, shockingly, some states actually revoked their right. But many states did grant women the right to vote, and it was in 1917 that a leader in the suffrage movement of one of those states, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, became the first woman elected to Congress.

But ninety-nine years later women still do not have equal representation in elected and appointed offices in American government! In the current 114th Congress, women represent about 20% of the total membership in each chamber. Women have largely been absent in the Cabinet; in 2016 out of approximately 22 positions only seven are held by women. Only six women are governors, in the states of New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and South Carolina. Increasingly, however, more women are being elected in mayoral contests and it is hoped that they will work their way up to state and federal elected and appointed positions.

The Female Discrepancy 

Just as in the private sector, the false assumption is that fewer women choose to run for political office because of family responsibilities and considerations; but the real reason is because they are not encouraged to do so! And, the reason more women don’t aspire to leadership positions in the private sector is, again, because they are not encouraged to do so. Yet, it was the women in Congress who averted a shutdown of the government in 2013, and it has become clear that if they had been in charge women could have averted the 2007 financial crisis; as it was, it was women who helped lead the U.S. and the world out of it.

So, if women are good at politics and business, why are they not being encouraged to pursue leadership roles? Why does this female discrepancy exist? It would appear that men are still in charge simply because they outnumber women in government just as they do in the private sector. That said, many sense that a sea change is occurring in politics against a backdrop of many older women, after a lifelong battle, finally reaching the highest levels of power in government and many younger women possessing a higher level of expectations for themselves regarding their careers.

What Does It Take

What does it take with regard to education to achieve a high elected office or high-level appointment? With 25 out of 44 presidents having earned a law degree, this profession traditionally has proved to be a pretty solid ticket to elected office. And throughout history, nearly 40% of those elected to Congress and about 30% of those appointed to the Cabinet (and 60% of those appointed as attorneys general) were trained or apprenticed as lawyers or were actual practicing attorneys.

Governors, as well, often have a legal background; they typically start on the road to the governorship by running for local offices and working their way up. Many governors were previously lieutenant governors.

Over recent decades a business background has also proved to be valuable and a trend that seems to be developing is to elect people from different occupations so that our representatives can be more in touch with what average Americans do for a living.

However, for women interested in pursuing a career in politics, building a background of knowledge in history (both world and U.S.), political science, public policy and law makes good sense. Armed with one or more degrees in these subjects you can begin your career by running for local office and working your way up to the top elected offices in the nation; begin clerking or becoming an aide to an elected or appointed official in local, state or federal government to learn the ropes; or become a leader in your chosen field — business, law, the military, law enforcement, medicine, journalism, real estate sales and development, public service, agriculture, heavy industry, academia, entertainment, environmental science, international relations, administration, sales, management and so on to position yourself to run for office or be offered an appointment to high office.

The Political Science Major 

A political science degree — whether undergraduate, graduate or doctorate — can prepare a woman to enter the political arena in many capacities. These might include employment as a government official (member of the White House top staff, for example); a candidate for public office; an appointee to a top government post; or a lobbyist for a major industry, non-profit or political group; or other exciting government careers.

One of the most famous women in politics today, Hillary Clinton, earned an undergrad degree in political science from Wellesley College, and went on to earn a Yale law degree; now she is poised to become the nominee of a major political party for President of the United States. Former Speaker of the House and member of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi also earned a poli-sci degree from Trinity College.

Girls in high school who aspire to majoring in political science in college can prepare by taking advanced courses in history, government, geography, speech and writing. The College Board lists a course in Advanced Placement American Government and Politics that covers the U.S. Constitution, political parties, the branches of government and public policy. And don’t forget those math courses, especially in algebra, statistics and precalculus. Joining clubs that specialize in debate and mock trials can equip girls with the leadership skills that are essential for a career in politics. At the college level, Model UN is a great activity in which to become involved.

Choosing a college that has a good poli-sci major can be challenging. Women must research and investigate the ins and outs to ensure that they are well positioned in a poli-sci major, as there are frequently discrepancies between the courses of study for women and for men within the major. Thus, not only is the poli-sci program itself important but also the culture of the college and its friendliness toward and support of its female students. There is a broad range of colleges that offer a poli-sci major, including the top colleges as well as many colleges and universities across the nation. There are also many affordable colleges as well as a few sources for poli-sci scholarships. A few years ago I had the pleasure to work with a group of top-notch college interns on a political campaign; some of these outstanding students were poli-sci majors at various institutions, including Manhattanville College, Pace University and Princeton.

Other Academic Pathways 

But a degree in poli-sci is not the only pathway to a career in politics. Just as there are various majors that will help you forge a career broadly in business, there are many that can qualify you for a career in politics and government service. Depending on your interests and strengths, they could include the aforementioned majors in history, public policy and law, but also economics and sociology. A combination could make you very competitive; for example, a student might earn an undergrad degree in poli-sci and a master’s degree in public policy, or an undergrad degree in sociology and a master’s in economics. Or you could consider a double major or double minor.

Among the people best equipped to help you figure out which courses will prepare you for undergrad and graduate school majors and degrees are high school guidance counselors, college academic advisors and college career counselors.

More Than a Major Is Required 

Lyn Nelson, Assistant Director of Internship Programs at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, offers this advice, “Whether or not students pursue a ‘related’ major, they should make sure that they can take plenty of courses with strong emphases on research, oral communication, and scholarly writing. These could include psychology and journalism.”

Lyn also points out that while having a directly related major is a very good idea, it has been proven that the best path to employment is networking and soft skills, and that might be most true in politics. “Because one can enter from practically any sector,” she says, “it’s really about who you know and can impress. For that reason I strongly recommend interning and volunteering for political officials and campaigns, as well as gaining experiences in advocacy, law, or research that helps a student become very familiar with political and social issues of interest to them.

“Because the industry is so often about being resourceful, students also want to show that they take advantage of things that are right under their noses,” Lyn advises. “To demonstrate this,” she says,” students should seek opportunities readily available to them on campus, such as clubs, activities, and alumni networking. Bonus points to students who can gain fundraising experience or successfully implement a program with very little funding, as these are critical skills in the political realm.”

Changing Course

Professionals who have begun or established careers in other fields but feel the lure of politics should build on their accomplishments, become top authorities in their fields, learn or hone their leadership skills, and network like crazy. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts earned a degree in speech pathology and audiology from the University of Houston and taught children with disabilities before earning a law degree from Rutgers and becoming a Harvard law professor; she later involved herself in consumer affairs and politics. Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina earned a degree in accounting from Clemson University and became a small business owner and fashion retailer before running for the South Carolina House of Representatives.

If your alma mater provides career counseling to graduates, take advantage of that resource! Remember, the President usually appoints to the Cabinet Secretaries and other high level appointees who are experts in their fields. That could be you!

The point is that there are a lot of academic and professional resources and opportunities out there for girls and women who want to pursue a political career. No matter what your age, education, background, occupation or economic status, if that’s what you want don’t let anything stop you.

 Until next time,


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