"We had a year, and that passed quickly, and that was a long time ago," said Marie C. Wilson, president and founder of The White House Project, a nonprofit group that trains women and encourages them to run for office. "We don't need a Year of the Woman -- we need a concentrated way that we get enough women into leadership positions in this country so that it's normal."
In 1916, Montana's Jeannette Rankin -- a Republican -- became the first woman elected to Congress. As the only woman, she was among those who voted to ratify the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. But Rankin's vote against World War I cost her the U.S. Senate race in 1918. She was re-elected to the House in 1940 and voted against Franklin Roosevelt's declaration of war, becoming the only member of Congress to oppose both world wars.
In those early years, Republican women in Congress often outnumbered their Democratic counterparts.
And it wasn't until the early '90s that Democratic women began consistently and significantly outnumbering their GOP counterparts.
"I come from an era where there were really socially progressive Republican women," Wilson said. "I think there are many women in that party who are looking for a way to be socially progressive and win, and be fiscally conservative."
Most of the women running in 2010 would have to win to achieve Wilson's goal: a Congress that's 51 percent female.
"You need to have parity or at least a third" to effect real change, she said.
Some 10,000 women have been through The White House Project's training sessions around the nation, in which they learn how to organize campaigns, debate issues and build coalitions.
"We make women visible," Wilson said. "We work with women in corporate America to make sure women can advance up those ladders, too."
Some women go on from the training to seek local offices, such as school board or city council. Others run for state legislatures or Congress.
While the organization describes itself as "progressive" on its Web site, it doesn't ask program applicants about their views on issues. "We train women regardless of their stance" on abortion rights, said project spokeswoman Kristina Goodman. "But most of the women who train with us, Republicans and Democrats, are pro-choice." That may be because the training sessions are offered in urban areas, where populations tend to be more pro-choice than in rural areas, Goodman said.
About 7 percent of the 10,000 women who've gone through training have run for office, Goodman said, but regional coordinators don't believe any included opposition to abortion in their platforms.
Wilson said she wanted to see female candidates who support laws that benefit women -- laws improving child care, health care, education. "I don't want abortion to be the only litmus test, for God's sake," she said.
Back to Sarah Palin, who ignited this debate with her frequent use of the "f-word" last month. I'll give her this: In 2008, she got my South Carolina nieces and plenty of other women interested in politics. I hold out hope that once people are interested, they also take the steps to become informed and even involved. Certainly, Palin motivated many of my Colorado girlfriends to get involved, not only in protesting her appearances but in getting out the vote. A couple of them are now involved in city government.
"The more women who are out there and the more women who are seen as running, the more women who have children and are running, the more women in the South who are running," Wilson said, "it does encourage more women."
Last week, I asked Cecile Richards, former deputy chief of staff for Speaker Nancy Polosi, founder of America Votes, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, about this year of women -- and what her mother, the late former Gov. Ann Richards of Texas, would think.
"I don't know what mom would think," she said. "But my guess is kind of my reaction, which is I'm just glad there are more women running . . . It will benefit more women overall. Women are better on women's issues by and large."
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