May 16, 2016

IGNITE Aims to Fire Up Political Ambition in Young Women

Reporting Texas

Susie McMinn gives a talk about the importance of voting at the 2016 IGNITE National conference in Dallas. Emily Gibson/Reporting Texas

Cindy Ramirez has been interested in politics since she was a ninth-grader.

That year, she joined the Dallas chapter of IGNITE, an organization that works to inspire more young women to become involved in politics.

Once at the University of Texas at Austin, Ramirez sought out the program again, and is now marketing director of the campus chapter.

Ramirez, 19, a sophomore majoring in international relations, said IGNITE gives her a chance to talk politics with like-minded women. She appreciates its focus on getting more young women to run for office – something they might not have considered.

IGNITE “breaks down the barrier,” said Ashley Bliss-Herrera, adviser to the UT chapter, who is also an assistant director for research and policy in the UT-Austin Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

“Running for office doesn’t cross a lot of girls’ minds because it sounds very intimidating and very out of reach, so [IGNITE] breaks that down for them and makes it attainable,” Bliss-Herrera said.

The UT chapter, founded last fall, is part of a national, nonpartisan organization dedicated to drawing more women into the political sphere. IGNITE — it is not an acronym — has chapters in Texas, California and Colorado and plans to expand to other states this year, its website says. Already, it has scored electoral success: in 2014, program participant Lori Droste won election to the Berkeley, California, City Council.

Women are underrepresented in elected offices, said Margo McClinton Stoglin, the organization’s Texas state director.

“We need more representation in politics to make sure our rights are advocated for,” she said. “It’s also just the right thing to do to encourage all people to have an equal seat at the table.”

The proportion of Texas legislators who are women has hovered around 20 percent since 1995, according to the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. The highest percentage was 23.8 percent in 2009.

At the local level, Travis County is an anomaly, Austin Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said. Seven of the 10 City Council members are women, as are three of the five county commissioners.

Tovo, who is not involved with IGNITE, said she saw the disparity firsthand while serving from 2011 to 2014 on the Capital Area Council of Governments , a regional planning organization serving Travis and nine surrounding counties. When she walked into a meeting, most of the officials in the room were men.

“That was a reminder to me that what we experience in Travis County isn’t necessarily true of the areas around us,” Tovo said.

Why don’t more women pursue politics? Whitney Harp, IGNITE’s Texas state program manager, gave five main reasons: lack of female role models, lack of encouragement, lack of time and money, sex discrimination and fear of losing.

If you ask a room full of kindergarten children who wants to be president, there will be an even distribution of volunteers from both boys and girls, she said. By middle school, most of the volunteers will be boys.

“They see other life factors pushing them into traditional gender roles, so they are less likely to pursue politics, which they are taught is a male-dominated field,” Harp said of women. “And it is a male-dominated field, but it isn’t a boy’s club. Women who run are just as likely to be elected as men; there just aren’t as many women running.”

While other political nonprofits provide professional development for older women and training for female candidates, Harp said IGNITE is unique in its focus on inspiring political ambition among women in high school and college.

IGNITE Conference attendees walk into a building on the SMU campus, getting ready to go to presentations. Emily Gibson/Reporting Texas

“One of the things we do is dispel the myth that you have to be born a certain way to pursue politics,” Stoglin said. “We introduce women to people who look like them, who come from backgrounds like them, and we make it realistic.”

Ramirez hadn’t thought seriously about pursuing politics until she joined IGNITE in high school. Now, she considers politics a viable career option.

Through IGNITE, “I gained a courage in admitting to myself that I had never seriously considered running for political office because I was scared of one day facing rejection for one, being a woman and two, being a minority,” Ramirez said. “Those fears gradually dwindled to only facts of who I am and with the help of my IGNITE advisers, I gained a stronger voice in my opinions.”

In Texas, IGNITE operates on 25 high school and college campuses. Each campus has its own initiative, ranging from civic engagement to pay equity and voter registration.

Financial support comes from corporations including AT&T and Mary Kay Inc., the Greater Irving Las Colinas Chamber of Commerce and private foundations.

The organization also hosts an annual statewide conference with workshops, seminars and discussions with women interested in politics. This year’s was held at Southern Methodist University in February.

“We are igniting tomorrow’s leaders,” Stoglin said in a speech to young women at the start of the conference. “And you are tomorrow’s leaders.”

The agenda included seminars on topics such as equal pay and the importance of voting. This year was IGNITE Texas’ fourth and largest conference.

“We are going to reach over 500 women this year,” Harp said. “So it’s just continuing to grow.”

Stoglin said gender-based attacks on female candidates can be discouraging to women considering careers in politics.

Hillary Clinton, running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been criticized for her hair, wardrobe and personal life. Republican candidate Donald Trump has accused her of “playing the woman card” to win votes.

On the Republican side, Trump attacked then-candidate Carly Fiorina because of her appearance, according to an article last year in Rolling Stone magazine which quoted him as saying, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”

“We are excited to see these role models. This is the first time in history we are this close to having a female president,” Stoglin said. “But for some women it is a deterrent because they see how brutal the world of politics can be.”  

Stoglin said IGNITE aims to help young women develop the confidence they need to confront that sometimes brutal world.

“We have to help women feel like they can go to battle and win, and they can compete,” Stoglin said. “And if they lose, they are still OK, and they’re still whole.”