At least that was the takeaway Audrey Salgado wanted those attending Calhoun County’s Women Summit on Government Leadership to learn on Tuesday. Salgado, the chairwoman of the 2014 Alabama Project, a campaign to get more women into state-level political offices, said the biggest barrier preventing women from getting involved in politics is that people assume they don’t want to.
“The number-one reason women don’t run is because they’re not asked,” Salgado said. “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.”
None of the 30 or so women who attended Tuesday’s summit at the Hampton Inn in Jacksonville – the fifth summit for the project so far in 2013 — have that problem. Salgado made sure to repeatedly ask, “Have you considered running for office?”
The 2014 Alabama Project is an outgrowth of a national campaign started in 2010 at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. In 2012, the campaign was successful in boosting the number of women in congress from 16.8 percent to 18.3 percent.
“I like that it’s going up, but that’s still less than 20 percent,” said Laura Sojka, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Alabama and Tuesday’s guest speaker. “That’s incredible when you think that women make up half of any population base.”
The numbers are even less impressive for Alabama, which ranks 47th in the nation for women in state-level offices at 13.6 percent.
The goal for Alabama 2014 is to get that number to 20 percent, Sojka said. The strategy involves launching an education campaign to get women to run for open seats to avoid facing incumbents.
And asking as many women as they can, “Have you thought about running?”
“Research shows the average woman needs to be asked three times before she decides to run,” Sokja said. “You all know someone who would be great to run for an office. Ask them.”
It isn’t all just about asking, though. Anniston City Councilwoman Millie Harris said the lack of younger, female candidates is a cultural issue for many states in the South.
“Southern women are pleasers,” Harris said. “We don’t want to make waves.”
Sue Johnson, a member of the Calhoun County Democrats, said family tends to be another obstacle for women, who find it difficult to balance political aspirations with their home life.
“If you’re spending too much time with the family, you’re not doing your job, and if you spend too much time in the office, you’re a bad mother,” Johnson said. “That’s the worst thing you can say in the South is that you’re bad mother.”
State Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said a lot of women simply don’t know where to begin when it comes to running for office, nor are they offered a lot of support.
“When I was running I had so many people tell me you’ll never win,” Boyd said. “And these were people in the Democratic organizations saying that.”
It’s why events like Thursday’s summit can have a big impact on pushing women thinking about running for office to make the leap and start to campaign, said Calhoun County Revenue Commissioner Karen Roper.
“A lot of it is just making women realize they can do it,” Roper said. “A lot of times women lack confidence. But they start getting involved, start going to these types of meetings, and they realize they have enough intelligence to take on some of these positions.”
Most of the faces at the summit on Tuesday are familiar to those involved in Calhoun County politics. Besides Boyd, Harris and Roper, Hobson City Mayor Alberta McCrory and Calhoun County Democratic Chairwoman Sheila Gilbert attended.
But the lack of new faces doesn’t mean the campaign is simply preaching to the choir, said Lori Owens, chairwoman of the political science department at Jacksonville State University.
“They’re interested enough to be here so that’s a positive thing,” Owens said. “And a lot of them are interested in going to the next step, running at a state level.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.