Chelsea Asplund/The AS Review

Hilary McGowan can still remember when she was told she could never become a lawyer because she was a woman. She was 10 years old.

“Within recent years I’ve come to realize on my own that I am a woman, and that doesn’t mean I can’t be restricted from this. Being in politics means you have to be out there and be aggressive and be very sure of your ideas. And many women are either afraid of that, don’t think they can handle it or they simply don’t care about it,” she said.

On Sat. Feb. 12, McGowan and more than 30 other students took part in Elect Her, a training program designed for Western women interested in learning about women’s roles in politics and how to run for student government.

Hosted by the Associated Students Women’s Center, the program was awarded to Western by the American Association of University Women, a national organization focused on advancing women’s equity through activism that sponsors events, workshops and conferences all over the country.

Elect Her participants applaud speaker Danielle Howard during the event Saturday, Feb. 12. Photo by Daniel Berman/The AS Review.

Elect Her is specifically designed for empowering college-aged women to get involved in politics. The AAUW hosts only 10 of these conferences throughout the year and Western was one of two colleges in Washington state that were chosen.

Women’s Center Coordinator Lizzie Lamb said Western was the perfect candidate for the event, and while some people may not realize it, women are severely underrepresented on campus. While 55 percent of Western students are female-identified, only 14 percent are elected officials. This disconnect was the force driving the event from beginning to end, she said.

“There is so much scrutiny that women receive that men don’t [in politics],” said Lamb. “So it was really important for us to have a program to encourage women on campus with that kind of a confidence booster.”

That boost was incorporated through a series of activities, all focused on empowering female-identified students. One exercise, titled “What’s Your Issue?” required attendees to fill out a questionnaire acknowledging issues they have with Western and then what they have personally done toward resolving those issues. The purpose of the exercise was to see what participants had done about problems they have, discussing why they had tried to solve it, or why they had not.

Following the various activities, the participants were welcomed to a luncheon provided by University Catering, during which State Representative Kristine Lytton spoke about her experiences before, during and after her political campaign. She specifically spoke about the challenges she had to overcome and her experiences with gender discrimination, something she warned attendees they may unfortunately have to face.

“Define yourself before someone else does,” she said, recalling a moment during her campaign when her gender overshadowed her qualifications.

The second portion of the event focused on student elections, including campaign strategies, building a campaign team and the importance of having a message. The panel “The Nuts and Bolts of Running for SGA and Elect Her,” connected students to current and former Associated Students officers, such as current Vice President for Activities Alisha Beck and former Vice President for Diversity Kayla Britt. The panel offered students a chance to hear advice and words of wisdom from previous campaigns, and become familiar with the new election rules.

During one activity called “Elevator Speech,” participants gave a mock two or three-sentence speech they could carry through a real campaign. The group voted on a winner and held a staged election. Participants also learned how to properly shake someone’s hand, how to represent themselves in online media, as well how to find a key message and the importance of sticking with it.

McGowan said while some women in the room might be considering running for a position next quarter, there was no tension or competitive feelings in the room. She said she knew this when several girls confessed that they knew they needed to make a change with their lack of knowledge of current events, such as the BP oil spill.

McGowan said this is a key example of why women should not only be well-versed in what’s going on in the world, but they should have an opinion about current events as well. More than anything, she said Elect Her reminded her that confidence plays a significant role.

“Even if you don’t want to go into politics, it’s special to be able to have the confidence to tell people how you feel about things. I gained that confidence by working hard and deciding that I wanted to reach my goals for me and no one else,” she said. “When I believed that I could hold roles in important things, just putting myself out there, I found that confidence. All women should feel like that.”

Danielle Howard from the AAUW speaking during the event. Photo by Daniel Berman/The AS Review.

Beyond Elect Her, the AAUW also hosts leadership workshops, councils, campus action projects and an annual conference emphasizing women’s leadership roles through education, philanthropy and research.

Gwen Parker, a member of the organization’s Bellingham branch and a communications professional, said events such as Elect Her are special ways to not only talk about important issues, but also bring like-minded people together.

“Even if you are just exploring the idea of running for an office on campus or eventually later in life, you get to see that you are not alone. There are people thinking along the same lines, you can exchange ideas,” Parker said. “It’s a very special thing.”

Following college, Parker worked as a reporter for The Bellingham Herald and admired the AAUW from afar. She said was inspired by their events in the community she would cover, and she looked up to the women who had such active voices.

“Whenever I look at something and I don’t know whether I can do it or not, I think, ‘If all these people are doing it, why can’t I?’” she said.

Parker, now retired, moved back to the Bellingham area and got involved in the organization. Now working as their communications liaison, she said she enjoys coming to events like Elect Her and seeing the organization in action.

Lamb said that Elect Her was a great opportunity for students interested in running for a position next quarter, and offered them unique resources they normally would not find elsewhere. At the end of the five-hour day, she said she felt the event’s success and hoped that even those not interested in politics could take away something too.

“I really hope that participants take away real life skills. These are things you can use to run a campaign but they are also tools to get yourself a job, communicate with other people or present yourself in a way that people will listen to you and understand you,” Lamb said. “And ultimately, the biggest striving factor behind all those things is that self-confidence, and I’m really hoping that’s what people took away.”