Servicewomen Closing Gender Gap in Politics

Once more into the breach, dear friends: Tammy Duckworth has officially announced her candidacy for Congress, hoping to achieve a victory that eluded her in 2006. Duckworth, an Iraq veteran who resigned last month as Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, continues to serve as a major in the Illinois National Guard. And her commitment to service is at the heart of her motivation to run. 

“There are plenty of folks in Washington who serve political ideology and personal ambition,” she explained in a statement announcing her candidacy. “I want to continue serving our country.”

Ideally, running for office should always be about serving one’s country, and military service seems to be the most frequently cited indication of political candidates’ commitment to serve. This makes sense, because polls consistently show that Americans trust the military more than any other institution, including Congress, which recently ranked last with only 12% of respondents expressing confidence (compared with 78% for the military.)

When the World War II generation entered the political arena, military service was practically a prerequisite (by 1969, three out of every four members of Congress had served in uniform), and candidates continue to showcase their service today. Until recently, however, women had little opportunity to serve in the military, and few female candidates could point to their service to demonstrate their commitment to the country.

Duckworth, then, is the prototype of a new kind of political candidate – the female combat veteran. Women have played increasingly important roles in all of our nation’s wars, and most recently have been serving on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, experiencing the same challenges, hardships, and casualties as their male counterparts. For several decades, women have been blazing trails in many institutions that were previously dominated by men.

But unlike the women who have struggled to succeed in business, for example, women in the military have no expectation of monetary reward or fame, only the opportunity to serve their country. This selflessness and resolve is exactly what we need more of in our elected officials.

Thus far, there have been only three veteran Congresswomen I’m aware of: Heather WilsonSandy Adams, and Catherine Small Long. However, when Veterans Campaign recently created a database of veterans in state-level office, we found many more female veterans than expected, given that women are so underrepresented in both the military and in elected office. This indicates that female veterans are well-positioned to become a major force in American politics. 

Moreover, military service helps answer a perennial and often successful (if unfair) charge against female candidates: that they are not tough enough. Don’t expect Duckworth’s presumed opponent, Congressman Joe Walsh, to use this line of attack. It would be politically suicidal to question the mettle of a candidate like Duckworth, who still competes in marathons using a hand crank wheelchair, despite having lost both her legs in Iraq in 2004 when insurgents shot down the helicopter she was piloting.

recent study showed that 92% of returning veterans want to continue serving their communities. And a report by the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers showed that women generally don’t consider running for office until asked to do so. With more and more women serving in the military today, chances are you know at least one woman who has served in the armed forces. If you think she’d make a good elected official, consider telling her that our country still needs her service, and ask her to consider running for office.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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Seth McCormick Lynn

Seth is the director of the Center for Second Service at GW University's Graduate School of Political Management, which trains military veterans to run for elected office. The program grew out of Veterans Campaign, a nonpartisan organization Seth founded while in graduate school. Prior to founding Veterans Campaign, Seth served for six years as an Amphibious Assault Vehicle Officer in the Marine Corps. Initially stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, Seth deployed to Kuwait, Iraq, and Japan, and also participated in the Indonesian tsunami relief effort. Before leaving active duty in 2008, Seth spent two years overseeing a Marine Corps Reserve Center in Tampa, Florida, where he supervised the combat deployment preparations of several Marine Reserve units, and spent two summers studying intensive Arabic at Middlebury College. Seth graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 2002 with a degree in Political Science, and recently earned a Masters in Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he focused on international relations, national security, and politics. Still a member of the Marine Corps Reserve, Seth assists the Marine Corps’ recruiting efforts as a recruiting support officer.

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