New Jersey needs more women in public office. Currently, women hold just two of New Jersey’s 14 congressional seats and 42 of the 120 seats in the State legislature. On a local level, only 29.9 percent of municipal positions throughout New Jersey are held by women. While 1994 marked the year New Jersey finally elected its first woman governor, no other woman has since been elected to that position.
Of course, the lack of women in New Jersey government is not a new issue; nor is limited to this pocket of the U.S. Rather, this concern is so pervasive and persistent that the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, has spent the last 50 years trying to bridge the gap in women’s political participation. “Our research has long shown women lawmakers bring distinctive life experiences, priorities, and leadership styles to their work,” state director Debbie Walsh and associate director Jean Sinzdak of CAWP. “Women make government more transparent, inclusive, and accessible. All this means that, more than ever, women’s voices are needed in the halls of government.” In addition to producing and analyzing leading research and data about women’s political engagement, CAWP organizes nationally recognized education and outreach initiatives, one of which I recently had the pleasure of attending: the Ready to Run® New Jersey conference.
Launched in New Jersey 25 years ago, Ready to Run® has hosted more than 5,000 women as part of its non-partisan campaign training program. “We know that it’s changing Garden State politics: over a quarter of Ready to Run® alumnae have run for office, and of those who ran, 70% won their races,” explain Walsh and Sinzdak. “When we first launched Ready to Run®, New Jersey ranked 39th in the nation for women serving in its legislature. In 2023, the Garden State ranks 21st.”
After weeks of counting down to the two-day conference, which took place at the Douglass Student Center at Rutgers – New Brunswick, I was delighted to be embraced with warm smiles upon arrival. Given that Ready to Run® had been held over Zoom since 2020 due to the COVID19 pandemic, the excitement in the air toward being back in person was undeniably palpable. Within minutes of mingling before the programming officially began, I found myself surrounded by an incredible, diverse group of women of various ages, races, ethnicities, professional backgrounds, and political interests. It was then that I knew I was in the presence of inspiring trailblazers.
As a second-year law student, I am immensely curious about governmental affairs and eager to become more politically engaged, but I am not yet technically ‘ready to—immediately— run.’ Yet, this barrier of time proved not to be a problem in the slightest, which is one of the many gems of the conference. Whether you’re a current or future candidate, a longtime activist, or simply an intrigued political observer, all women are welcome. What served as the link was the group’s openness and keen enthusiasm in determining our own unique next steps in public leadership.
Indeed, CAWP crafted its Ready to Run® curriculum to cover an array of insightful topics, offering participants the option to choose which type of seminars and workshops best fit their current need—either lectures and panels catered for (1) those who are currently positioning themselves for elected office, or (2) those who are not yet ready to run but still desire to have an impact on important state and local governmental issues. Though I consider myself to be more aligned with the second track, I chose the first out of mere curiosity. What would it take to run for office? What specific digital strategies must candidates know for campaigning? How would I develop concise yet persuasive messaging? If I did one day run, how would I even structure a campaign plan, effectively establish myself as a candidate, all while mobilizing voters? What steps would I need to take to gain my party’s support? And, of course, the million-dollar question: how would I productively fundraise? Fortunately, clarification was provided for all these questions by renowned experts in this field, as well as current women elected officials, including the New Jersey Senate Majority Caucus Chair, several New Jersey assemblywomen, county commissioners, clerks, township councilmembers, and deputy mayors.
What’s more, during the mini breaks between sessions, participants from the different tracks swapped useful information and discussed key material takeaways with one another to further foster learning. It was camaraderie at its finest. Just as I had hoped, I left Ready to Run® fueled with encouragement and inspiration. Though I entered the conference not knowing a single individual, I walked away with countless connections, in addition to gaining invaluable skills and a trove of supplementary resources I look forward to utilizing, no matter which direction my political path leads.
I am honored to now be considered a Ready to Run® alum and am immensely grateful to CAWP for not only providing this opportunity, but also making it widely accessible and affordable. Specifically, while similar campaign trainings throughout the country charge hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, this organization has consistently galvanized generous sponsorship for Ready to Run®, allowing the conference cost to remain at $175 (which includes all meals and materials). Scholarships and student discounts are also available.
Moreover, to further enhance the program’s inclusiveness and strengthen the overall political clout of women, CAWP welcomes all who are interested to attend its flagship New Jersey program, not just New Jersey residents. That said, it has also built an extensive Ready to Run® national network, in which partners across more than 20 states now facilitate state-specific Ready to Run® conferences spanning the country, so that geography never has to stand in the way of a woman’s ambition to campaign and become politically involved.
“Research has also shown that women, more than men, need to be asked to run for office. Yet we know women are far less likely than their male counterparts to be asked to take that step,” explain Walsh and Sinzdak. “So, consider this your invitation: we need you to run for office! And if that’s not your plan, find women you admire and help them run.”
As someone who recently finished the training, I cannot recommend it enough. Whether you are contemplating an appointed position or simply seeking a rewarding two-day experience, this is it.