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The Count: Pursuing Political Power

For over 20 years, some of the nation’s top political voices, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, and Barbara Lee, have visited AU to participate in the Women and Politics Institute at SPA.

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Four ambassadors to the US shared their stories from the world of diplomacy with WPI executive director Betsy Fischer Martin, far right.

The Count is a new This Week at AU feature.   

The influence of SPA’s Women and Politics Institute (WPI) has found its way into all levels and branches of government since its founding in 2000 by Jonathan N. Helfat Distinguished Professor of Political Science Karen O’Connor. 

Now under the direction of Betsy Fischer Martin, SPA/BA ’92, SOC/MA ’96, WPI has supported the current and next generation of female leaders through thousands of hours of programming, instruction, research, and events. And the mission has been contagious, drawing to campus political power players and thought leaders from the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. 

The speakers have included those who’ve reached the top echelons of the government: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI). 

But WPI has also hosted those still on the ascent. Senators Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) visited while serving in the House of Representatives. Journalist Ronan Farrow moderated a book discussion in 2015, three years before winning a Pulitzer Prize for reporting about the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. And Muriel Bowser, SPA/MPP ’00, came to campus before she was elected DC mayor in 2014. 

Fischer Martin has continued to bolster programming, launching the Lunch and Leadership event series in 2022 to bring together small groups of students for informal discussion with leaders, including political advisor and Obama administration alumna Jennifer Palmieri, SPA/BA ’88. 

“We try to fire on all cylinders when it comes to our mission of closing the gender gap in politics,” Fischer Martin said.  “We work with students via our academic courses and on-campus leadership lunches, young professional women via our WeLead program, and we engage a much larger community via our WeLead Reader, Women on Wednesdays online programming, and our Gender on the Ballot research partnership.” 

As Women’s History Month winds down, here’s a look at WPI’s impactful work and influential guests, by the numbers. 

  • The nonpartisan WeLead campaign training program is in its 18th year, with more than 600 alumni working in corporate boardrooms or local, state, and national politics.

  • WPI's WeLead Reader, a curated newsletter about women in politics, reaches 11,400 subscribers weekly. 

  • At least 5 mayors have visited WPI, including WeLead alumna Ellen Kamei, mayor of Mountain View, California. 

  • Over the past 10 years, WPI events featured 30 current or former members of the House of Representatives, including WeLead alumna Lauren Underwood (D-IL) and WCL professor emeritus Jamie Raskin (D-MD). 

  • 13 female ambassadors from 5 continents have discussed women’s political representation in their countries. 

  • Key members from each of the past 5 White Houses have appeared at WPI events, including US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (Trump), former press secretaries Dee Dee Myers (Clinton) and Dana Perino (George W. Bush), and advisors Valerie Jarrett (Obama), Symone Sanders (Biden), and Valerie Biden Owens (Biden). 

  • Since 2020, WPI has hosted 55 Women on Wednesdays events featuring 86 speakers. More than 9,100 people have registered for the series. 

  • Gender on the Ballot, a research partnership between WPI and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, released in March its latest findings about the intersection of women, politics, and the workplace. According to the poll, 53 percent of women believe elected officials have let people down and 59 percent are pessimistic about the economy. 

  • WPI has offered an average of 13 core Women, Policy, and Political Leadership certificate courses over the past 5 years. 

  • Haley, also the former South Carolina governor, is the 1st former WPI guest to announce her candidacy for the 2024 presidential election. 

  • In 2022, WPI had 20 affiliated faculty members; 1,319 students have enrolled in WPI courses since 2018. 

Have an idea for the Count? Email editor Jonathan Heeter.