Women in Politics

Dorka Keehn's 'Binders Full of Women'

Dorka Keehn has a had a great year.  The national organization she co-founded, Emerge America—a major contributor to the growing numbers of Democratic women serving in public office—saw 17 out of 28 Emerge California alumnae in the San Francisco Bay Area win their November 2012 ballot race. That's a 61% success rate. Emerge America operates in 12 states nationwide, inspiring women to run for political office and then training them to run. All of these women are in good company.  A record 20 women will serve in the 100-member Senate, including Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI). And at least 81 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives will be women, among them Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) who will be the first openly gay U.S. Senator.

Ms. Keehn, who was also recently featured in the San Francisco Chronicle to showcase the mid-century modern furniture she designed, was kind enough to give us few minutes of her precious time.  We called her last week to hear just what this election means to her.

Do you believe having more women in the U.S. Senate will facilitate true bipartisanship?

"I have two thoughts on that: One is, yes.  It’s already apparent that the women in the Senate have a better relationship with each other, that’s already happening.  They’re having dinner together, talking about policies.  They’re ironing out issues together. It’s not that I don’t think men can’t do that, I just think that it comes a little more naturally for women.  I don’t know whether or not it’s hardwired or nature vs. nurture but it’s just the way women work. [On second thought], not all women in the Senate are progressive and want to share ideas.  There are some women who are lousy candidates and have lousy values.  But around ObamaCare and healthcare some women come across the aisle. And you see that with healthcare, education, jobs and the environment."

What are the benefits of bipartisanship for both democrats and republicans, if any?

"It’s unfortunate that the Republican Party has really become an extreme party. They’d rather shoot themselves in the foot, than take care of voters and important issues like healthcare and education. And so I think that we have to move beyond [The Republican Party] trying to take the president down and actually solve the problems that are important to the entire country. What I’m hoping is going to happen is that the more women who come into the position of power—bring different questions to the table. I think it’s important to have a diversity of people at the table of discussion."

Let’s talk about you and Emerge’s success in 2012, and with last week's election.

"For me, it’s kind of like watching our kids grow. Emerge California is 12-years-old and is now in 12 states. We'd like to get a new state every year. We have an amazing staff and board. The organization is no longer dependent on me anymore and we have other incredible women working for us. During this election, it was kind of like watching our seeds flourish into flowers.

Women in office tend to start on the ground level so now we're finally seeing them move up into office and into Senate seats. And now it’s rolling on its own power. We are now being viewed as an organization that not only trains women to run for office but training women how to win—people who have a major impact."

You are the only organizations of its kind, correct?

"Emerge America is the only company that actually trains women with a comprehensive program. There are other weekend programs as such and they are sort of like our feeders. Our goal is to be in every state. As far as Ignite goes, we are the only program out there doing an after school program for young girls. We want to train 250,000 girls by 2015. We really want to get young women to think about running for office and that actually being a career choice after college. Not just when they’re older and have had children and then decide to be on the school board. (That’s how most women’s political careers begin.) We want to create political ambition at a young age. But it’s definitely never too late to create a significant shift within women of all ages."

I love that "binders full of women" has taken the media and social media by storm. How do you think we can build upon that in a positive, less sarcastic way?

"Well I think we do want to create binders full of women so we do have a lot of options. For example, when you look at who’s on TV and who’s on the senate floor, you’ll notice who is represented there and how few women and people of color there are. When people are looking for board of directors for fortune 500 companies they need to have binders full of women to choose from. Often times you’ll hear the excuse that, ‘We can’t find them.’ But where are they looking and who are they asking—a couple of their buddies? So if we provide them with binders full of women and give them more options to choose from, we’ll see more women in those roles. I think we should use that metaphor in a positive way!"

Emerge California is having its 2013 Kickoff Reception Saturday, December 01, 2012, 6:30 PM at One Ferry Plaza Restaurant & Lounge (behind the Ferry Building) here in San Francisco.  If you'd like to keep the momentum going, or would like to support Emerge, sign up here.