Today's political climate radiates negativity and disorder. Voting, having our voices heard, and remaining strong is so important during such chaotic times. The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) is a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and is a leading source of scholarly research about women's political participation in the U.S. The Garden State Woman Education Foundation was able to speak with the director of CAWP, Debbie Walsh, about her leadership role and today's bitter political climate. During our interview, she discusses her career path and provides some advice on navigating current politics.
- How and why did you find your career path?
Walsh always knew she wanted to work in politics. She grew up in a very political family, where politics was frequently the subject of conversation at the dinner table. Her parents were deeply involved in social justice movements, including the anti-war, civil rights, and women's rights movements. While she is very interested in social justice issues, issues of gender and gender equity have always stood out to Walsh. Through college and graduate school, Walsh saw how severe the under-representation of women in politics is. She found it to be deeply problematic. Walsh also mentioned that growing up, her congressional representative was Bella Abzug, an outspoken feminist and one of the early women in congress during the women's rights movement. Walsh had grown up around women's politics and social justice issues. She is passionate about these issues and always has been. Growing up with this background and passion led Walsh into a career that would connect her to politics and social change.
- What has been the most satisfying part of your career as Director of CAWP?
Walsh has been at CAWP for over 40 years and has been the Director since 2001. During all of her years at CAWP, she has had many satisfying experiences. Being a part of creating a national community of elected women officials through CAWP conferences and seeing this community grow was definitely a highlight of her career. Another satisfying part of her career is the research that CAWP does, which helps shape the work of CAWP and other organizations to engage more women in politics. Walsh is glad that she can help create this social change through her work at CAWP. Additionally, Walsh finds satisfaction in the hands-on work CAWP does, including training women to run for office and administering programs for college women to educate them on public leadership and politics.
- What has been the most challenging?
The thing that has been the most challenging, Walsh shares, is the slow pace of change. She mentions that we are already in 2022, and we have yet to elect a women president and still only have nine women currently serving as governor. The slow pace at which women gain the representation they deserve takes a lot of patience.
- Do you think partisan decision-making is governing?
Walsh starts by saying that we currently live in hyper-partisan times, and compromise seems to be something that is harder and harder to reach. These present times of hyper-partisanship have led to gridlock, frustration, and a loss of faith in institutions. The extremism that we see, which seems to be more apparent on the right, is causing distrust of our institutions and is poisoning people's view of how the government works. Because of this, she continued, it seems like democracy itself is being challenged.
- Do you feel our democracy is threatened by the acrimony permeating today's culture?
"Absolutely," Walsh stated. "I fear quite a bit for our democracy." Walsh provided the example of republican congresswomen Liz Cheney, how she stood up for democracy and the consequences that resulted from her commendable actions. Walsh thinks our democracy is at risk and says that we must not take our democracy for granted. Having a strong democracy takes work and nurturing. We must respect our institutions and we must teach civics to young students so that children can understand how democracy works and learn to respect it. "This doesn't mean we need to agree with everything that happens in government," Walsh said, "But destroying our democracy is not the solution."
- Because New Jersey has little impact nationally, what message can you give to stress the importance of voting?
Walsh would argue that New Jersey has a great impact on elections. The importance of voting is that voting is where we can begin to have a say in who is representing us in Washington or Trenton, NJ. She explained that these members that we help elect make decisions on public policies, which have a direct effect on our everyday life. Not voting negates our right to complain about how things are run. Walsh stresses that we should participate as a voter and make sure to vote in the primaries and the general election.
- What advice would you offer to women currently in politics in this negative environment?
Walsh began by thanking women currently in politics and acknowledged how difficult it is to be active in this field in such a negative environment. Elected officials often experience verbal abuse and even threats of physical abuse. It is a scary time to be putting oneself out into the political world, and so Walsh would first like to express her gratitude for these women. The advice Walsh would give to these women is to make sure that they bring along more women to follow in their footsteps.
- How can we impact future generations with a kinder, gentler outlook?
Walsh says that impacting future generations begins with teaching young people early on about government and politics. We can impact future generations by teaching children about the concept of compromise, and how it's not a bad thing. We need to teach children about listening to and being respectful of both sides of an argument. In addition to this, children must be taught to feel empowered to disagree and stand for what they believe in without demonizing the opposing side.