Priti Rao currently serves as Executive Director of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, a multi-partisan, non-profit organization committed to maximizing the participation of women of all ages in the political process and to increasing the number of women appointed and elected to public office and public policy positions. Rao previously served as the organization’s Associate Director and most recently as Acting Executive Director. Rao is a Cum Laude graduate of Mount Holyoke College, where she majored in Politics and Spanish. She has coordinated field activities for Congressional and City Council races in New York. Here in Massachusetts she worked in the successful campaign of Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, the first woman elected to Congress in 25 years. As Acting Executive Director and Associate Director, Rao worked to design and execute strategic political and field support that helped fuel the successful election of 5 MWPC endorsed women to the MA House of Representatives in 2008, and the 2009 election of Ayanna Pressley to the Boston City Council, the first woman of color ever to serve on the Council in its 100 year history. Originally from upstate New York, Rao currently lives in Boston.
How great is the disparity between the political representation of men and women in Massachusetts? What do you see as the primary causes of this disparity and what are the greatest challenges to overcoming it?
Women account for only 24% of the Massachusetts legislature, and a only two thirds of MA municipalities have women serving in elected positions. Additionally, Massachusetts has never elected a woman as Governor or to the US Senate. This lack of gender parity is not because women are less likely to run successful campaigns – women candidates win with the same frequency as their male counterparts. The problem is that not enough women are running. Women are less likely to put themselves out there and run for elected office. We have found that women do not see entering public service as a beneficial career move in the same way men do. Women are more motivated to run for office when they are fighting for a particular issue that affects their families and communities, and is close to their hearts. At the MWPC we work we work to approach women on the basis the of issues they are passionate about, and convince them to pursue fighting for those issues in office, rather than campaigning to further their own careers.
Why do you think it’s important to elect women, particularly young women, to local office? And what do you think are the most important contributions that women make in the political arena?
Well-founded research shows that women bring different perspectives, skills, and leadership styles to public office. Women not only tend to collaborate more than their male counterparts, but they are also more willing to work across party lines and fundraise more efficiently for their districts. Greater gender equity in government directly results in better legislation for families.
Furthermore, our research indicates that women who run for office before the age of thirty are more likely to achieve an elected leadership position—such as governor or senator—and therefore wield more influence in government. We are standing on the successes of previous generations of women who fought for years for women’s rights. As a young woman myself, I believe it is now our generation’s turn to ensure that women not only enjoy greater freedoms, but also protect the freedoms we have gained. Here at the MWPC I have pushed to motivate and recruit younger women to be more politically active. Our Young Professions Program and our Internship Program are particularly aimed at getting young women interested in the political process, and to encourage them to run for elected office.
What are the particular challenges and issues associated with campaigning for women candidates, finance-related and otherwise?
Voters hold female candidates to a higher standard than their male counterparts. They tend to view women as less viable candidates, even when they have more credentials. The best way to address this challenge is to fundraise. Female candidates who enter the political race with a well-funded campaign are immediately taken more seriously. However, women are generally uncomfortable with asking people directly for money, often due to cultural conditioning. To help them be more efficient, we encourage them to think of it as an investment in their campaign and the issues they stand for, as opposed to an investment in their bank accounts. A second challenge is the double standard women are faced with in the media and the way they are perceived by voters – they must be seen as strong, but not too aggressive, and passionate but not too emotional. The MWPC works very hard to help the candidates we endorse with this particular challenge.
What does the MWPC do to help women candidates run successful campaigns? What services does the MWPC provide? Why is the MWPC a unique organization and to what degree do the goals of the MWPC overlap with the goals of the Women in Public Service Institute?
The MWPC offers endorsed candidates direct campaign support—including strategic financial assistance, field and media consulting, and help from interns trained in field campaigning. The MWPC is frequently the first endorsement a candidate will receive, and we work with her throughout the entire campaign. More importantly, we endorse women from multiple political parties, consequently creating a space where candidates can meet and network with other like-minded women. In today’s divided political climate, the MWPC offers women a place where they can put aside their differences and talk about shared issues. While we focus on the local state and municipal level, we also share the same goals as the Women in Public Service Institute – getting more women elected, and creating a shared forum for women with varying political affiliations to come together, build a sense of camaraderie, and make connections they can rely on.
What are your professional goals for the MWPC? Where do you see this organization in five years?
My major goal is to provide more strategic resources for women on the municipal level. We have found that an increasing number of younger women and women of color run on the municipal level, we need to focus more of our efforts on them. Secondly, there is an assumption that once women are elected, they will stay in office for several years. Unfortunately that is not always true and we need to continuously support women even after they are elected. Lastly, I want to continue providing opportunities for younger women by expanding our Young Professionals Program and our Internship Program. As a former MWPC intern, I know how much a young woman can learn here, and I hope to continue to open doors for these women, as they were opened for me.
How has having a mentor as well as being a mentor benefited you?
I am entirely a product of women mentors who saw potential in me at a young age. These women took a chance on me, and gave me an opportunity to prove myself. I am immensely grateful for the opportunities the MWPC has afforded me. I am proud to continue the tradition of strategically providing mentors for young women and encouraging them to take a more active role in public service.