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Zook: How can we make every woman count?

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) speaks at a forum

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) speaks at a forum on the importance of women's leadership in the upcoming presidential election. She is accompanied by Sam Bennett (left), president of the Women's Campaign Forum, and Tiffany Dufu (right), president of the White House Project. (Dec. 2, 2011) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

Kristal Brent Zook, an associate professor of journalism and director of the M.A. Journalism Program at Hofstra University, is the author of "Black Women's Lives: Stories of Power and Pain."

On a Friday morning earlier this month, a lecture hall at Hofstra University filled with a few hundred women. Business-casual types in shiny pumps and slick black boots, they greeted one another with cheek kisses up and down the aisles and throughout the lobby of the Helene Fortunoff Theater.

"Every Woman Counts" was the kickoff affair for the campaign that Lifetime Television has hosted every presidential election year since 1992. The network and its supporters want to get women "off the sidelines" and into political office.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was there to lead the panel discussion, with four other women activists, political leaders and elected officials.

The campaign is admirable, of course. Gillibrand opened by rattling off the familiar numbers: Women are only 17 percent of members of Congress; 16 percent of Fortune 500 board members; and, yes, still earn just 78 cents (even less for African-Americans and Latinas) to every dollar a man makes for equal work.

What's more, the United States ranks abysmally low on a global scale for our share of female elected officials: 69th, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. That puts us behind Cuba, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

So how can we encourage more women to run for office? What makes them want to lead? What spurs them into action?

Well, a sense of inclusion might be a good place to start. Women who run for office mostly do so, according to the panelists, because someone asked them to. Because someone, somewhere, convinced them they were needed. But how do women become needed in the first place? How do they get "in" with the "in crowd"?

The audience at the Lifetime event wasn't exactly homogeneous -- there was a fair sprinkling of faces of color throughout the auditorium -- but I couldn't help but notice that the group felt insular somehow. Already entrenched. I felt like I'd shown up to a high school reunion for the wrong year. Many attendees (local judges and longtime political fixtures, for example) were already a part of the system in a way that most ordinary women aren't.

To truly broaden political participation, it's the everyday women and girls who must be reached, too. Of the hundreds of political science and journalism majors at Hofstra, according to a show of hands, only six or seven bothered to show up.

Perhaps the lack of a larger, broader -- and younger -- group of participants could be chalked up to the same malaise affecting much of the country: We are, all of us, almost universally disenchanted with electoral politics.

How can we break through this weariness? One of the answers, according to the panelists, is deceptively simple: Personal stories. Telling them and hearing them.

There's something to this theory. As I tell my magazine feature-writing classes, information is nothing if you can't move your audience emotionally. You have to hook them into your message by revealing the universality of the human experience. As tired as the old rallying cry may be, it still holds true: The personal remains deeply, deeply political.

In fact, it was only when the storytelling portion of the morning began in earnest that I, too, found myself sitting up straighter in my chair.

Geri Barish, founder and president of the 1 in 9 Foundation and a master storyteller if ever there was one, told the crowd that her son, Michael, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease at the age of 13, and that she had been dismissed by a physician at the hospital as a "hysterical mother." Just a few weeks before he died, in 1986 at the age of 25, Barish, too, received a devastating diagnosis: breast cancer. Her husband suffered a stroke not long after that, and the family's insurance policy was canceled.

"So I went to Washington, D.C.," Barish told the group.

She didn't know where to go exactly, or what to tell the cabdriver. "I said, 'Could you just drop me off where all the senators and Congress members are?' "

She ended up at the Hart Senate Office Building, where she proceeded to knock on random doors. ("Washington didn't have the security it does now," she added ruefully.) But no one was around that day, and Barish soon found herself slumped on a hallway floor, crying.

"Are you lost?" asked a senator. "Who's your congressman?"

"I'm from New York," was all she could come up with.

Barish eventually found her way to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), where she learned just how universal her own story was: She was one of 37 million Americans without health insurance. And that was how her activism began. Since then, Barish has been New York's most vigilant leader in the battle against breast cancer prevention, spearheading legislation examining the use of pesticides, and working side-by-side with politicians and others to try to eradicate the disease.

Anna Kaplan, elected to the North Hempstead Town Council just last month and the first Persian ever to represent a municipality in New York State, told the audience that she came to this country as a teenager, from a country in the throes of revolution. As an adult, her engagement started simply, when she got involved with the PTA. Then someone encouraged her to run for library board.

"If you had told me 30 years ago," she said, "that I would be sitting here as an elected official . . . It wasn't even a thought."

Tiffany Dufu of the White House Project, a national nonprofit organization working to advance women's leadership, reminded the crowd of Lea Webb, who at age 28 became the youngest and first African-American city council member in Binghamton. Webb ran for one reason, said Dufu: to get a grocery store, which her community hadn't had in 15 years.

These are "real women," as the Lifetime slogan goes. And real stories.

By showing us the way "in" to political action through their own compelling life narratives, they just may have the power to save us from the disenchantment of real politics.