The Driving Force Behind Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics

The Driving Force Behind Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics

Debbie Walsh melds a passions for politics, social change, and women’s rights

Debbie Walsh started working at CAWP in 1981, a year after she completed her master's degree in political science.
Photo: Bill Cardoni

“We need to raise a generation of girls who see they can be public leaders.” 
– Debbie Walsh

Before the Women’s Marches and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements made headlines and brought issues of women's rights back to the forefront, Rutgers scholars had been working for decades as ardent advocates through their research, teaching and outreach. Over the next several weeks, Rutgers Today will be highlighting many of the women whose work is making a noticeable impact. This article is the first in our series:

Debbie Walsh is running. Not for public office – though she probably knows as much about the process as any candidate – but to keep up with the accumulating number of records that women candidates have broken in this historic year. The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, is the country’s leading source of scholarly research and data on women’s political participation, and Walsh is the center’s director, a post she’s held for 17 years.

She can tell you, for instance, how many women filed to run for seats in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate this year (476 and 53, respectively), how many have already lost their primaries (224 and 29), how many have won their primaries (231 and 22) and how many, in total, are still in the running (246 and 24). In this era of both record achievements and unprecedented political polarization, she may be one of the few people rooting for both Democrats and Republicans.

She notes that the new wave of female candidates is predominantly Democratic, many of them running in opposition to a Republican president whose policies and attitudes have been construed as anti-women. But Walsh understands that, to achieve real parity in political life, women from both parties need to run, and to win. “My long-term hope,” she says, “is that all of this” – meaning the surge of women candidates – “will start to inspire Republican women as well to run for office.” It’s the kind of statement you’d expect from a woman whose passions are politics, social change and women’s rights, and whose work effectively melds all three.

Walsh grew up in New York City in a politically active family and spent much of her childhood at marches and demonstrations. As a senior studying political science at the State University of New York at Binghamton, she read an article about CAWP in the New York Times and was instantly intrigued. After graduation, she enrolled as a fellow at the Eagleton Institute and pursued a master’s in political science, and a year after getting her degree, in 1981, she started working at CAWP full time.

Under her leadership, the center has become the preeminent source not just for data about women in politics, but also for scholarly research into women’s political participation. And drawing on both the data and the research, CAWP has launched a multifaceted group of programs encouraging women to run for office and teaching them how to do it. One of the most influential programs is Ready to Run, a nonpartisan campaign training program whose model curriculum – now in use in more than 20 states across the country – includes instruction in fundraising, media training, navigating the political party structure, crafting a message and mobilizing voters. 

Walsh notes that about a third of the women who attend the program, now entering its third decade, run for public office and about 70 percent of those women win their races. When Ready to Run was launched in 1998, New Jersey ranked 39th in the nation in the percentage of women (then 16.7) in the state legislature. In fact, the program was founded to help raise those percentages, and it’s working: today the state is in 14th place, with women constituting 30 percent of the legislature.

After Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, Walsh feared that women would be too discouraged about the outcome even to sign up for Ready to Run. But by the spring of 2017, it was clear that something entirely different was afoot. New Jersey’s program received twice as many registrations as in previous years, and partner programs across the country reported similar enthusiasm.

Walsh is certainly heartened by the record-breaking statistics. But she’s well aware of the gender gap that still exists in American politics: only 20 percent of the 535 seats in the United States Congress are held by women (23 percent of the Senate and 19.3 percent of the House). 

CAWP’s latest initiative was designed to help fill that gap. Teach a Girl to Lead, a resource for educators, parents, and youth-group leaders, aims to influence and encourage the next generation of public office-holders by offering lesson plans, activities, and opportunities to meet women leaders.

“We need to raise a generation of girls,” says Walsh, “who see they can be public leaders.” When they decide to run, CAWP will surely be there to show them how.     

Read the Rutgers Magazine #WeToo story profiling Rutgers scholars here.