International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life

Women’s Engagement in Politics: An ENACT Forum

Professor Melissa Stimell, left, Massachusetts state Sen. Cindy Friedman, center, and former New Hampshire speaker of the House Terie Norelli.


April 9, 2018

Throughout history, women have been under-represented in the U.S. government. Despite continued advances and reforms targeting this issue, the problem persists.

On April 9, 2018, ENACT: The Educational Network for Active Civic Transformation hosted two accomplished state legislators from New England for the ENACT Forum on Women's Engagement in Politics at Brandeis University, to discuss this and other issues.

Terie Norelli, former New Hampshire speaker of the House and former president of the National Conference of State Legislators, and Massachusetts State sen. Cindy Friedman shared personal experiences, frank advice and calls to action with the audience of Brandeis.

Prof. Melissa Stimell, academic program director for the national ENACT program, moderated, following a welcome by ENACT coordinator David Weinstein and introductions by ENACT’s distinguished legislator, Massachusetts state Rep. Jay Kaufman.

The event began with the panelists telling their stories: how they became involved in politics and the difficulties they initially faced. Years of volunteering and acting as an advocate for women’s rights caught the attention of a political operative who recruited Norelli to run for the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

Friedman’s desire to “get out and do something” motivated her to run for political office. Friedman emphasized the importance of women participating in small, local elections, noting that her experience working behind the scenes on political campaigns and as chief of staff to former Massachusetts state Sen. Kenneth Donnelly was very valuable. “What happens in your communities is more important … than what’s happening on the federal level,” she said.

The panelists shared anecdotes about running their campaigns and about  interactions once elected. They also provided the audience with statistics and perspectives on political advocacy. Norelli offered advice to those wanting to engage in political activism and advocacy, speaking to the importance of honing in on an exact problem, finding a viable solution, and powerfully presenting it.

During the question and answer session, one student asked how men could support women in this area. “Support and encourage the women that you know who would make great leaders to step up and be those leaders,” Norelli responded.” Other questions were regarding gender dynamics in politics and the transition between advocacy and holding office.

Sending a word of encouragement to women in politics, Sen. Friedman said, “Women cannot be afraid to use their power. ... Just remember, there have been billions and billions and billions of men throughout the centuries who have grabbed that power, who have done a terrible job, who have ruined the world, who have had no clue what they were doing, and they did it.”

Friedman added, “It’s okay if you don’t know everything. It’s okay if you make a mistake. It’s okay if you’re not the smartest person in the world. ... That’s how you play the game. And I think women need to do more of that so that they can then get to a place where they can say ‘all right, we don’t want to do it anymore, let’s do this the real way.’”

The forum was hosted by ENACT, and was sponsored by the Rice Family Foundation. It was co-sponsored by the Gender and Sexuality Center; the Legal Studies Program; the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; the Social Justice and Social Policy Program; and the Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.