The Plan to Get Female Leadership in 21st Century Politics

The White House Project for women leaders closed its doors this week. How will the gap be filled?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nearly accomplished the White House Project's goal of electing a female president. In 2008 Clinton won the most Democratic primary votes, but delegates instead picked Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton won the most Democratic primary votes in 2008, but party delegates nominated Barack Obama.

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Citing financial reasons, the White House Project closed its doors this week after nearly 15 years of encouraging women to become leaders in politics.

The nonprofit was one of the predominant voices on the issue and used innovative tactics to attract young women to leadership roles, such as getting Barbie to "run" for president. It also institutionalized training programs for women candidates and activists, primarily through its Vote, Run, Lead program. The group's founder, Marie Wilson, created the idea of "Take Your Daughter To Work Day."

But Women's Leadership Works, a successor organization, says the new plan for getting women into politics looks very different.

In the 113th Congress, a historic number of women were sworn into the Senate, and yet women still make up just 18 percent of total seats in Congress.

[SLIDESHOW: Meet the Senate's Women]

"We need to do better learning from women in other countries. … We have to figure out how we can have more dialogues online, voting online," says Erin Vilardi, the head of Women's Leadership Works. "And we're going to do more on the policy component."

The focus on policy may be the crux of the effort to put women in political leadership roles going forward. While efforts over the last decade and a half have focused largely on process—teaching women about campaigning, fundraising and communications—the next two decades seem to be about ensuring that future women leaders are well-versed in policy.

"It's vital to learn about phone banking—the process is vital, the training. But you also need to be able to talk about something in depth. When you look at complexity we're facing right now, that's what we need to get people good at," says Lorelei Kelly, coauthor of A Woman's Guide to Talking about War and Peace, and an alum of the White House Project.

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The newest groups working to get women in politics suggest a technology-heavy approach will also be key.

For years, The White House Project worked to institutionalize change, campaigning for years for the White House to create a commission for women in democracy. The mandate of new groups such as Girls Who Code, on the other hand, is far more nimble: ensure young women who want to enter the political (or business) fray are armed with the technological tools they need.

"It's like the Junior League on technology crack," says Vilardi of the next generation effort.

But Kelly believes that to truly crack the political class ceiling, a blend between old and new tactics will be needed. "We've got the Yodas and the Jedis," she says. "But we need the Jedi Knights."

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