Women's Legislative Days

"Where are all the young people?"

At last week's Women's Legislative Days conference, about 300 women – many older, some elderly – sat in a conference room at the Wyndham Garden Hotel listening to keynote speakers Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards tell them about "young people." Their advice ranged from "Young people don't check their mail" (making them poor targets for political mail-outs) to "Young people examine how they can personally make the best contribution, filling in the gaps of politics. They don't necessarily run for office."

It was a change of pace for the biennial conference, which has a long history of heavy-hitting, entrenched Texan speakers, including Bob Bullock, Glen Maxey, and the late Molly Ivins and Ann Richards. But it's a welcome change, according to steering committee member Veronica Johnson, an IBM retiree active in several women's organizations where, she said, "We're always sitting around going, 'Where are the younger people?'"

Baumgardner and Third Wave Foundation founder Richards met in their early 20s working at Ms. Magazine and have co-authored two books, including Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. They're accustomed to fielding questions like Johnson's. "Our generation is definitely making a contribution," Baumgardner said, "but it looks different." Younger women, she said, are more likely to start an afterschool sex-education program or an "I Spy Transphobia" campaign than to join the League of Women Voters. Baumgardner and Richards – who, in their late 30s, are now too old to serve on Third Wave's board – admitted to learning a lot from their younger counterparts, and they advised that audience members ask themselves what they're not doing to attract the younger generation to their organizations.

When the conference began in 1983 – as an informal breakfast at the Copper Skillet on Lamar – attracting women to advocacy was not such a problem. "So many people showed up I don't think I ever got my coffee," remembers Peggy Romberg, who chaired the conference steering committee until 1999. Held every legislative session since 1983, the conference attracts women from across the state who want to learn how to advocate for their concerns. It generally begins with a series of panels on timely subjects (this year global warming and stem-cell research) and ends with lobbying workshops and a trip to the Capitol, where attendees test their new skills on their legislators.

In a state ranked No. 49 for percentage of women who vote, where women constitute 51% of the population but 23% of the Legislature, and where the No. 1 reason women don't vote is that they feel inadequately informed, Women's Legislative Days aims primarily to demystify the political process. Panels focus on the nuts and bolts of activism, providing sample lobbying letters and handouts with titles like "Everything I Know About Lobbying I Learned in Kindergarten." Equally important are the discussions, where you'll find women like 3rd Court of Appeals Judge Diane Henson, the only Democrat in Texas last year to win a contested appellate court race, sharing her foibles along the campaign trail: "I believe I walked to the other side of the room. That was my 'mingle.'"

While younger women increasingly "embody the feminism" that their mothers fought for – as Baumgardner puts it – "unselfconsciously living feminist lives" every time they make an autonomous decision, older women are left battling the bills that chip away at those rights. Perhaps this year's conference – the first to have an official Web site, designed by the steering committee's youngest member, 31-year-old Carrie Tilton-Jones – took the first step toward partnering those two powerful forces.

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Women's Legislative Days Conference, Jennifer Baumgardner, Amy Richards, Veronica Johnson, Third Wave Foundation, Peggy Romberg, Diane Henson, Carrie Tilton-Jones

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