U.S. Woman Veterans' Official Encourages Women To Enter Politics

Washington - A decorated veteran of the Iraq war and congressional candidate in 2006 says women must participate in the political process.

"I think that the political process is incredibly important.  We must participate," Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth said during a State Department-sponsored webchat from Thailand June 14. "I always tell people that if they don't vote, then it is the same as casting a vote for the winner."

Duckworth is a Thai-American who was appointed director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs in November 2006.  In Iraq, she commanded a 15-ship helicopter company and flew 200-plus combat hours as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot.  During one mission in November 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade struck her helicopter cockpit and exploded, injuring her so severely that she lost both legs and nearly lost her right arm as well.

For her military service, Duckworth received a Purple Heart, the Air Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal and the National Defense Service Medal.  In the 2006 elections, she ran for Congress in Illinois, losing by a little more than 4,000 votes.  She said in the webchat that she has not yet decided whether to run for elected office in 2008, but she will decide soon.

Duckworth had advice for questioners from around the world, especially Africa.  She stressed that participation in their countries' political process is crucial for women, both voting and running for office.

As for getting started in politics, Duckworth said "a great way … is to volunteer for someone else's campaign."  Working on behalf of a particular candidate, she said, the volunteer can see what involvement in politics means and can develop her skills and ideas for her own political future.

Duckworth said women first need to get the support of their family, or at least one person close to them.  Then, she said, they will need good people around them who can give them good advice and can tell them the truth.

"You need to have people you trust to talk to and help keep you on the path that led you to running for office in the first place," she said.

Duckworth also emphasized the importance of finding a mentor, someone who has run for office before.  "You would be surprised to find that many people do not get asked to be mentors and are happy and flattered to help," she said.

Duckworth said she thought that although women are interested in politics, "many of them are discouraged from participating."

"Many women become interested through family issues and then are drawn into other topics in government," she said.  "I think women are more in touch with issues that can help families such as health care, education and women's issues.  These issues affect all members of the society, not just women."

Noting that aggressiveness is necessary in politics, Duckworth said she thinks many women have been discouraged from being aggressive. Furthermore, she said, "many women who want to enter politics do not have the resources to do so."  This drew her back to the need for a mentor, because "many men enter politics at the suggestion of a mentor."

Duckworth did not think an international organization to promote women candidates would be effective because each country has its own political process.

"Perhaps each nation should develop its own [organization] and hold annual conferences of each country's organization," she said.

As for what to look for in a candidate, Duckworth said, "I think anyone who wants to be a good political leader, whether they are a man or a woman, should remember how most people live."

An effective candidate needs "to know what the majority of the people in your country needs, not just the needs of the wealthy.  The next time you see a politician, give them the test, ask them if they know what one food staple of your culture costs. … The politician who has an answer is in touch with the people he should be serving," she said.

Referring to countries that have elected a woman as their highest official, Duckworth said: "I think what is needed is not so much an individual woman leader, but groups that help promote women and diversity in politics.  Minorities and women need help breaking into government.  We need more people helping them get in.  In fact, this help can come from anyone, not just from other women or minority government officials."

A transcript of Duckworth’s webchat, as well as information on upcoming and previous webchats is available on USINFO’s Webchat Station.