WASHINGTON – It was just a one-day stint as a page in the Georgia Senate. But it was enough to get a then 11-year-old Marie Wilson interested in politics.
"I said, 'That's for me.' People form their opinions early," said Wilson, a political activist who is spearheading a new initiative to encourage and train 1,000 women to run for office.
First, women must be asked to run, she said. It also helps if they are exposed to politics at a young age, much like Wilson was during her one day in the Georgia Legislature.
The Vote, Run, Lead (search) initiative also aims to recruit 25,000 women to vote in November. But the ultimate goal is to have more women in office, not just to get them to cast ballots.
"We're not out there saying we want to take the place of men," Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation (search), told a mostly female audience at the project's launch Wednesday. "We're saying we'd like to lead in equal numbers, side by side with men."
The group plans to partner with national, state and local groups — including MTV's Rock the Vote (search) — to spread the word and point women to a future in politics. Its Internet site has a pledge they can sign, promising to vote on Nov. 2 and invite other women to focus on leadership. Interested women may also attend workshops where they can learn about fund raising, public speaking and other skills needed to run for public office.
Wilson said research shows that about 37 percent of the women in politics got involved because someone asked them to. And getting young women involved is key. More than half of those now in office first ran before age 35, she said.
"We have to tell them, 'There's a place for you to be. We want your vision. We want your voice. We want you to lead,"' Wilson told The Associated Press before she addressed the group.
Internationally, the United States ranks below 50th place in the number of women holding political office. Americans aren't opposed to women in office, Wilson said, noting that three-fourths of the public thinks having them in office is important. She blamed the low ranking on the fact that a majority of the public thinks progress has been made.
The Senate has 14 women among its 100 members and 62 of the 435 House members are women, meaning they are just 14 percent of lawmakers at the federal level. By comparison, Iraq's interim constitution says at least 25 percent of the members of its National Assembly should be women.
"We're trying to change something that people think doesn't need changing," Wilson said. "We don't want to whimper and whine. We've got to line people up and get them going."
The bipartisan effort is an offshoot of the White House Project (search), also led by Wilson, which aims to place more women in leadership positions and change public perceptions about women in office.