Group trains young Texas women to get involved in politics

The IGNITE chapter at UT Austin. (Courtesy: Megan Hanson)
The IGNITE chapter at UT Austin. (Courtesy: Megan Hanson)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Cyrena Matingou doesn’t plan to run for office in the immediate future, but she’s working to get more young women involved in the political process.

“Building that confidence at a young age in high school is really important,” she said. “Not letting yourself get pushed around.”

Matingou, a sophomore at Cedar Ridge High School, formed a local chapter of IGNITE on her campus to inspire more leadership and involvement among her other female peers. The curriculum trains young women to understand the government process and dig deep into current policy issues.

Cyrena Matingou points to a presentation of the IGNITE curriculum. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)
Cyrena Matingou points to a presentation of the IGNITE curriculum. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)

Matingou said recently they’ve had discussions about abortion issues and gun rights at their meetings, with a variety of perspectives.

“We have boys come to the meetings, too, and they share their input on things that are going on and ask us questions,” she said. “It’s really nice to collaborate with one another because I know that’s really hard in society. With social media, you talk to the people you want to talk to and then people that share your views, so you don’t really have a chance to talk to people who don’t share your views and that’s important.”

Growing number of women running for office

Jennifer Freel puts up one of her campaign signs. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)

Out on the campaign trail, Jennifer Freel hears different perspectives from voters. Freel is running as a Republican candidate for the Texas Third Court of Appeals.

“Someone told me once they thought I might be too cute to be a judge,” she said. “I think he actually meant it as a compliment, but I said, ‘Well, if you ask all the bad guys I put in prison an adjective to describe me, I’m pretty sure cute wouldn’t be one of them.’”

Freel encourages voters to look at experience and look beyond gender, citing how she’s never heard female candidates encourage others to support them because they’re a woman.

“I’m a lot of substance,” she said. “I have the experience and I’m not asking anyone to vote for me because I’m a woman. I’m asking them to vote for me because of my qualifications.”

Vikki Goodwin speaks with a neighbor she met when door knocking. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)

Vikki Goodwin, who is running as a Democrat for the Texas House, has always been involved in local issues and politics in other ways. She says the last election inspired her to finally put herself forward.

“I think most people feel like we need to have more balance,” she said. “Women bring a different perspective and are often very good at bringing people to consensus.”

Goodwin and Freel both say campaigning has opened their eyes to a support system that’s there for women.

“In some cases, women have really, for my entire background, sort of come out of the woodwork to donate to my campaign,” Freel said.

“There are so many women running for office,” Goodwin said. “I think in the past, we’ve always felt like the hurdle was too high with how much money you have to raise. I think at this time, people feel like there are organizations out there that are willing to help women so they feel there’s more support.”

Both candidates also say they want to set an example for younger women because they’ve benefited from having other female mentors.

According to the National Association of Women Judges, in 2016, women made up 29 percent of all the state court judges in Texas. Women only make up slightly more than a third of all the state court judges in the United States.

Last year, the Texas Senate hit a record, with eight of the 31 senators elected being women. However, the overall number of women serving in the Texas Legislature has dropped in the last few years.

In 2009, 43 women were elected to the legislature, making up nearly a quarter of the lawmakers. But that number dropped to 20 percent in 2017, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A variety of different ways to get involved

The IGNITE chapter at UT Austin. (Courtesy: Megan Hanson)

Mariadela Villegas, president of the IGNITE chapter at UT Austin, wants to serve in Congress someday, but she knows not every member of their organization wants to be a politician and she wants to remind them, that’s OK.

“[One member] said she was really interested in being a campaign manager, that she would be the most useful if she was running a campaign for somebody she believed in and those are the kinds of paths we want our girls to take,” Villegas said.

Matingou says leading IGNITE is preparing her for her career goal of working in medicine.

“If I wanted to be chief resident, I know that I need to be a hard worker, determined and put myself out there,” she said.

IGNITE invites women serving in politics to come and speak about their experiences.

“Hearing what these women have gone through and seeing that we’re all sort of following the same journey and we’re all almost going through the same hurdles, it makes you feel less alone in the journey,” Villegas said. “It’s definitely empowering to have this sort of unity with other women.”

IGNITE hosts several political leadership conferences during the year. The Texas Young Women’s Leadership Conference will be on Saturday, Feb. 17. The organization also has college and high school chapters in the Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston regions.

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