Judging from her résumé, Leah Cox has the makings of a solid political candidate.
The Orangevale woman heads a nonprofit group that briefs legislators on obesity-prevention policy and speaks with a confidence that comes from years in public life.
Still, Cox doubted she was ready for the political spotlight. She wondered whether she had enough experience to be a legislator. She worried about voters' views of female candidates.
Such concerns, in fact, have stopped many American women from entering politics, so much so that the United States claims one of the lowest rates of women legislators in the developed world.
Reversing this trend has been the 9-year-old mission of Emerge California, a groundbreaking, San Francisco-based group with branches in nine states. In monthly sessions for selected classes, Emerge tries to give women the confidence to run for office along with the skills to win.
On a recent Saturday morning at Oakland City Hall, Cox and two-dozen women in this year's class recounted the obstacles that stopped them for so many years.
"There's a system in place, and it's been in place for years," Cox said. "Transformation is very difficult. Wielding power is very difficult. We have to be aware of that and how to navigate it."
While Emerge works exclusively with Democratic women, a handful of national groups, such as the Wish List, recruit and train Republican women candidates. All the groups are tackling what they say is a troubling gender gap in politics.
Women are about 50 percent of the U.S. and California populations.
In the current Congress, women make up 17 percent of members, with the total number of women legislators dropping this year for the first time in three decades.
Women make up 28 percent of the California Legislature and 23 percent of state legislators nationwide. Six of the nation's governors – or 12 percent – are women.
These numbers place the United States at 70th place – tied with Turkmenistan – in the portion of seats women occupy in the lower or only houses of their national legislatures, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
The countries with the highest percentages of women legislators are Rwanda, at 56 percent, Sweden, at 45 percent and South Africa, at 45 percent.
Many women shortchange their political skills and find it hard to balance politics and family needs, said Emerge California director Kimberly Ellis.
"Nine times out of 10, women are the primary caregivers for young children, elderly parents and the household," she said. "Because of that, it's very difficult for them to contemplate running for office."
On top of that, political kingmakers such as parties, labor unions and business groups have been slow to promote female candidates, said Jennifer Lawless, an associate professor of political science at American University in Washington, D.C.
"The majority of the electoral gatekeepers who are finding candidates are men," Lawless said. "They recruit from the networks they circulate in, and as a result, women are often left out."
Emerge tries to widen that recruitment pool by asking its board of directors to nominate participants from community groups.
Once women run for office, they win their elections at the same rates men do, Lawless said.
State Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, said she entered local politics after her son's school district threatened to close his elementary school.
"I had no desire to be in politics, but I kind of got into it because of the need to help my son's school," said Alquist, who has spoken to Emerge California classes.
Alquist said the California Legislature might have passed budgets more quickly if more women had been in charge.
"I think women are good at cooperating, and what women bring to the Senate is the ability to work together," Alquist said. "We are problem-solvers."
Funded by private donations, Emerge receives up to 100 applications for its annual 25-member classes, which meet monthly from December to June around Northern California. Alumni include San Francisco County Supervisor Malia Cohen, Oakland City Councilwoman Libby Schaaf and Solano County Supervisor Linda Seifert.
The program costs $1,000. Tuition assistance is available to some participants.
At the Oakland session, instructor Amy Simon talked about many issues, including how to build constituencies around signature issues and the right kinds of photos to use on campaign mailers. Her advice: Avoid standing alone in pictures. Voters tend to see women without family or friends around them as aloof.
"I want many more women to really think hard about what kind of elected office they would be best suited for in terms of their own strengths and skill sets and interests," Simon said. "Then I want them to plan and build a political base that will help them be successful when they run for it."
San Francisco resident Lisbet Sunshine told the class she was rethinking her rejection of an invitation to join the board of a local community organization.
Sunshine said she had worried that the board would add obligations to an already busy schedule, which included raising three children, lobbying for San Francisco State University and Olympic-level marathon training.
Now, she said, she sees such obligations as stepping stones.
"I've been thinking about this for 20 years," Sunshine said. "The most valuable thing is to state affirmatively what you want. Once you state it, you can get there."