ELIZA CUSSEN WAS on her way to see “Wonder Woman,” and listening to an episode of her favorite podcast, “Call Your Girlfriend.” This one focused on women in politics (or the lack thereof). Like many would in this situation, she wondered: What can I do?
Right then, she decided to create what is now Project Sheila, an organization dedicated to helping female politicians launch campaign websites. Cussen has been interested in web design for most of her life, and was working as a digital communications specialist when she had the idea. She saw that although she did not have significant funds to donate to campaigns, she could use her expertise to help in another way. She put out a call to friends in her network, asking if anyone needed help with web design, and received several requests right away. About three weeks after Cussen had the idea, her site went live.
Her idea grew to what is now Project Sheila, a website designed to help progressive female candidates run successful campaigns by creating high-quality websites. She hopes the organization will encourage women all over the country to incorporate political careers into their dreams and aspirations. The site is oriented towards female politicians— particularly millennials—who are running for local office. It pairs candidates with feminist designers, developers, and web producers to create beautiful and productive campaign websites. Cussen hopes to make Project Sheila into a social enterprise, in order to support female entrepreneurship and encourage women in tech and creative labor.
When asked about the presence of Jewish women in politics and in relation to the project, Cussen said, “We don’t ask about ethnicity or religion when screening applicants. However, I’d welcome Jewish women in particular to apply. I’m inspired by the number of Jewish women who are active in the resistance and I think there is so much they can offer by running for office.”
Sheila is also non-partisan, because many candidates running for local offices, like school boards and city councils, do not declare affiliation with a political party, and many progressives also choose not to join the Democratic party. Also, Cussen’s own background played a role: “As an immigrant, I think I feel less brand loyalty to the Democratic party than progressives raised in the two-party system, so for that reason I wanted it to be broad,” she said.
She moved to America three years ago, and has been active in progressive movements in both the USA and Australia, previously serving as the Executive Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. “I believe that facilitating the election of women is really the only way to ensure reproductive freedoms are protected,” she wrote in an email. “The theft of the 2016 election by Trump was a crushing blow, but the resistance that has bloomed in the last eight months has been a joy to behold. I want to help it however I can.”
Instead of pledging allegiance to a party, she created several other guidelines. Project Sheila candidates must be female, femme, transgender, or otherwise gender-nonconforming. They must be progressive, which the website defines as “supporting the equal opportunity and dignity of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, and other vulnerable and under-served groups.” It also states that “the candidate must stand for abortion rights and reproductive justice, and support policies that dismantle white supremacy. They must advocate for the health of the planet.”
The name Sheila comes from an Australian slang term traditionally used by men in reference to women. “Sheila describes a certain type of woman whose edges are a little bit rough, who is not always interested in doing what’s right and proper —she’s interested in going her own way,” said Cussen. “I wanted to bake that into the enterprise, to really embrace women who don’t necessarily fit the mold of the statesman and work out how we can get them to be amazing politicians.” The website proclaims, “American government needs more Sheilas.”
Project Sheila works on a sliding scale, charging $0 to $800, never turning people away for lack of funds. Cussen hopes to soon see progressive women running in every race from the city council to the U.S. Senate. “There’s nothing stopping us from helping thousands of women in 2018,” she said. Wonder Woman would be proud.