Breaking the Cycle: Supporting Young Female Candidates
Updated: Jul 27, 2020
Being a young person in politics is full of contradictions. We are both embraced as being future leaders while at the same time criticized for being too young, naive, and lacking the traditional experience needed to be fully a part of the political process.
When gender is added to the mix, the chances of becoming more politically active quickly diminish. It’s no secret that women (especially young women) are underrepresented in politics, despite being at the forefront of political activism in the 21st century (1). It's not that young women are disengaged within the political system, rather women are taught (and sometimes believe) that there is no place for them in the traditional political world.
In American politics, young people are underrepresented across the board. Bloomberg reported that to accurately represent the general public, there would be at least 97 House and Senate representatives (2). In the current 116th Congress there are 26 millennial representatives, none in the Senate. On top of this, only 20% of all representatives in Congress are female (2).
Many believe that the main barrier women face when running for office is the likelihood of being elected, but this is false (at least in blue states). It may sound cliché, but the main barrier is often ourselves. Growing up in a society with minimal female representation in political power combined with traditional sexist standards of what a leader should look like (for example, unemotional, confident, and intelligent) results in a reluctance to run for office. This is especially present among young women who are openly politically active.
Take, for example, Emma González, a leader in the March for Our Lives movement. Her speech “we call BS” grasped the nation’s attention as the gun debate once again intensified after the Parkland, Florida shooting. Her words were incredibly powerful, but much of the attention was focused on how she looked and acted. A buzz cut, yelling, crying-- all these things were perceived (by some) as negative and childish, perpetuating a sentiment that women cannot be leaders.
Source: The Boston Globe
The sexist undertones of what activism should look like almost overpowered the message which Emma sought to spread.
Yet, far too often female voices are dismissed. It reminds me of a shared female experience. You make an argument (most likely something extremely intelligent) but you go unheard, then suddenly a male (knowingly or unknowingly) repeats verbatim what you have just stated. His comment is not only heard, but praised. It's a classic example of microsexism (3), in this case, the all-so-modern idea that women should listen, not speak. Not only is this harmful in everyday settings, but it is detrimental to women in politics. These characteristics - being emotional and unfiltered - are what made Emma’s speech and much of her activism so powerful. It is the passion that Emma and so many other young female activists possess which is so inspirational.
There are also parallels between what Emma experienced and the experiences of the most well-known millennial politician, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC frequently receives comments on the way she dresses and on the way that she acts, often the focus lies on things unrelated to her message. She is continuously accused of being incompetent, unqualified, and unprofessional. What is so interesting about these criticisms is that they are not only inherently sexist, but they never seem to stop men from taking positions of leadership. Like I said before, more often than not the biggest barrier is ourselves. If we continue to believe that we should be quiet, not have a strong, powerful, and unfiltered voice when it comes to politics, we will continue to not run for office.
When young people, especially young females, are portrayed in this way it continues a toxic mindset in our culture that teaches us that the older you get the more qualified you are. For young women, age overshadows how serious voters take us, there continues to be an outdated idea that young women are ignorant, too emotional, and not qualified. Sound familiar? Once these ideas restricted women from being able to study and vote, now they restrict us from running.
But the tides are changing in our favor, we are seeing a record amount of women running for public office around the country (4). To see a new generation of young female leaders and a growing female base within the Democratic Party who are highly engaged sets a new precedent for young girls everywhere. From Black Lives Matter, March for our Lives, to the Women’s March, millennials and Gen Z women are at the forefront. It should come as no surprise to see a new wave of 25-year-olds running for office. At the end of the day, it comes down to us, the voters, to show support for these candidates and recognize that supporting or electing them is a necessity if we want to break the toxic cycle that created the imbalance that continues to persist today.