For young women, just contemplating the idea of running for office is already half of a winning battle. In our current political climate of scandals, heightened partisan discourse, and a struggling economy, politics is certainly a risk for any candidate. But, sadly, many young women cannot imagine themselves as elected officials.
And, as I graduate from Rice University, I cannot help but wonder: will any other young women be willing to take such a risk and join me on a future ballot?
Like me, many of us were born believing there are no limits to our success. Spending the majority of our lives up to this point in the relative meritocracy of the public education system, we are surprised when we hit the glass ceilings that our mothers warned us about. Furthermore, the history of dividing people into strict boxes marked “men” and “women” does not help us or the voters evaluate us as candidates and not judge us if we do not act as a stereotypical woman. Voters and pundits will scrutinize our appearance and bodies, our personal lives, and our emotions to disqualify us.
We continue to doubt our qualifications, but our male equals continue to overestimate their resume. Young women already struggle to balance career and family, without the added effort of making the time and motivation for elective office. Furthermore, few in our party will suggest we run for office, but many will turn to our brothers, husbands, colleagues, fathers, and even sons as future candidates. Faced with these barriers to our success as young female candidates, we have reason to be wary of entering such a risky career path as politics.
Encouraging more young women to run is not simply about fairness and representation, but because we will provide a smart start to a different, and better, way of governing. Activist and policy researcher Linda Tarr-Whelan concludes that when women constitute just 30 percent of any organization – including legislative chambers – the quality of conversations, the adherence to values, and even the general atmosphere of the entire organization changes for the better.
While there are outliers to every trend, academic research has proven that young women have the leadership style that can overcome many problems in government:
- Young women will not contribute to partisan gridlock. Along with senior female leaders, young women have been shown to be more inclusive and more likely to reach out to opponents for support.
- Young women will do more than just read the bill. In comparison to men, young women are more concerned with thoroughly investigating an issue before making a decision. A 2002 Rutgers study of elected leaders age 35 and younger in municipal, state, and national offices found that young people have a “can do” attitude and belief that hard work will get any problem solved.
- Young women have first-hand knowledge of major issues. Regardless of partisan affiliation, young women are intimately aware of the most pressing issues of our times. As recent or current students of the public education system, young women have first-hand insight into educational improvements. Young women also have first-hand experiences of our broken healthcare system, paying twice as much in premiums than their fellow 22-year-old men.
Obviously, young women must be a part of a national move to a 30 percent solution for all levels of our government. Electing young women is also the crucial first step to filling a pipeline of qualified women candidates for higher office. Among today’s top elected officials, more then half were elected by age 35 and most young politicians work full-time in addition to holding office.
And, despite the unique struggles that young women politicians face in balancing family, career, and campaigning, the best solution to improving government is not simply changing the party in power, but rather changing the demographics of power by electing more young women to political office.
As young, ambitious, and successful women leave our universities today begin their careers, we need everyone – regardless of party affiliation – to support our candidacy not “someday,” but in the near future. Running Start, the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, and other organizations give prospective young female candidates the knowledge and resources to succeed. But, Republicans and Democrats must do more than simply not obstruct young women’s campaigns. For the good of our country’s government, everyone needs to recruit a qualified young female friend and family member and tell her, “You should run.”
-Anna Roberts, Star Fellow Spring 2010Anna wrote and submitted this op-ed to The Houston Chronicle in May 2010.