Where Are the Young Women in Election 2016?

May 23, 2016

With Hillary and Carly making history, why aren’t more young women interested in politics this cycle?

susannah-5In 2008, with women at the top of presidential politics, Running Start saw a jaw-dropping 30,000 girls apply for 50 spots in our political leadership program. But despite the success of women in election 2016, this year we only had a tiny fraction of that number apply. What’s going on?

Each year our nonpartisan nonprofit organization brings 50 high school girls from around the country to DC for a week of political leadership training. Most years we get hundreds of applications for these spots. In 2008, when we received such a record number, the girls were applying a few weeks after the historic election that saw the first Black man win the presidency and Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin close behind. Boxes and boxes of applications had to be filed and piled wherever they could go. In the end, we picked our class of young women, but were left reeling from the onslaught. We wondered: would this happen every time prominent women drew the national political spotlight?

susannahIn 2016, we finally had the chance to find out. With Hillary Clinton a front-runner for the Democratic nomination and Carly Fiorina a major player on the Republican side, we braced ourselves for a year like 2008 when our mailman threatened to quit and our office looked like it belonged to a hoarder. But now that applications are in and tallied, we find that instead of thousands of applicants, we are left with a mystery. In this “year of the woman” we got the same number of applications that we got last year, maybe fewer.

In 2008 we attributed the glut of applications to the role model effect. When something seems unattainable, it can be incredibly powerful to see someone like you doing it. It makes your goal seem possible instead of unreachable. Researchers have even seen it work in very short periods of time: when a woman is shown a portrait of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, she does a better job at public speaking.

Running Start uses the power of role models in all of our programs. When so many of the faces in the news don’t look like the young women we train, finding and showing them the ones who do lets them visualize themselves in the halls of power. Suddenly, political leadership goes from an abstract goal to a concrete possibility.

With women so prominent this election cycle, why didn’t the role model effect bring thousands of girls to our program?

We deputized our high school intern Lauren to do some detective work. She looked through a very unscientific sample of 2008 applications and noticed some interesting patterns. Maybe those 30,000 applications in 2008 were less about a woman running for president and more about politics finally looking like something young women could be proud to be a part of.

DSC_0007 (7)One of my favorite quotes from a 2008 application is from a young woman in California: “When I was growing up, a Black female president was an improbable idea. After the recent election, however, I’m convinced that this great nation is ready for some big changes.” Another student wrote: “Although Hillary Clinton did not make it to the oval office, I believe that soon, perhaps in my lifetime, a woman may be seated at the big wooden desk.”

Most importantly, they talked about a barrier being broken: no longer did old white men have a monopoly on the presidency. One young woman wrote: “I told my father that I wanted Barack Obama to be our next president. My father looked at me and said ‘Grace, unfortunately, a Black man with the name Barack Obama will not be elected as President of the United States in my lifetime’. No man has ever been happier to be proven wrong.”

DSC_0012 (5)Flash forward to 2016, and that barrier is already broken. Sure two women made it incredibly far, but that is the way it is now. You don’t have to be old and white to win. It’s easy to take the trailblazing candidates of this cycle for granted. For many of the girls applying to our high school program, big-name women seriously running for president is the only paradigm they’ve ever known. At Running Start, we know that not nearly enough women ever consider political leadership. But to young women surveying the political landscape maybe it seems like we’ve already solved the problem.

It is also clear that the stunningly negative tenor of the current election has turned youth off. The window of time when politics was hopeful and admirable is closed. “Being a politician has many negative connotations, nowadays,” says one 2016 applicant. Another despairs, “it has become a fact that politicians are full of empty promises.”

Young women also are acutely aware that running as a woman carries even more baggage. “I have noticed that women are treated very differently in politics—our ideas are ridiculed, and we’re seen as more emotional and ‘b****y,” a 2016 applicant wrote. Another pledges to stand against “a derogatory standard of women in the media” that causes girls to be “fearful of disparagement and feel less competent than males to lead”. Studies show that women are less likely to run for office for these same reasons.

These points of frustration come from young women motivated enough to apply to a political training program. Young women as a whole are probably much more cynical about politics.

To find out more about why young women this year aren’t as interested in political leadership, we’re asking young women to speak up and tell us what their thoughts really are on election 2016.  Our #YoungWomenSpeak poll is up on Twitter right now.  We’ll continue the conversation @rsprez and @runningstart and share what politically engaged young women have to say about this election.


Susannah Wellford is the President & Founder of Running Start, a national nonprofit organization that trains and inspires young women to run for political office.  Susannah is also the co-founder of Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, the only bipartisan organization in the U.S. financially supporting women under the age of 40 running for Congress.  Susannah is a recognized expert in the arena of women’s political leadership.

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