Saira Blair
Saira Blair, 18, elected West Virginia House of Delegates

IN AN AGE WHERE GENDER EQUALITY IN THEORY is almost universally supported, there are still some strongholds where a woman’s presence makes people feel uncomfortable. One of these is the world of politics, which revolves around power and money, two things traditionally tied to testosterone. But with the idea of a female president becoming ever more possible in the 2016 elections, politics are opening up to young women across the country. Just like Obama normalized the idea of a black president, more high profile women are normalizing the idea of women in the political realm. Leaders are often perceived as having certain qualities – strength under pressure, integrity, high ideals, and a Y chromosome. Many still think “leader” equals “male,” likely from living in a patriarchal society where men are expected to be head of the household. This stereotype is changing, evolving as our culture evolves with the digital era of communication. Young women, as young as eighteen years old, are being elected to office these days, often through the means of campaigning via social media and the internet, aside from traditional campaign initiatives.

Appointed in January 2015 to the House Armed Services Committee, thirty-one-year-old Elise Stefanik this year became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress as New York’s twenty-first Congressional Representative in 2014. After graduating from Harvard in 2006, she worked as part of the Domestic Policy Council under the George W. Bush administration, followed by stints at the office of the White House Chief of Staff under Joshua Bolten, as communications director for the Foreign Policy Initiative, and as policy director for Tim Pawlenty during his 2012 presidential campaign. After managing Paul Ryan’s debate preparation while he ran for Vice President in 2012, she returned to her upstate home to help run her family’s small business, and used this experience to build a platform for her 2014 campaign.

As the first American-Samoan and first Hindu member of Congress, as well as one of its first female combat veterans, Tulsi Gabbard, a thirty-four-year-old US Representative for the state of Hawaii, bucks all kinds of stereotypes. She was also the youngest woman elected to state legislature, having previously served in the Hawaii House of Representatives from 2002 to 2004, at the age of twenty-one.

In 2014, eighteen-year-old Saira Blair became the youngest state lawmaker in the nation, male or female. She ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates, beating out incumbent Larry Kump for the Republican nomination before going on to defeat the Democratic nominee, Layne Diehl, in the general election by a landslide. Blair had some familiarity with running for public office; her father is a Republican in the West Virginia Senate. But to do so at the age of seventeen, before actually being eligible to vote, is inarguably gutsy. Perhaps that’s what women in politics need – the fresh, optimistic ambition of a young generation of girls who think, “Why not run for office out of my college dorm room?”

Kimberly Mitchem-Rassmussen, co-founder of the Political Institute for Women and founder of Girls in Politics, says the visibility of women in politics in the 1990s was likely a huge factor that helped to normalize the idea of women’s leadership. “These young women who are in their thirties, they were girls when they saw an article on Blanche Lincoln. So they see someone leading. These consistent images of women in leadership positions create that normalcy.”

Political Institute for Women
Political Institute for Women

Just like the introduction of televised debates during the Kennedy versus Nixon election of the 1960s, social media has revolutionized how campaigns are carried out. Candidates can now appeal directly to the voters through a Facebook page, Twitter, or online videos, and many young people, both men and women, are taking advantage of this newfound accessibility. In the 2008 election, the Obama campaign identified these untapped resources, and utilized them to gain the support of young people and first-time voters. It also allowed for a more controlled media presence. Obama didn’t have to rely on popular media to give interviews. As Mitchem-Rassmussen said, Obama could easily make statements “through his website and his YouTube, and [send] directly to email with the embedded video clip… It did really revolutionize the way that you can communicate and the way that you can fundraise.”

That same savvy was important for Saira Blair, who rallied for support by setting up a Facebook page and posting campaign fliers with the ever-familiar tagline, “Like and Share!” And people did. Campaigning this way brings politics into the twenty-first century and gets the attention of the millennial generation, notable for their tolerance and acceptance of people from diverse backgrounds. Most millennials believe in equal opportunity for women, so it makes sense that they would support their efforts in politics.

Mitchem-Rassmussen notes that finding women as role models is not about individual biases. “Any woman who actively takes a role in leading and puts her face out there as a leader, to me, is a role model. Even if I don’t agree with her position, she may inspire another woman who does.” But it is also important to treat these women as politicians first, without emphasizing gender at all. With Hillary, so much media attention is focused on her bid as the first serious female presidential contender that much of her policy gets lost in the storm.

In local government, it is more normalized for women to be involved. Just like in the private sector, the general population is more comfortable with women assisting those in power. This bias creates a dilemma, because while assisting positions are important, women must be able to move just as easily into more powerful roles when it is natural to do so.

This raises another issue at hand for women who must navigate their own way, no matter how many role models take a chisel to the glass ceiling. Succession planning can be extremely important for “continuity of governing,” as Mitchem-Rassmussen puts it. But many women are too busy “keeping a toe-hold in their position” to groom a successor. “When a woman gets elected to office, she often stays in office or in a leadership position longer than she’d like to, because she hasn’t nurtured another young woman who’s like-minded to come in to take her place. Men do it all the time. Not for any altruistic reasons; if you get a guy who’s cut in your mould to come in and run the organization and take your seat, you can be sure that the policies will be consistent, and you will continue to benefit from the work you’ve done.”

Hillary Clinton 2015

A big selling point for women politicians is “transparency.” Used as a buzzword in women’s campaigns, it plays on their perceived openness and willingness to work with the community. This is why the attacks on Hillary Clinton for not being transparent enough could be so devastating. For male politicians, transparency isn’t the focal point. They can continue in public service despite telling outright lies, not unlike Hillary’s husband. Buzzwords and branding may nudge women into an elected seat, but women should not be defined simply by “transparency” or their “community focus.” Their platforms are as diverse as those of their male counterparts.

Another buzzword for the new generation of politics is “authenticity.” Campaigning via social media brings candidates to the voter’s level, helping them appear more relatable. Fearing scandals, some politicians try to hide their private lives behind a polished exterior, complete with a flag pin. This might have been the ticket for an older generation of voters, who put stock in professionalism and respectability, but these qualities are not so paramount to the new generation, which values realness more readily. Take the case of Emma Kiernan, who was elected to the Fine Gael Newbridge Town Council in Ireland in spite of, or some may say because of, a scandalous Facebook photo of a night out with girlfriends. Leaked by Kiernan’s ex-boyfriend, the incident was termed “Boobgate” in the local media. But his stunt backfired by bringing attention – some of it positive – to Kiernan’s campaign. She ultimately won the vote, and in retrospect was thankful for the breach, saying, “It separated me from other politicians because it made me seem like a normal, down-to-earth girl who you could hang out with in the local pub.”

Similarly, when Obama listed his favorite movies, music and interests on his Facebook page, it not only made him relatable and likeable but also helped to humanize him to those eager to dismiss him based on superficial qualities like his race. The same could be true for women who feel pigeonholed by gender. When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg admitted to falling asleep during a session because of a little too much to drink, many found it charming. Saira Blair has been photographed eating and working on her phone during sessions, and is open about trying to juggle school with campaigning. For the politician of the future, being authentic and transparent first makes a commitment to important issues more believable.

For Mitchem-Rassmussen, social media is only a tool and not the solution for an equalized political field. “You can use social media to start a fire,” she says, “but does it start a fire that actually leads to changing legislation? We are talking about politics. If it’s not about votes, it doesn’t matter. If it’s not getting ink to paper and getting a bill signed, it doesn’t matter.” She says that for change to happen, it “needs to be fought for… If you look back historically, for every major gain in rights or opportunity, people had to force it. Everybody knew that the Civil Rights Act was the right thing to do, but it was something that had to be pushed through Congress.” Many European countries have mandates in place for women’s participation, but in the United States, there is no such system.

With women making increasing headway into the world of politics, transparency and authenticity are the touchstones of a new set of values developing within the political arena. As a new generation accepts female representation as the norm, the same values are applied to both male and female candidates, so that there is a lessening gap between a “female politician” and a “politician” period. And while women seeking positions of power continue to encounter criticism within the current social structure, Mitchem- Rassmussen encourages them to forge ahead, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with being persistent.”

Article by Lydia Snyder for The Untitled Magazine’s #GirlPower Issue

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