Tweens and Twenties See Future Led by Women

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The seven women from 'What's Your Point, Honey?'

(WOMENSENEWS)–When Amy Sewell and Susan Toffler set out to make a documentary about the next generation of female political leaders, they ran across seven women in their early 20s. This group became the focus of the film designed to promote young women’s participation in the electoral process.

The directors took the title of their movie–“What’s Your Point, Honey?”–from a cartoon that has two characters: Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is pointing to a globe showing all the countries where women are heads of state and a man is asking, “What’s your point, honey?” The title provided an ironic touch, but the message of the film, which debuted in New York on May 29, extends beyond the 2008 race.

“It’s about the day that we see seven up there that we can choose from and not have it become polarizing,” said Sewell, who is also creator of the 2005 documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about a dance program in New York City public schools. “It’s about seeing seven women candidates the same way that we see seven men.”

This summer, the documentary will be shown in the hometowns of the seven participants, which includes Philadelphia; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; San Francisco; Bloomfield, Minn.; and Washington, D.C.

Now is a good time to begin recruiting the next generation. In this election cycle, Clinton’s exit from the top of the ticket exposes a fairly stagnant scene for the male-female ratio in congressional races, but Gilda Morales, a researcher at the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, is looking ahead to 2010 for signs of an uptick.

“With statewide and congressional races, we’ll probably see something in two years,” she said. Susannah Shakow, president of Running Start, a two-year-old organization in Washington, D.C., that works to encourage young women’s political interest and potential, also hopes the Clinton campaign will prove to be a turning point.

“Some women worry that they are not qualified enough,” Shakow said. “But that was never said about her: that she doesn’t have the credentials to run. I think that a lot of what happened will be inspiring to women everywhere and hopefully that’s the message that will come out of her campaign.”

Grooming Young Leaders

The seven women featured in “What’s Your Point, Honey?” were all leaders on college campuses or local communities and in 2006 they participated in Project 2024, an effort launched six years ago by teen magazine CosmoGirl with the support of the White House Project, a New York-based bipartisan advocacy group that works to elect women to all levels of political offices.

The idea of the project is that by 2024–the year when the magazine’s youngest readers will reach 35 and be eligible to run for U.S. president–one CosmoGirl from each year of the program will stand on the presidential debate floor as a real candidate.

“If possible future leaders are reading CosmoGirl magazine because they are interested in their hair and clothes, then you go to where the culture is to find these young women,” said Susan Toffler, the film’s co-director.

CosmoGirl is the young-adult version of Cosmopolitan and has over 8 million readers ages 13 to 24. Although its main focus is on beauty, fashion and entertainment, six years ago the magazine’s editors decided to reach out to young women interested in political leadership.

Project 2024 participants completed two-month internships they had applied to beforehand. One worked in the office of New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney; another at the United Nations Association, a nonpartisan organization that encourages civic participation and public support for U.S. leadership in the United Nations. Others worked in the sports and music world where women are under-represented in managerial positions, said Tara Roberts, senior editor of CosmoGirl.

Focus on Home Support

For the purpose of the film, though, the directors chose a character-driven approach and focused on the women’s “oral histories” of their leadership ambitions and thoughts on the future of female leadership, emphasizing their home environments and the support they receive from their fathers.

Shot in 2006, the film is narrated by three tweens–8-to-12-year-olds–who run around New York seeking answers to why there still hasn’t been a female president from boys their own age and other random passersby.

Its main thrust is to reach the day when there are many female candidates to choose from, but some women’s advocacy groups say the catch remains in getting them to run for all levels of political office, whether local, state or federal.

Running Start’s political leadership training for young women emphasizes providing a practical sense of what it’s like to be a candidate by introducing female high school students to older female leaders.

It also offers training for public speaking and presentation, advocacy, persuasive writing and campaigning. Its first training, held last year, involved 21 teens mainly from the D.C. area. They each had an opportunity to meet Muriel Bowser, a Washington city council member; Ann Kaiser, Maryland state delegate; and several other women who were running for office at the time, such as Mishonda Baldwin, running for Congress in Maryland, and Tara Andrews, running for Maryland state delegate.

Expanding Participation

This year, the program has expanded to 50 participants from around the country. “The whole purpose is to start changing mindsets and attitudes of younger women about politics because they grow up thinking that politics is not an option for them,” Shakow said. “So what we are trying to do with the high school program is to show them the power they can have to change things and give them the main idea of what it takes to become a political leader.”

A study from the White House Project looked at why women don’t run and found two main reasons: Women are less likely than men to view themselves as qualified and are also less likely to receive encouragement to run for office from party leaders, elected officials and political activists.

Even on college campuses, where women make up 51 percent of student bodies, they remain under-represented in presidential or vice-presidential positions in student government, according to a 2004 study in the College Student Journal called “Participating But Not Leading.”

Last year, the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington and the student government at the school began an initiative called Campus College to increase female representation in its student government.

After a one-day training for female students on how to run a campaign, the following elections, held roughly three weeks after the training, boosted female representation in student government to 43 percent from 28 percent. The institute plans to expand the effort to campuses across the country.

“In my work, I think there is no shortage of different ways we can all try to reach young women, to get across to them how interested we are in them, how encouraging we are of their leadership, and how important it is that they step up,” said Sarah Brewer, the institute’s associate director. “And the broader the reach, the better we will be in empowering them to see themselves as public leaders.”

Besa Luci is originally from Kosovo and a recent graduate from University of Missouri, Graduate School of Journalism.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

“What’s your point, honey?”
http://www.whatsyourpointhoney.com

Running Start
http://www.runningstartonline.org

CosmoGIRL! Project 2024
http://www.cosmogirl.com/lifeadvice/project-2024/

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