By Deborah Mesce
Tuesday, July 25, 2000
High school seniors at Girls Nation heard that President Kennedy told a similar group 40 years ago that they would make great First Ladies, but that none could be President. The question now: When will one of them decide that she can?
WASHINGTON, D.C.--Today's young women know that they do can anything a man can do, including seeking elected office. And, they hold many of the same views young men do about the desirability of same. They are put off by politics, seeing it as dominated by old white men, money and special interests, the young women attending Girls Nation here this week were told.
The same research that provides these insights also offers hope that young women can be motivated more often than young men, by an issue they deem important.
Marie C. Wilson, president of the Women's Leadership Fund, told the Girls Nation representatives here Sunday night that a recent survey by the White House Project Education Fund found that three-quarters of the 18- to 24-year-old women surveyed believe that electing more women to political office would improve government and politics. Half of the women said they would consider running for public office to work for an issue they cared about. But only 6 percent expressed very keen interest in running.
The figures for young men interested in running for office were similar, but only 45 percent said government and politics would improve with more women officeholders.
The White House Project Education Fund, a project of the nonpartisan Women's Leadership Fund, is using the research, analyzed in a report titled "Pipeline to the Future: Young Women and Political Leadership," to develop strategies aimed at nurturing political interest among young women.
"We can get young moms, young Latinas, young African-Americans, we can get a lot of young women who have not been fully represented in this system to run for political office if we use the right tools," says Women's Leadership Fund President Marie C. Wilson.
Sharing the research Sunday with teen-agers attending Girls Nation in Washingon, D.C., Wilson said that while young women and men have a similarly negative view of politics, the tools needed to encourage them to get involved are different.
For instance, the survey found that young women are more likely to be interested in politics if they have mentors who provide information, guidance and training opportunities. Wilson says that while young men are inclined to say, "I'll get in there and figure it out," young women usually want someone to help them figure it out.
The research also shows that young women are also more likely to be interested in politics if they believe they can accomplish a goal and make a difference.
"Running for office is not an end in itself for most young women," the White House Project Education Fund's report says.
The most effective ways to increase young women's interest in seeking office is to explain how politics can make a difference in people's lives, give them examples of ordinary women who have run for office and provide examples of how specific issues can be dealt with by public officials, according to the research.
Among the messages most convincing to young women, particularly Latinas, about the importance of their participation in politics was the story of Carolyn McCarthy, a member of Congress. She decided to run for public office after her husband was killed and her son wounded by a gunman on a New York commuter train. McCarthy is a strong advocate for gun control and used her office as a national platform to keep her advocacy alive.
The research also found that young women are more likely to consider running for office on the local level, where they see officeholders as more able to accomplish goals and where politics does not hold the negative stigma attached to national politics.
"We can get a lot of young women to go to school board, to go to county boards," Wilson says. "You don't have to start with the Senate. You can get young women to do this if we are very smart about the way we bring them in."
But the effort has to start early. Successful women in politics should encourage young women to join them. They should also lay the groundwork for younger women's entry into politics and eventually into top leadership positions, including the presidency, she says.
To illustrate to the Girls Nation participants how far women have come in politics, Wilson recalled President Kennedy's words to a Girls Nation audience nearly 40 years ago. "He looked out over Girls Nation and he said: 'It's good to be here. It's too bad none of you will be able to grow up to be president, but you will be wonderful first ladies.' No one would ever think of doing that now."
Girls Nation, which began in 1948, is an annual, week-long gathering, where two female high-school seniors from each state (this year Hawaii and Louisiana did not participate) learn firsthand how the federal government works.
The research was conducted by Lake Snell Perry & Associates and Youth Intelligence. It included focus groups in four cities in February and, in March, a national survey of 600 women and 200 men between the ages of 18 and 24. The margin of error for the sample of women is 4 percentage points.
Deborah Mesce is a free-lance journalist based in Washington, D.C. She previously worked for the Associated Press.