Part III of the “She’s More Than a Symbol” series with Marianne Schnall provides insight on the voice of young people in electoral politics and the impact they could have on a woman reaching the White House in 2016 and beyond.
During interviews for my book, What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?, many people from across the political spectrum emphasized what an important role the younger generation will have in shaping the political landscape of this country. This may seem surprising, considering a recent analysis by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement that revealed only 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-years old cast ballots in the 2014 elections. This was the lowest recorded turnout rate in the past 40 years. However, an Associated Press GfK poll conducted in 2014 found that volunteering was the only civic activity rated as highly by young people as by older adults. While young Americans might not be voting, their interest in civic engagement is being harnessed in other non-political ways. Despite this, many interviewees felt that this is the generation that could put us on the path to gender parity. I’ve looked back through my interviews for insights about the generational differences to consider during this election, especially what part young people are likely to play in shaping the country’s political landscape and electing a woman to the White House.
Overall, the people I interviewed expressed optimism about the engagement of the younger generation and the growing diversity of the electorate. President of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards told me this: “My hope is that now, particularly this rising electorate—the most diverse generation ever in our history…they really have the opportunity to completely shape the future here. That’s why I do believe that there will be a woman elected president in my lifetime, in my daughter and son’s lifetimes. All of the ingredients are here to make it happen.”
Lieutenant Governor of California Gavin Newsom had a similar outlook: “I think the most profound [new paradigm] is this ’Net generation, this millennial generation. It’s the first global generation, the most empathetic and connected generation in history, people thirty and younger. And I think it’s a generation that forms less distinction and more connection. It’s a generation that is more civically minded. It’s the most educated generation. I see that generational shift, less defined by Democrat/Republican, there’s a different diversity that’s being formed, and I just think that it’s going to bode extraordinarily well and very favorably toward the shift to gender equality and advancing the rights of women and girls.”
When I asked broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien if she thought we were ready for woman president, she, too, was hopeful: “I think it’s a generational issue, more than anything else. I look at my daughter, who, as little as she is, has a sense that women can do anything.”
The reason why we’re enthusiastic is now the young have changed. In this last election you could see it.
The people I spoke to felt that today’s younger voters are more cognizant of the benefits of diversity in public office and harbor a strong desire for change. Eleanor Smeal, cofounder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and former president of the National Organization for Women, told me, “The reason why we’re enthusiastic is now the young have changed. In this last election you could see it. I never believed all this garbage that you read over and over again that the young are not with us. It could not be further from the truth. All polls and all behavior show that younger people—both men and women, but overwhelmingly the women’s side—favor change.”
However, the progressive attitude of the younger generation doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll automatically vote for a woman candidate. A few people I interviewed for the book observed that younger generations are more likely to consider policy, not gender, when choosing a candidate. Julie Zeilinger, a millennial herself and author and founder of the young feminist zine The F-Bomb, put it to me this way: “I think that a more intersectional movement is one that my generation is more likely to get behind, because I think we were raised in this climate where young women and men growing up didn’t really see themselves divided in terms of gender in the same way previous generations might have. And just to use the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama example, when a lot of people from my generation were talking about that election, we kind of rejected that idea of identity politics. I think we really were considering them in terms of their own merits as candidates, whereas so much of the media conversation was about whether we would have a black president or a woman president.”
The progressive attitude of the younger generation doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll automatically vote for a woman candidate.
Author, blogger, and speaker Courtney Martin added, “The younger women I know and interact with think of it as politics, policy, and values first, sex second. Generally there’s this feeling that symbolic leadership is not enough – that it needs to be a woman who actually holds and practices and lives and breathes and walks feminist values.”
While I heard significant optimism about the younger generation making a difference in terms of voting, some of the people I interviewed did express their concern that younger women seem less interested in entering into politics themselves, either because of the challenges they know they will face in running or the dysfunction they perceive in government and Washington. Former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe observed, “Young people, mostly young females, want to immerse themselves in public service or to engage in some kind of either public or civic aspect of life, but they’re not so sure where they can measure their contributions in political office, and whether or not they can contribute to the extent that they desire to contribute in public service. They see there are other forms of public service that might be more rewarding. But I tell them we can’t change without them.”
New York Times best-selling author and former Congressional candidate Marianne Williamson agreed: “I gave a talk at a university recently where several women students involved in social justice and human rights work were explaining what they want to do when they leave college. As they went around the table explaining what their plans were after they graduated, many of them said that they wanted to do ‘policy and/or advocacy work.’ I remember inwardly tilting my head, thinking how odd it was that women graduating from one of the best universities in the country—all of whom were really marvelous young women—wanted to go do policy and advocacy work, but not one said she wanted to be a senator or a congressman or a president. And in today’s world, policy and advocacy work, in my mind, means we take our activism to a certain point but no further. In other words, we want passionately to lobby and persuade those in power, but for whatever reason we’re not so comfortable with the idea of becoming those in power. And at a certain point, it’s not enough to have the audacity of hope, or even the audacity of activism. We need the audacity to wield power.”
While I heard consensus that the younger generation offer much hope as a force toward greater diversity and equity in politics, many interviewees emphasized the importance of finding ways to engage young women (and young people in general) as much as possible: as voters, as candidates, and in realizing their power as citizens and agents of positive change beyond the grassroots. One approach is to capture the personal stories of current and former officeholders – women who have found government a worthwhile and effective path for change. Their legislative success stories show a different Washington than the one of incessant gridlock and partisanship portrayed on the news; instead they show a city and a career of possibility and potential. As Kay Bailey Hutchison explained her motivation, “I think that it is very rewarding to make a difference—to do something that you know makes a difference in quality of life is the reward. There’s a lot that’s hard about public service, there’s no question about it. But it’s very rewarding to have an impact, and I really think that is something that women should step up to the plate and do.”