While writing my senior thesis on women’s pathways to the U.S. Senate, I came across a remarkable statistic: Of the 20 women serving in the current Senate, 70 percent of them were Girl Scouts. In the U.S. House, 60 percent of the women’s delegation once donned a troop vest. This is particularly noteworthy because in the United States overall, only about eight percent of adult women have participated in this program.
Of course, we can’t draw causal connections here. If you sign your daughter up for Girl Scouts, she won’t magically—poof!—serve in the nation’s top legislative chambers. But programs like these build critical leadership skills that have political implications later on. Early exposure to politics has significant influence on young women’s future political ambitions.
By doing something as simple as selling cookies door-to-door, young women gain financial literacy and practice advocating (in this case, the Girl Scouts’ mission of building “girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place”). They meet new people, make requests, experience rejection, and learn to bounce back. As The New York Times reported in 2013, “it’s hard to imagine a better way for children to learn to pitch, and keep pitching, than this.” It’s a skill that proves highly useful on the campaign trail, where candidates must knock on doors, consistently practice public speaking, and ask for money.
Anna Maria Chávez, the Chief Executive Officer of the Girl Scouts of the USA, remarked, “This organization has literally created the female leadership pipeline in this country,” by cultivating young women’s early sensibility to community needs and building leadership competencies. As Barbara Mikulski, the U.S.’ longest-serving female Senator, puts it, “[in Girl Scouts] we were taught that we could do anything and be anything… We learned how to use a compass, and that gave us a compass for life.”
My heart sank this week when I read the results of a recent poll commissioned by the Girl Scouts Research Institute. The main finding? An impressive 67 percent of teenage girls are interested in politics, but negative stereotypes about women in politics hold them back from pursuing this interest. Only 32 percent of young women (ages 11 to 17) believe society encourages women to pursue politics, and 74 percent believe that if they were to enter a political career, they would have to work harder than a man to be taken seriously. Interestingly, 93 percent of respondents participated in some kind of political, civic engagement, or leadership activity in or out of school. Yet, “running for student government” is the least popular activity.
This disconnect between community service and government was also evident in the Harvard Institute of Politics youth poll, which surveys Americans ages 18 to 29 on political attitudes and civic engagement. Only one third of young voters say they would volunteer for a campaign, but far more—67 percent—would volunteer for a community service project supporting a meaningful cause.
We need to help young women make the link between issues they care about and political leadership. So what can you do? Talk about campaigns, issues, and the news with the young women in your life—at the dinner table, in the car on the way to soccer practice, or through Facebook and other social media. (The Harvard youth poll found that women are more active than men on every social media platform, from Pinterest to Facebook to Twitter). Investigate opportunities to mentor in your community, and take your mentee, little sister, or cousin on field trips to the presidential libraries or the State Capitol—especially to see a female legislator. Share the Center for American Women in Politics’ Teach a Girl to Lead site, which features lesson plans, resources, films, and field trip spots for young women leaders. Encourage high school women to apply to girls’ leadership and politics programs, including Running Start, Ignite, GirlGov, and Girls State (of which I am a proud graduate)!
I’m officially declaring tomorrow to be Take Your Daughter (or Young Woman in Your Life) to Vote Day! Go vote tomorrow, and bring a young woman you care about with you. Let’s start building a pipeline of young women in politics who are exercising political muscle. Maya Harris, a member of Parity’s LatinasRepresent National Advisory Council, put it best on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show: