Boot camp teaches girls how to be politicians

Medill News ServiceJuly 24, 2012 

— Where does a 17-year-old girl who wants to be president learn how to do it? At a politics boot camp for middle school and high school girls.

Running Start, a nonprofit group that encourages women to get involved in politics at an early age, hosted about 50 girls recently in Washington, introducing them to female role models and instructors and teaching them the basics of networking, fundraising, public speaking and other skills essential to political success.

“It’s really important for young women to be involved in politics,” said Sophie D’Anieri, a 17-year-old high school senior from Troy, N.Y. “I think there is some discrimination against women that makes it difficult to run.”

“I’m sort of weird for my age to be this interested in politics,” said 17-year-old Rachel Hansen, of Philadelphia, who aspires to run for president. “I think girls my age aren’t thinking about the future that much. They’re just thinking about what’s going on Friday night.”

The camp was about more than just the mechanics of politics. It was meant to inspire girls to get into public life. Recruiting girls for elected office when they’re in high school helps ensure that there will be more women making policy decisions, said Jessica Grounds, the executive director of the group.

“At the high school age, you’re developing your sense of self and leadership ability. We want to give girls that sense of running for office in those years,” Grounds said. “When you’re elected early, you’re going to rise in seniority and have a lot of power.”

She said women typically waited until later in life to run for office and then struggled to balance their political ambitions with raising families.

“I think encouraging women to get involved and run before they have a family or before other obligations is a better way to get involved,” Grounds said. “Getting in early, they get the experience and get to feel what it’s like in that position, and they can move around in their life and do it.”

Recruitment is an issue because research shows that women need to be asked to run for office, while men are more likely to enter politics on their own.

“Women are substantially less likely than men to consider themselves qualified to run, even though on paper there are no discernable differences,” said Jennifer Lawless, an associate professor at American University and the director of AU’s Women and Politics Institute. “Political recruitment is another way we can get women involved in politics. . . . When women receive the perception they should run, they are more likely to respond favorably to that recruitment.”

It worked for D’Anieri. “It’s made me want to be a leader so much more,” she said.

As they learned how to face TV cameras without fear, speak off the cuff and deepen their knowledge of policy, the high school students at the Running Start program offered predictions for their own futures. Many also left with a feeling of the importance of their role in creating a better gender balance in statehouses, city halls and the halls of Congress.

“I think politics is really interesting, and I want to play a part in it somehow,” said senior Karen Chee, of San Francisco. “Women’s equality has been a really hard fight, and it’s our responsibility now to continue voicing our opinions.”

Barbara Palmer, an associate professor at Baldwin Wallace University who’s an author of “Women & Congressional Elections: A Century of Change,” said it was essential for women’s interest groups to get involved in political recruitment.

“Candidate recruitment is decentralized. It’s a personal, individual decision,” Palmer said, which makes it even more challenging to convince women to enter politics. “But the good news is if one person makes it a priority, a lot of change can happen.”

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