Women in Politics. The phrase brings to mind a few choice images, namely backward white males spouting defensively about wage gaps, feminists protesting the Hobby Lobby, and Hillary Clinton in a tremendous pantsuit. Whatever the reaction to these images, it would be fairly safe to say that they do not paint the picture of a career path particularly receptive to young females. I will be the first to stand up and say how inspiring Hillary Clinton’s path to power has been and how heartening it is for me as a young woman to see the faces of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elizabeth Warren, and Janet Yellen, but if I am honest with myself, their paths seem almost impossible to follow.
For one thing, they are much, much older than I am. It is hard for me to aspire to the career of a woman in her sixties when I am still in my twenties. I can see that it could happen, by a long shot, way out ahead of a forty-year plan, but what about my five-year plan? Or my two-year plan? Who do I look up to for that? Where is Olivia Pope (besides back for season four on September 25 obviously)? Where are the brilliant twenty and thirty-somethings blazing their own trails on the political horizon?
The truth is, they are out there. The Olivia Popes of the world exist, along with their loyal compatriots, but they are few and far between. There is a drastic shortage of talent in government right now. As of 2013, the number of government employees under the age of 30 hit 7%, an eight year low. Compare this to the private sector where 25% of employees are under the age of 30. According to government statistics from the same year, about 45% of the federal workforce is at least 50 years old. There is a reason old white men have held office for so long – there are not that many people rising through the ranks to challenge them.
There is a reason old white men have held office for so long – there are not that many people rising through the ranks to challenge them.
Luckily, there are some trailblazers out there who we can look to and hopefully, someday stand beside. Take, for example, Tulsi Gabbard, a US Congressional Representative for the state of Hawaii and a Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Committee. She’s 33 years old. She grew up homeschooled and at 21 decided to run for a representative slot in Hawaii’s state government, an election that she won. A few years later she joined the military. Gabbard didn’t graduate from university until she was 28 years old.
Then there’s Rachel Haot at 31 years old, who is the Chief Digital Officer of New York State. She took this role after serving three years in her local city government as the Chief Digital Officer of New York City under Mayor Bloomberg (one of her first accomplishments there was getting the city government’s social media responses up and active during Hurricane Sandy, providing resources and guidance for thousands of citizens in danger). Before entering the government, Haot went to NYU and got a BA in History. Then she worked for tech start-ups and started a consulting agency. She’s brilliant, yes, but like Gabbard, I would hardly call her path conventional.
Just because you may not look like the average candidate on TV does not mean there isn’t a place for you in government. In fact, it means that our government needs you more than ever.
The point I’m trying to make is that just because you may not look like the average candidate on TV does not mean there isn’t a place for you in government. In fact, it means that our government needs you more than ever. You don’t have to have worked in government before to get involved, and you don’t have to have national aspirations. Start with your city, your community, a specific talent or area of expertise that you have, and first see what you can contribute there.
Maybe you don’t think you could handle solving something as global as the ISIS crisis. Maybe you have no idea what policies should be in place when it comes to a terrifying illness like Ebola. That’s ok. I don’t have those answers either. You don’t have to make those calls. But is there an issue that you are passionate about? Does the fact that human sex trafficking still exists as a major industry in the United States make your blood boil? Are you living in California’s drought and you just found out that flood irrigation is still used for a large percentage of agriculture? Would you like to see reform in our education system? Do you have an idea for better immigration processes? Green energy? National park preservation?
I am not going to tell you to call your Congressperson. I am not going to tell you to tweet about it or sign a Change.org petition. As great as those things are for awareness, they don’t do much to tangibly address a problem. It is pretty clear that the only people who are really being heard in a meaningful way are the ones on the inside. Don’t just call your Representative. Become your Representative.
Don’t just vote. Get on the ballot. Run for the local school board. Work for a campaign. Find an agency that could use your skills and go work for them.
Everything that you are good at right now, whether it’s graphic design or marketing or accounting or biology, can be used to inform and support policy changes in our country. You don’t have to have a law degree to roll up your sleeves and make something good happen. You don’t have to be on the news to influence policy. What you do have to do is stop looking at the person next to you, waiting for them to do something. Get up and do it yourself.