The Feminist Majority Foundation website drew my attention to a new study conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute showing an increase in political awareness, confidence, and engagement among girls ages 13-17 since the last time similar data was gathered, before the 2008 election cycle heated up. Fifty nine percent of the study’s 3, 284 female respondents stated that the election increased their confidence in being able to achieve their goals in the future and 55 percent said it increased their confidence levels in speaking and expressing their opinions on issues that matter to them. Also, according to the survey, both boys and girls showed substantially higher awareness of the difficulties and inequities faced by women in our society, with 43 percent agreeing with the statement that “girls have to work harder than boys in order to gain positions of leadership” compared with similar data gathered a year ago in which only 25 percent agreed with the same statement. Instead of being deterred by this heightened awareness of gender inequalities, however, four in ten young women surveyed stated that this election has had a positive impact on their desire to become a leader.
I realize that data gathered through small-scale surveys of this type needs to be approached with healthy skepticism, particularly when the data-gathering organization is an affiliate of the Girl Scouts, an organization with a history of explicitly religious affiliations and ambiguous stances on homosexuality and other issues. That said, these findings make sense to me intuitively.
It’s long been with a sense of sadness, frustration, and sometimes embarrassment that I’ve witnessed the political and social apathy of women around me, in the media and in my circle of friends and acquaintances. This video, put out by MobLogic.TV last year made a real impact on me because those types of reactions have grown so familiar to me. Of course, every person is not naturally interested in or engaged with politics, and that’s fine. But my experiences have shown a real disparity along gender lines. When I stop to really think about it, though, it’s totally understandable. It’s is pretty difficult to feel a sense of investment, engagement, or interest in a system that ignores and frequently disrespects your interests, a society in which the prevailing, respected voices in the media are still overwhelmingly male, in which many of the issues that most deeply effect women are trivialized, ignored, or dictated by legislative bodies which still consist predominantly of old, white men. After all, even today when there are more women in politics than ever before, only 17 out of 100 US Senators are women, as well as 74 out of 535 members of Congress and one out of nine Supreme Court justices. Shockingly, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would provide comprehensive protection against gender discrimination, has still not been ratified, despite numerous attempts since it was first proposed in 1923 (as in, 86 years ago). In light of all of this and in the face of overwhelming daily reminders of our second-class status within our society, it is not hard to understand why it would be easy for women to feel disenfranchised and altogether disengaged from political and social issues and processes.
The past year or two have provided much reason to be hopeful for the future and I think this survey provides concrete evidence of what many of us, whether we are women, African American, or neither, have been feeling. This election cycle represented many firsts and above all proved that, after the initial uncertainty and ad infinitum rehashing of whether America was “ready” for a black or woman President died down, a non-white or non-male candidate could be a legitimate candidate who, though not entirely escaping prejudices and double standards, would be judged above all on substance, on the issues. Furthermore, I believe that Obama’s victory is a victory for women in ways that extend beyond his feminist stances on issues like abortion, birth control, and poverty. Indeed, I believe that simply by breaking the mold, expanding the vision of what a President looks like, Obama’s presidency will help move us toward the election of a woman president, something I hope can be accomplished in the near future.
Much has been made of the significance of Obama’s win. It has been written about and discussed as a historic milestone, and indeed it is. Yet, we must not allow smug self-congratulation to make us complacent. Yes, we have a black president, yes we had a viable woman candidate, but there is still only one black person in the United States Senate, and only 17 women. And writing about the House of Representatives’ 39 African American members recently, FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nate Silver pointed out that most of these representatives were elected in districts in which African Americans represented more than 50 percent of voters.
None of this is meant to diminish the kind of deserved increase in political and civic interest and engagement by women, African Americans or other historically disenfranchised groups represented by these new statistics. Indeed, this is exactly what is necessary in order to continue to push toward a more equal future. My only reason for returning to these sobering statistics is to urge continued vigilance and to suggest that, though an important foundation, enthusiasm and engagement on their own are not enough to enact change. Just as many have cautioned in the months since election day that we should not take Obama’s election as proof of the achievement of a “colorblind” society and be lulled into a false sense that our work in this department is over, I believe that it is important to recognize that greater optimism is only significant if it is justified, followed through in concrete ways. We are far from a gender-neutral or gender-equal society and if this newly energized, excited, and engaged generation of young girls is to find justification for these feelings, we must all work, starting today, to create a society which fosters not only optimism but the opportunities for these young women to channel this increased enthusiasm into concrete action and change.