Why Washington Needs More Tracy Flicks

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It's time to set aside the stereotypes: Student government is actually a training-ground for eventual female members of Congress.

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Is the difference between being a grind and having grit mainly a question of circumstance?

Sometimes I wonder about this. Female cussedness is presented as an admirable quality in such films and television shows as True Grit and Veep, but the ferocious determination of Tracy Flick in the 1999 movie Election remains a byword for, as my father once said of Hillary Clinton, "everything I find unattractive about American women."

I've been wondering about this in particular now that it is intern and summer seminar season in Washington. That means incredibly awkward cold calls from young women at random congressional offices, like the one who appeared to never have used the voice function on a phone before, but was trying to update the press list for her senator boss and called me earlier this week. Thankfully, it also means an influx of incredibly poised young women, such as the high school girls selected for Running Start's Young Women's Political Leadership program, who will be in town at the end of the month for trainings designed to help them think about themselves as leaders and maybe even run for office one day (full disclosure: I volunteered as a media trainer with the nonpartisan project last year).

Such projects are important because, as it turns out, being involved in the political arena at a young age is something that actually amps up the odds of life-long achievement in it. Thirteen of the last 20 presidents (including Obama) first ran for elective office at or before age 35 -- a fact Marie Wilson first noted in her book, Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World, and one pointed out to me by Barbara Palmer of Ohio's Baldwin-Wallace College at a breakfast in Washington last week.

Student government turns out to be as important a political training ground for women in Congress as are state legislatures, according to scholars at the the Women & Politics Institute at American University's School of Public Affairs. In 2009, they surveyed women in the U.S. House and Senate. Not everyone replied. But the results they found among those who did were just fascinating: "53.7% of respondents had served in some form of student government, in either high school, college or both." And, "of the women who served in student government, 37.9% did not go on to serve in their state's legislature, making student government a unique pathway to higher office for women."

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That's kind of an amazing fact. It also means that it's worrisome that even as women have become the majority of college students, they have not kept pace when it comes to taking advantage of opportunities for young people to test out what it's like to run a campaign, and be voted on. If more young women participated in student government, more might go on to seek leadership positions in our real government.

Instead, by 2011, only 40 percent of student body presidents around the country were women, and the number is believed to be even lower when just considering four-year colleges -- not to mention top universities. "At the 50 colleges ranked highest by U.S. News & World Report, less than a third of student presidents are women," The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson reported last year. It's not uncommon for a school to be 60 percent female and have a student government that's 81 percent male, or a 62 percent female student body and 72 percent male student government.

Which brings me back to Tracy Flick. Grit and overconfidence are well-known as traits that predict success, where grit is defined as a psychological trait that allows people -- especially young people -- to buckle down and engage in "deliberate practice," a.k.a. unpleasant and boring tasks that are essential to acquiring expertise. In short, successful people know how to be grinds. They also tend to be convinced of themselves, even in the face of opposition.

I don't think I first saw Election until about a decade after it came out, because when it was released I was still living under an informal "avoid all Reese Witherspoon movies" policy (kind of a Tammy Metzler thing, I know). But when I did finally see it, I didn't get why Tracy Flick was seen as the villain of it.

Looked at objectively, the movie is about two middle-aged, sexually frustrated male high school teachers who become weirdly obsessed with a highly ambitious, well-organized, and hard-working female student from a not-very-prosperous single-parent home -- and how she doggedly pursues her dreams despite their efforts to thwart her and the costs to her own happiness.

First, one of the men seduces her -- against school rules about dating students and in violation of his own marriage vows and possibly the statutory rape laws of Nebraska, where the action is set -- and tries to derail her life suggesting she run away with him. Then, when he is appropriately fired by the school, his friend, played by Matthew Broderick, recruits a popular but sidelined male jock to run against her for student body president because he doesn't want to have to spend time with her as the academic adviser to the student government if she wins, alternately hating her for her ambition and wanting to bed her himself. This teacher fantasizes about Flick when he has sex with his wife, blames her for the breakup of his friend's marriage and career, and, after failing to push the jock into the presidency, throws out just enough of the ballots he's charged with counting to throw the contest to Flick's male competitor. A janitor who hates the teacher because he's an inconsiderate slob finds the tossed ballots and reveals the plot, causing Broderick's character to lose his job. Flick, having survived all this, as well as potential scandal of her own making after she tears down her opponent's candidate posters in a fit of frustration -- the jock's lesbian rebel sister saves Flick by take the blame, so she can get expelled and go to an all girls school -- ultimately gets the presidency. Flick goes on to Georgetown University and either a job or internship with her a Republican from Nebraska in D.C. The Broderick-played teacher continues to hate her irrationally.

That Elizabeth Dole, Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin -- the three most prominent women to seek the presidency or vice presidency since Election came out -- have all been compared to Tracy Flick shows something of the movie's staying power, and the extent to which it created a negative cultural stereotype for discussing women and political ambition.

But it's no good if our only cultural reference point for women in student government is a negative one. If America's ever going to reach even a third women in Congress, it will need more women to get a taste for political combat on campuses -- and more Tracy Flicks making it all the way to Washington, D.C.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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