Why Washington Needs More Tracy Flicks

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


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.

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

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