By Alessia Zanobini ’19
I firmly believe that involvement in government and politics should start from a young age, whether that consists of reading the newspaper or running for student government. Early political engagement leads to informed voters and experienced legislators. Even if this commitment is just at a school-level, I am proud of my peers for being involved in a democracy. However, last year’s student body presidential election and our subsequent senior class presidential election made me rethink if everyone was truly involved. As I looked at the students running, I couldn’t help but wonder: “where are the female candidates?”
For the newly elected 2018-2019 student government, girls hold just five of the twenty-two seats, and last year, each class had roughly the same ratio. As we go higher up in student government leadership positions, the number of women decreases even more. Last year, only one of our Upper School class presidents and vice presidents was female and for 2018-2019, all the class or vice presidents are male. Most strikingly, in the 44 years Pingry has been co-educational, we have only ever had four female student body presidents. Last year’s all-male group of candidates for student body president as well as the candidates for Form VI’s class president were clearly not flukes and represent part of a larger, problematic pattern here at Pingry.
When I talked about the lack of women in student government to fellow peers, many told me that had more women run, there would be more women on student government. There weren’t many girls on their class ballots in the first place. Why weren’t women running, then?
First, I had to personally reflect on why I hadn’t run. After all, I am knowledgeable and interested in politics and government. I hold similar leadership positions as the male presidential candidates and I’m involved in the same variety of activities. Thus, shouldn’t I share some of the guilt, as I am a qualified woman who voluntary chose not to run? My reasoning for not running was this: by election season – mid-Junior year – I had already committed to other leadership roles (Journal Club and the Student Diversity Leadership Committee, for example) and I’m more interested in those organizations than I am in student government. I didn’t feel discouraged nor did I lack the confidence to run; rather, I had already dedicated myself to other activities.
When I spoke to other women in the community, their answers sounded similar to mine. Allie Matthias (Form VI), a class representative, was hesitant to even run for student body president because of the potential stress and time commitment. Ultimately, she was the only female in our grade on the ballot, in part so that there “would be a woman on stage.” Cassie Yermack (Form VI) also didn’t run for student government because she didn’t think she’d win and didn’t want to be one of the only people who didn’t get elected (ten people were running for eight spots). The two most common answers I heard from people were “I’m too busy” or “I wouldn’t win.”
Clearly, none of my female peers are to blame individually.. In fact, no one I interviewed stated that sexism or systemic challenges held them back from running or being elected. However, a trend emerged of women saying that they didn’t run because they’d never be elected. Perhaps women lacked the confidence to run in the first place – or more likely, the lack of women on our current student government discourages women from running in the future. Several women told me they think that only a certain type of woman — polite, intelligent, and uncontroversial, for example — gets elected to student government, if at all. If a potential candidate feels she doesn’t fit this image, she might not run.
I argue that this issue goes beyond the Pingry community, though. How will Pingry women be encouraged to run if they don’t have the role models in our real government? In the U.S. government, there are currently 84 women in the House of Representatives (out of 535 members) and only 22 women in the Senate (out of 100 members), making around 20% of the members of congress women. Yermack mentioned that when she pictures a politician, she pictures “a man like Ted Cruz or Richard Nixon – white, commanding, and opinionated. That image is just not female.” Maybe women at Pingry feel discouraged from pursuing a career in politics and therefore spend time pursuing other college preparatory and career-oriented activities. This can also explain the other reasoning for not running (the “too busy” argument). In this case, perhaps Pingry has done all it can to encourage gender equality within the community, and the problems reach further than any one school can solve.
I am hesitant to label Pingry student government, or Pingry itself, as sexist; at the same time, I cannot ignore the obvious pattern of young men controlling our student government. The lack of women in student government hurts the whole community, as the group of leaders have a duty to represent the student body, and without women, that representation is impossible to achieve. As always, I encourage everyone — especially my fellow women — to get engaged in politics in whatever way they can to benefit themselves, their female peers, and the larger community.