“I am usually a very shy person, and now I am more outgoing. I was able to teach those children about certain things like snakes that we have and the turtles that we have. … I want to do something toward that, working with children when I get older.”
These inspiring words come from a high school student, who recently testified at a hearing asking legislators to continue to fund the Connecticut State Science Center. Aren’t these all things we want for young women? Positive teenage experiences, overcoming shyness, gaining confidence, finding a passion—this girl has got it all, and not only that, but she took the brave step of sharing her experience and participating in the political system so that other teens could have the same opportunities.
Here’s how State Representative Ernest Hewitt replied: “If you’re bashful, I’ve got a snake sitting under my desk here.”
If that first quote showcased everything we want for young women, then Hewitt helped point out everything we don’t want.
“There are no words” is a saying people like to use, when something is so terrible, so outside of the realm of normalcy that speechlessness seems necessary. I’ve got quite a few words: Unconscionable, outrageous, offensive. I’ve got a few because this isn’t outside of the realm; this is what can happen when young women speak up.
Anyone who has ever testified at a hearing knows the amount of courage it takes. Kudos to this student for standing up and supporting what she believes in. Participating in politics can be a powerful way to develop a lifelong interest in bettering our country, and the world. It can give you the kind of skills that high school student gained from her work at the Connecticut State Science Center—standing up for what you believe in can reduce shyness, and foster self confidence and feelings of personal agency.
I remember the first time I took part in the legislative process as a teenager. When I was in high school, I spent a weekend studying issues and learning how to effectively lobby at the Religious Action Center. The trip ended with a day of actual lobbying visits. Sitting in those offices, talking passionately to staffers about issues that mattered to me, cemented what I wanted to do with my life. Like the high school student from Connecticut, I was a shy kid. These experiences helped me overcome some of that, and gave me a purpose.
And then I remember, with a twinge, an afternoon several years ago when I was fresh out of college. I showed up on the Hill with a set of fact sheets in a shiny folder, my head swimming with facts that I’d spent the night memorizing. Something magical had happened: After sending a press packet to a legislator, he called me for what I thought was a meeting to talk about upcoming legislation. It felt like the culmination of what I’d sewed years ago as a student lobbyist: A fairy tale for a political minded young woman spoon fed West Wing reruns, new to DC, and ready to get involved in politics.
It’s a tired story, but it was new to me—he had no interest in what I’d brought in my folder, and spent the next few hours asking me personal questions and finding reasons to graze my thigh and lower back. At the end of the “meeting,” he tried to kiss me. I walked away, cheeks hot, ashamed of my naivete. Even though I didn’t make good on this promise, I remember my first thought as I hailed a cab: “I don’t want to do this any more. I don’t want to do this any more.” I shook like a leaf the whole ride back to my office. I felt done with the dream. I’m glad I wasn’t, but I know how easily I could’ve been.
This is about more than a legislator making a sexist joke about the snake in his pants. This is about what happens when young women try to get involved in politics, and are shutdown and sexualized before they can make it out of the gate.
What does shutting down these voices mean for the rest of us? It means less women in office, less women in politics, and less women speaking out. Though we’re half of the population, we take up significantly less space in office, with women only making up 18% of Congress and holding just 22.8% of statewide executive offices.
We miss out on a vital perspective on economic and social issues when women aren’t at the table. We know this. And this is why it’s so important to call out these instances when a person in power demoralizes and sexualizes a young woman participating in the legislative system. The steps that get you to office start early. Experiences like testifying at hearings can be the first step towards a career in politics. When leaders like State Representative Ernest Hewitt use that experience as a time to harass you, it could be the last step instead.
Representative Hewitt apologized, and because of his actions, he has been stripped of his title of Deputy Speaker. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. We need to remind our legislators that their power is not a free pass, and we need to set an example for young women that when you are harassed in these situations, strong action will be taken.
My early experiences participating in politics helped me have a career as an advocate. I want any young woman who wants to stand up for her local science center, her school, or an issue that matters to her, to know that she will be protected and supported in her efforts. She may not pass that bill, but she’ll get the opportunity to have her voice heard in a safe space. When we allow more barriers to stop young women from participating in politics, we can’t be surprised when they don’t run for office or get involved later in life. I was lucky: When someone in power harassed me, I had colleagues and mentors who could tell me to keep going. Not everyone has that.
Share this story, talk about it, and share your experiences. If you have tools or ways to take action, please leave them in the comments. I don’t know what the next steps are, but I know that together we can figure it out. We can send a message to that high school girl who stood up for what she believed in, and the legislator who tried to shut her down, that when you harass young women, it won’t be pushed under the rug. We will support young women and amplify their voices. We won’t back down.