Susannah Shakow's first impression of high-school junior Tristana Giunta was that she was awkward. "Like, couldn’t-look-you-in-the-eye kind of awkward," Shakow says. Giunta was attending the first annual Young Women's Political Leadership conference in Washington, D.C.—the flagship program offered by Running Start, which Shakow, a lawyer with experience pushing women into politics, started to get girls excited about governing; excited enough to run for office.
The Young Women’s Political Leadership conference is a boot-camp where high-school women learn the ingredients that make a great politician. They take Networking 101, Fundraising 101, and Public Speaking 101. They get first-hand knowledge of how Washington works from women who have been playing the game for ages. Girls learn there are dozens of people their age just as ambitious and as hungry to run for office as they are.
Despite her shy demeanor, Giunta soaked up an impressive amount of campaign know-how that weekend in D.C. She wrote Shakow a letter after leaving, saying she attended the conference because she wanted to run Young Democrats of America (YDA) at her high school, Holton-Arms in Bethesda, Maryland. "I don’t know if you remember," Giunta wrote, "but in high school, if you’re not popular, of course you never run for anything." Today, Giunta, who graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University with a degree in Government and a minor in Environmental Studies this spring, still remembers what an uphill battle running for president of the YDA was. "Some of the things that went on would make the movie Mean Girls look like nursery school," she says. "I was not popular. I did not fit in socially. I did not do a sport … I did not have a large group of friends to support me. But I wanted so badly to win the election.” The following year, she ran a campaign for the position, and she won. Looking back, Giunta says, "I was the most active president and the club membership grew like never before—all because Running Start helped me to realize I could do it. I could take the risk and somehow it all worked out."
Shakow filed it away as one of Running Start's first successes, but the story gets better—she later spoke to a girl who also attended Holton Arms, and asked if she knew Tristana. The girl's face fell. "Yeah." Shakow was surprised by the strong reaction, and pressed for more details. "Oh, nothing," she said. "It’s just I ran against her for YDA president and she cheated. She put up posters, and she had a table, and she had buttons and stuff." Shakow, retelling the story in Running Start's office in downtown Washington, D.C. is laughing at this point. "I was like, 'honey, she didn’t cheat. You just lost.'"
Running Start has only grown more ambitious in the seven years since that first conference. In 2010, the organization kicked off Elect Her, which tries to address the shortage of women in college student government. Running Start hosts frequent networking events in D.C. and Shakow and her staff have taken State Department-sponsored trips to other countries like Ireland, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Israel, and Russia, consulting governments on how to increase the presence of women in politics. The organization has spawned an impressive coalition of Tracy Flicks—young women aware of the scorn that can accompany ambition, but buoyed by positive impulses from the Sheryl Sandberg-fueled Rube Goldberg think-piece machine, the Hillary Renaissance, and the record-breaking 20 women in the Senate this term.
Earlier this July, Running Start hosted launched the Young Women's Political Summit at Georgetown University. The summit takes the formula of their successful leadership conference, but widens up the age range of attendees. Around 300 women, aged 14 to 35, attended. The documentary Raising Ms. President, directed by Kiley Lane Parker, also had its premiere at the summit, and provided a quick primer of the problems Running Start was formed to solve. The film’s director, Lane Parker, had intended the film to focus on the next generation of women in politics by profiling young high schoolers making a splash at Running Start and Ignite, a similar group in the Bay Area. Instead, after asking a classroom of young women who among them wanted to be president and seeing not a single hand raised, she changed the scope of her project; she wanted to find out why women weren’t rushing into politics like their male counterparts. A study conducted by Professor Jennifer Lawless at American University— featured in the movie and mentioned several times at the Running Start summit—shows that girls are three times more likely to want to be secretaries than a member of Congress. Is the problem not the political system, but the fact that we are raising our male and female children differently enough to give them different dreams, wondered Parker? If so, what could be done to fix it?
Shakow has been asking these questions for over a decade now. She started her career as a lawyer, but side-stepped into the political arena after realizing the gender disparities of power in D.C. were still painfully obvious at the tail-end of the 21st century. There were hardly any women lobbyists. There were hardly any women in Congress. Hill staffers were a decidedly testosterone-fueled bunch. For Shakow and her female colleagues, role models were scarce. And, those women who made it to Congress usually waited until after having children—by the time they were elected, the male politicians their age already had prestige and the plum committee assignments that come with it.
In 1999, she and a few other young women started WUFPAC, the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, a bipartisan group that endorsed young women eager to enter federal politics. "We’re not making or breaking their campaign," Shakow said. "But we’re there in the beginning and saying, ‘we’re there for you, we support you, and we think you can do this.’ And a lot of them say that meant so much to them." Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schulz, and Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers were among the first candidates WUFPAC endorsed. The organization couldn’t bankroll campaigns—WUFPAC is a political action committee on the runt-sized end of the spectrum—but the candidates they endorsed in those early years still praise the organization for being there when no one else was. Many of those candidates—Wasserman Schulz, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Representative Linda Sanchez—followed Shakow to become advisors for Running Start.
But, Shakow soon realized there were few women candidates to even endorse. She needed to go even younger than under 40, and work on creating a pool from which to draw young candidates herself. And thus, Running Start was born. In 2007, Shakow and friends launched their first and most successful program geared at high-school students, which brought Tristana and 19 other young women to D.C. The program drew more than 30,000 applications in 2009, and has been around long enough that its alums are putting the program to the test on the campaign trail.
Camille Henderson, Class of 2015 at Spelman College in Atlanta, attended a Young Women's Political Leadership program in 2008, and was later elected as her college class representative. "I had posters and campaign literature," she says. "It was really legit. In Spelman elections, the whole school and the president and everything is there for the debates. It's kind of a big deal."
After learning how to campaign and debate at Running Start, Henderson says "it was a piece of cake." She is interning with Representative Sanford D. Bishop this summer, and hopes to do community organizing at the intersection of politics and faith before running for office. Adejire Bademosi, convinced in second grade that she'd be the first female president of the United States, served on the Howard County School Board in Maryland from 2008 to 2009. She started FoundHER, an organization aiming to get girls from around the world to become entrepreneurs. She also sees Running Start as a crucial ingredient to the success she's had, and it "confirmed that perhaps it wasn't so strange that I watched CSPAN, because there were 49 girls who did too."
Brianne Nadeau found Running Start through her graduate program at the American University's Women in Politics Institute, where she graduated in 2006. She later served on D.C.'s Advisory Neighborhood Commission from 2006 to 2010, and is now campaigning for the Ward 1 seat on the D.C. Council. Nadeau will face off against incumbent Jim Graham in a Democratic primary next year. She's been out canvassing most weekends since Memorial Day, and her campaign has raised over $60,000. She had previously supported Graham, but in the wake of the scandal slowly infecting his ability to represent his constituents (it revolves around a long and tangled 2008 contracting dispute), she entered the race. "Maybe it's a female trait," she says, "I saw that the male incumbent wasn't doing a good enough job, and was like, 'Move over, I'll do it. I know what I'm doing, let me do the work.'" She's also seen first hand the barriers that young women face in politics. "I was once told by a colleague, he was joking, but only sort of, that it would be a good idea to 'pop out a kid' before the election so I could connect to people with families," she said. "Surely he wouldn't have said these things to a man."
Shakow and Jessica Grounds, executive director of Running Start and former head of WUFPAC, say it's even harder for Republican women to overcome the "family values" narratives that plague young women in a way young men never have to contend with. Running Start is a bipartisan organization, but they've always struggled to get both mentors and participants from the red side of the aisle. Part of the reason, according to Shakow and Grounds, is that many Republican women feel disenfranchised by their party right now. Beyond that, Republican women often feel the pressures of "family values" quelling their campaign before they even reach the campaign trail woes Nadeau described. A Republican staffer at a Running Start event a few years ago said "Democratic girls are raised to be anything they want to be. Republican girls are raised to be good wives and mothers." Grounds saw the same thing at the RNC conference last year, where she spoke about WUFPAC and Running Start. One male attendee told her, "Yeah, so we have a couple young women running and it’s great, but all of the voters keep asking why isn’t she home with her kids, so what am I supposed to say?"
However, Running Start’s leaders are still hopeful about the future. Even women who haven't been to a Running Start event are warming up to the idea of political office, especially at the ages the organization targets. A survey of women in Washington conducted by National Journal in June 2012 showed that 61 percent of women over 60 believed that they could advance themselves as far as their talents, regardless of gender, 86 percent of women aged 21 to 29 believed the same.
Tristana Giunta is still definitely one of those women. While at Georgetown, she put her leadership skills to good use with College Democrats. She also took a class called "Women in American Politics," taught by Donna Brazile, where she wrote a paper about Susannah Shakow. "I earned an A," she says, "and believe me, Donna Brazile is not an easy grader." Next, Tristana is planning on going to law school. She realized that "there are way too many lawyers, but on the other hand a law degree does increase the probability of being able to serve in or work with Congress."
At the end of Raising Ms. President, the camera trains its lens on a girls packing up after a week doing Young Women's Political Leadership. Lane Parker asks if any of them want to be president one day, and all hands shoot up. The girls look at each other, and start planning who is going to run when, and start staffing up and collecting votes for the 2040 presidential race.