“I hope we’ve inspired a lot of girls,” said Elena Tsemberis, “I hope a lot of girls will be able to see themselves as equal to men, and won’t feel intimated by them. And I hope that a lot of women, old and young, will feel they can get involved in politics. Most of the time, women are judged on their appearance rather than their achievements, and it’s time to change that.”
Tsemberis is referring to the Change.org petition that she started in May with fellow New Jersey teenagers Sammi Siegel and Emma Axelrod. The petition, which collected over 180,000 signatures, called on the Commission on Presidential Debates to appoint a woman moderator to one of the three upcoming debates.
Yesterday, the three Montclair High School students got their wish: News outlets announced that Candy Crowley of CNN will run the October 16 debate, and Martha Raddatz of ABC News will moderate a vice presidential debate on October 11. Crowley is the first woman to moderate a presidential debate since 1992, when ABC News’ Carole Simpson moderated a town hall-style debate between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. Simpson was the first woman to moderate a presidential debate, and she has been the only woman to do so until now. (Though PBS's Gwen Ifill moderated vice-presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.)
As the three teenagers note in their petition letter, “A lot has happened in the United States since 1992 … the crashing of the World Trade Center, the election of our first African American president, and an increasing involvement of women in politics. Or so it would seem. Yet, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, women hold only 17% of the seats in Senate and 16.8% of the seats in the House of Representatives. In the past 20 years, they have made up 0% of moderators of the presidential debates.”
Since starting their petition, Siegel, Axelrod, and Tsemberis have been featured on NPR, Current TV, The Washington Post, and MSNBC.
I spoke with Siegel, Axelrod, and Tsemberis yesterday to get their reactions to the appointment of Candy Crowley as a debate moderator, and their reflections upon their own contribution to the decision.
Despite their youth — not only are they not old enough to vote in the upcoming presidential election, but they don’t even have driver’s licenses — these young women have been celebrated for their dedication to equality. The three students took advantage of what they had learned in the Civics and Government Institute at Montclair High School about social movements like feminism, and various methods of creating change, before settling on an online petition through Change.org.
A former student of the Institute worked at the site and was able to help the girls launch their petition. Axelrod also drew on press skills she gained at Progressive Girls’ Voices (PGV), a training run by The Women’s Media Center in New York, saying that PGV was “at the core of what it took to accomplish [her] part in lobbying."
Siegel explained, “Change.org is the best way to have a petition online for anyone to sign it, instead of going door-to-door collecting signatures. It’s national. It’s a really easy way to get a lot of people to sign it from all over the world, you don’t have to give out too much information — it’s a really easy way.”
Petitions on Change.org, according to the girls, are effective because they are so direct. Axelrod added, “Every time that somebody signed the petition, an e-mail was sent to the Commission [on Presidential Debates] with a pre-written message which we had already created, saying that there should be a woman moderator and why, signed by [that person].”
The petition drew over 115,000 supporters by mid-July; by that time, a related effort on UltraViolet.org had drawn another 50,000.
Tsemberis said, “Initially, we knew that this cause mattered to the three of us, but it was different once 180,000 people had signed on. This is America and this is a democracy – if [the Commission] hadn’t listened – it would have been 180,000 voices they refused to hear, but since they did choose a woman, it’s 180,000 who get to see what they wanted to see.”
After affirming support for a woman moderator through their online petition, Siegel, Axelrod, and Tsemberis journeyed to Washington, D.C., in July to deliver a red, blue, and white ballot box filled with petition signatures to the commission’s office, but they were turned away at the door.
They also attempted, unsuccessfully, to schedule a meeting with Janet Brown, the executive director of the Commission. They then launched another Change.org petition asking the Obama and Romney campaigns to support their cause. Tsemberis observed, “When we went to the Commission on Presidential Debates and we were denied, we questioned whether or not we were being taken seriously. But shortly after that, the story picked up because we were denied. The fact that a woman was chosen definitely says that we were taken seriously. Our request was heard and the change was made.”
While neither the Commission nor Crowley have yet commented on whether or not their petition played a role in Crowley’s selection (though in July, Janet Brown did tell The Nation that she knew about the petition and its request), several prominent women have publicly commended the young women for their efforts.
Carole Simpson herself has come out in support of the three students, mentioning their campaign directly in her opinion piece in the Boston Globe published in early August. The president of the Women’s Media Center in New York, Julie Burton, honored the young women for “their passion, drive, and determination, and for making women and girls more visible and powerful in the media.”
The choice of Crowley as moderator seems to be evidence to the three students that democracy is still functional in America; the petition itself is evidence to America that young people care about equality and are actively participating in politics even before they can vote.
In the closing letter entitled “How We Won” posted on Change.org, Tsemberis explained that their campaign was about equal representation regardless of party affiliation. She said, “When Candy Crowley takes the stage to moderate the debate between Obama and Romney, it will be a victory for all Americans.”
Of course, equality can take many forms, and the criticism that presidential moderators are still not racially diverse remains. Simpson herself told the Huffington Post that her experience as moderator was not what she had hoped, saying, "They kept saying they wanted an Oprah-style town hall format, so that probably had something to do with them choosing a black woman ... I had no control over the questions that were asked, or who asked, or in what order. I was like a traffic cop."
The young women agreed that the criticism is valid, but think that having more women as moderators will contribute to overall parity in the debates. Tsemberis commented, “Now that we’ve conquered this issue, people are like, ‘Oh, what will you do next?’ And I’ve been thinking [about that]. I looked it up, and it was 20 years ago that an African American moderated a debate. Equality doesn’t only pertain to women. That’s we were working on, but equality can be achieved in many ways.”
While there's still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in presidential debates, let alone in politics more generally, the young women are happy and excited about their contribution to Crowley's selection. More importantly, they are looking forward to watching the debates.
Axelrod concluded, “I really want to stress that you hear all through your schooling about how as an American you have this ability to change how your country is run, and how America is a democracy, and it’s true. I hope we will inspire young and old people to get more involved.”