By Diana Samuels The Times-Picayune
This article and video are part of The Southern Girls Project, an ongoing project exploring the lives of girls in the South today.
An auditorium full of teenage girls clapped, chanted and cheered as candidates for governor skipped around and waved at the crowd. Campaign managers had just three minutes to lobby for votes and trade support, running from group to group before the results would be tallied.
This organized chaos is the democratic process in action at Girls State of Louisiana, an annual program that, among other things, teaches girls how government works. But while about 450 girls gathered at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches in June, enthusiastically running for different positions, planning political projects and managing campaigns, they live in a state with some of the lowest numbers of women serving in elected office.
Less than 15 percent of the state's legislators are women. There are currently no women representing Louisiana in statewide elected office. And Louisiana ranks 39th out of 50 states for gender parity when you look at women serving at federal, state and local levels, according to an index by Representation 2020.
What stops girls like those at Girls State -- passionate about their communities, interested in the political system -- from running for office? And what can be done to change it?
Not all, or even a majority, of the girls at Girls State are there because they want to be politicians. There are budding lawyers, sociologists, teachers and any number of other professions. They come to learn leadership skills, add a line to their college applications and make friends with other girls from around Louisiana who share similar interests.
But some are politically involved. Annie Noel, a 17-year-old from Mandeville, said she's been interested in politics since 7th grade. She said she doesn't think she would run for office, but would like to work on campaigns at the national level.
"I think the political system is so interesting, in the way that politics has such a visceral effect on people," Noel said. "How issues can get people so angry or excited or happy or upset."
Na'Lani Zeno, a 17-year-old from Lafayette, said she hadn't really considered politics before attending the program. Now, she said she might reconsider.
"It wasn't even a thought in my head," she said. "I ran for a couple of positions and winning those positions, even losing some, it made you feel like 'Oh my God, this is really what politicians go through,' all the campaigning, everything. It really opens your eyes and I'm just like 'Wow, I might want to do this."
But while short programs like Girls State may spur an initial interest, experts and studies say the work must go further than that if we're going to see women achieve parity in politics.
It wouldn't surprise anyone today to see girls involved in student government at their high schools or serving as class presidents. But something happens in between that point, when girls are willing to put themselves forward and ask their peers for votes, and when they're looking at career paths.
"It comes down to the same thing as for adult women: Girls don't ever think they'll be qualified enough," said Anne Moses, president of IGNITE, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that works to get girls and young women involved in politics. "Even looking forward, they don't see that changing."
Research shows that the gender gap when it comes to political ambition runs deep, and starts early. A 2013 study by American University professor Jennifer Lawless and Loyola Marymount University professor Richard Fox of 2,100 male and female college students found that young men were twice as likely to have thought "many times" about running for office. Women were 20 percentage points more likely to say they'd never considered it. Given a choice of potential careers, women were far less likely to say they would want to be a mayor, member of congress or president.
The study argues that "political socialization" is one of the factors behind the gap. While boys and girls grew up in households where they were exposed to the same level of political activity, like watching or discussing the news, far fewer girls and young women were encouraged by their parents or other adults in their lives to run for office.
Early on, parents were supportive at similar levels for each gender: 24 percent of male respondents said their parents encouraged them to run for student government, compared to 25 percent of female respondents. But when it comes to running for office later in life, there's a significant gap: 40 percent of men said they were encouraged to run by their parents, compared to 29 percent of women. That disparity is equally reflected in girls' interactions with a variety of other adults in their lives, such as teachers, coaches, or grandparents.
The study also draws connections between running for office and playing competitive sports: Girls and young women who had played competitive sports were 25 percent more likely to express political ambition. But boys are more likely to play sports and be exposed to that competitive environment: 87 percent of the young men surveyed had played team sports when they were younger, compared with 72 percent of the women who responded.
"Overall, our results suggest that playing organized sports either provides an opportunity to develop, or reinforces the propensity toward, a competitive spirit," the report said.
"These characteristics relate to running for elective office later in life, and this effect is evident in both female and male college students."
So how do you close that gap? The study says that women are "just as likely as men to respond positively to encouragement to run." Getting women involved in sports from a young age could help, it adds.
And there are some organizations that are dedicated to getting girls involved in politics, surrounding them with that political discussion and that peer motivation that might otherwise be lacking.
Susannah Wellford, who works with girls and young women through her Washington, D.C.-based program Running Start, often finds those in the program are interested in politics but don't see themselves as the actual candidate. They want to be behind the scenes.
"I have talked to thousands and thousands of women of all ages," Wellford said. "For some reason, we as a gender have decided that our talents are better served if we're the queenmakers instead of the queens. I don't have any idea why that seems to be so prevalent, but I do think you can change that."
Moses has had similar experiences with the girls she works with.
"They'll all be like 'Oh no, I don't want to run for office," she said. "They're afraid to say it, where the guys are like, 'I want to be a senator.' For young women, I think they have a really hard time stating something that seems so big and bold if they don't feel like they already have all the qualifications for it."
What's the answer? Both Ignite and Running Start take approaches that involve exposing girls to civic education: Teaching them how government works and about public speaking so that they feel more qualified, and more confident. They connect them with women elected officials, so the idea of running for office doesn't seem so surprising.
"They demystify it -- they realize (the politicians) are not so fancy," Moses said. "They live next to your grandma and they've had a similar life experience to you."
The girls at Girls' State said they feel like politics is clearly dominated by men. It's an environment that rewards confidence, they said -- unless you're a woman, and being commanding becomes a negative.
"I feel like some women, they think about it, they're like 'I want to do this,' but then they already have it in their heads that we're below," Zeno said. "I feel like some women want to do it but then they get out. They get nervous and scared."
That feeling is echoed by the 11- to 17-year-old girls surveyed for a 2014 Girl Scout Research institute poll. While 67 percent of the girls said they were interested in politics, and more than 37 percent were interested in becoming a politician, only 32 percent felt that society encourages women to be politicians. Nearly three-quarters of the girls agreed that "if I went into a career in politics, I'd have to work harder than a man to be taken seriously."
But the girls at Girls State said they were motivated by the supportive, passionate atmosphere there, being surrounded by other girls and young women who care about improving their worlds. And they said they were inspired, regardless of their personal political beliefs, to see high-profile women like Hillary Clinton succeeding on the national political stage.
"It's like it's finally starting to happen, it just gives us a push," said Brooke Badeaux, a 17-year-old from Lafayette. "We are all told, especially at Girls State, you can do anything you set your minds to, you're going to be great... But to finally see something happening – the world's changing and evolving."
Do you know a girl we should talk to, or want to find out more about The Southern Girls Project? Email us at [email protected] or click here for more information. The project is a collaboration with journalists throughout the South: See other work on the "Rebelle" Tumblr page.