“Raise your hand if your biggest obstacle has been older women,” asked the conference moderator on a panel about building women’s political power. One hundred and twenty young, elected women raised their hands. From the dais, I thought back to my own experience as a 22-year old councilwoman. I know that being a young and female and elected is not easy, but the fact that our own sisters continue to be more hindrance than help is more than disheartening, it’s calamitous. It is the difference between building on a wave election and continuing to grow the number of elected women in the country, or once again stalling out.
We know about the amazing young women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sharice Davids, and Ayanna Pressley recently elected to Congress, but they are not the only young women who are running and winning. Younger women are currently (finally!) running for state and local offices in record numbers. They are not asking for permission or waiting for their kids to get older. If we’re lucky as a nation they will be fantastically successful and remake government and politics for a generation.
We should do more to make this happen than hope for a lucky outcome.
I often sit in rooms with fellow middle-aged women who bemoan the ways younger women dress, talk, and behave. I admit to shaking my head at various tattoos and ever-rising hemlines. We need to stop shaking our heads and start helping younger women.
Why aren’t older women more nurturing of their younger sisters? Opportunities for advancement in both the public and private sectors were traditionally so limited for women fighting their way to the top that they felt that they couldn’t afford to be generous to other women. If there was one woman in the C-suite, it was unlikely that there was room for another. In response, many women held on too tight to what they had rather than try to make the pie bigger. It was a bad model for success and leadership then and now.
Efforts to build women’s political power have historically ended at the ballot box. After the votes are counted, however, the hostility and obstacles increase. Electing younger women is just the beginning of restoring our democracy; now we have to help them succeed in these roles. That is why the Network of Elected Women creates local networks of elected women to share and learn and build political power together.
But, even our efforts are not enough.
Over the last two years, older women have been knocking on doors, making calls and telling everyone we know (including strangers on street corners) to vote. Mentoring younger elected women needs to be added to our checklists.
In a relay race, the person handing the baton to the next runner is responsible for making it easy to grab. When it goes well, there is a brief a moment of transference when both runners are holding onto the baton together. That is the moment when older women can help younger women openly, wholeheartedly and generously. We need to share what we have learned about resilience, collaboration and the importance of building deep, strong relationships for overcoming resistance to social change. Younger women are free to choose to ignore our help, but we still need to offer it.
We need to cross the tattoo line and celebrate the amazing gifts young women are bringing to the public arena. We need young women to help lead the way to a better world, where it matters less what you wear and how you speak, and more who and what you value. Our success is inextricably intertwined with theirs. We should be fearless and generous in our outreach; the future of our country depends on it.
Editor’s Note: Allison Fine is the Founder and CEO of Network of Elected Women (NEW).