As a general rule, I try to keep my Twitter feed quite boring. I usually stick to my areas of expertise: law and politics or campaign finance and bureaucracy. Sometimes I throw in a silly GIF or two, just to spice things up. But I was so taken with something that my daughter said after meeting Sen. Elizabeth Warren in one of her famous “selfie lines” recently that I tweeted it out.
The tweet caught fire, gaining over a million impressions and over 26,000 likes. Many comments to the photo focused on the influence that Warren is clearly having on girls in this campaign. One person responded with the familiar picture of a young Bill Clinton shaking President John F. Kennedy’s hand.
Like Kennedy, it’s entirely possible that Warren has already shaken hands — or pinkies — with a young fan who will one day be president. But she’s also pushing us to believe, now, that running for president is “what girls do.” She wants us to believe that we’re living in a new era, an era where there is usually more than one woman on debate stages and female candidates are common, not extraordinary. Warren is asking America’s girls, their parents and really the whole country to envision a national political culture in which women are simply expected to run. And she is doing so by crisscrossing the country, making pinkie promises with thousands of little girls.
Like Kennedy, it’s entirely possible that Warren has already shaken hands — or pinkies — or with a young fan who will one day be president.
Recently, we have seen several high-profile female politicians make a special effort to reach the next generation of young women. Hillary Clinton, an inspiration to many, tweeted out a picture of herself dancing with a little girl when she accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. “To every little girl who dreams big: Yes, you can be anything you want — even president,” she wrote. “This night is for you.”
She also spoke directly to little girls when she conceded the race to Donald Trump. “To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams,” she said. We have also seen role modeling and inspiration from Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand during their campaigns.
But Warren’s approach is arguably more sustained and consistent than her current rivals. The Massachusetts lawmaker doesn’t speak about a distant, more equal future: She has a plan (or three or four) to change society now. She is talking to little girls, but she’s also talking to all of us. She is encouraging women to run for office now.
Other women campaigning have spoken generally about a feeling of pride or power, or winning office. Warren’s message is different. She wants us simply to run. The more we normalize the act of running, the better women’s representation will become. Women are as likely to win a campaign as men. (I repeat: We are equally electable!) And once in office, we are more likely to support pro-woman policies and respond to constituent inquiries about women’s issues.
Research in political science suggests that when women run for office, women’s political engagement, knowledge, activism and ambition generally increase. Female politicians can serve as role models as well, which may encourage other women to run for office, or at least to engage with politics more deeply.
Research in psychology indicates that when women view other women in roles they had not previously considered for themselves, it expands their sense of what is possible in their own careers. Moreover, our experience with “similar others” can improve our performance: If women taking a math test are exposed to a “math competent” woman before the test, they score better than if they are exposed to a “math competent” man.
Warren is a role model, certainly, but she’s more than that. Mentorship involves much more than one brief conversation, of course, but research suggests that the little girls who make a pinky promise with Warren are likely to remember her message: Same-gender mentors are more inspiring to women than cross-gender mentors.
When she met my family, Warren shook my hand and then went to speak to my 6-year-old daughter (“six-and-a-half!” she insists). The senator told my daughter that running for president should be expected of girls, and they made a pinky promise so she would remember. Setting expectations like this is a crucial aspect of mentorship. If Senator Warren becomes President Warren, there are many little girls in this country who will celebrate a mentor’s success. And that will very likely shape their ideas about what is possible in their own lives.