When 16-year-olds Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel, and Elena Tsemberis learned a few months ago that a woman hadn't moderated a presidential debate since 1992 — not once in their lifetimes — they were appalled. Emma, Sammi, and Elena attend Montclair High School in New Jersey, and study politics together through the school's Civics and Government Institute.
They drafted a petition to rally support for women debate moderators and posted it to Change.org, upon the suggestion of a history teacher. The petition was headlined, "Select a woman to moderate a 2012 presidential debate," and addressed to the Presidential Debate Committee. It reads:
Women and men will never be truly equal in our country until they’re one and the same in positions of power and both visible in politics. We need to take immediate action in order to move towards this change. It is time for a woman to have a chance to show what she’s capable of by moderating debates in the upcoming election.
Please, in one of the three upcoming presidential debates, appoint a woman moderator.
The girls posted the petition on a Monday in early June, and by Friday it had accrued around 100,000 signatures. Change.org noticed the petition's success, and reached out to the girls to help them take the campaign to the next level of exposure by pushing it out to the site's network of national media contacts. When they had reached 170,000 signatures, media watched as they attempted to physically deliver the petition in boxes to debate organizers. They were ultimately prevented from delivering the signatures, but their trip to DC still made a statement. On Monday, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that Bob Schieffer, Candy Crowley, Jim Lehrer and Martha Raddatz would moderate the debates, thus splitting the duties evenly between men and women for the first time.
The ladies' petition is the latest in a string started by teenagers unafraid to call themselves feminists as they rally support for causes they feel passionate about. Earlier this summer, Julia Bluhm gained national attention when she successfully petitioned Seventeen to lay off retouching and add real-looking teens to its pages; Emma Stydahar and Carina Cruz, both 17, received a similar level of exposure when they launched a campaign asking Teen Vogue to do the same, even though the magazine rebuffed their pleas.
Successful Change.org campaign are rare. Most of the 20,000 launched each month around the world accrue something like five signatures and die as quickly as they begin. But the site's organizers, like Shelby Knox, keep an eye out for the best petitions with the most signatures and potential, and do their best to put the campaigns' organizers in front of the national media.
Knox says that successful petitions — the ones that go viral — have a couple of things in common: a strong personal narrative that resonates with a lot of people and authors the public will want to support, like upstart teen women. "People are really inspired by young people taking an interest in politics and the world around them and trying to change it," she says. In the case of the Emma, Sammi, and Elena, "these are three adorable girls from New Jersey who can't even vote but want to change the process. You can tell people will want to be on their side," she explains. "You don't want to be the one that tells teen girls they can't do something. There's a mass sentiment, yeah, you go girls, I'm going to tweet your petition, I'm going to sign your petition."
Viral Change.org petitions get the attention of their targets fairly easily since every time a petition is signed, those targets receive an email saying so. (Petition authors must know what email addresses to put on the petition, of course.) The teens who started the campaign to get women moderators for the presidential debates targeted the executive director of the commission on presidential debates, Janet Brown, and her co-chairs, Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry.
Knox has worked on a number of successful campaigns started by teen girls. One in Corpus Christie petitioned her school for a gay-straight alliance after her attempt to start one led to the shut down of all student clubs on campus. Another young woman who was bullied for her sexual orientation got the rating of the film Bully downgraded from R to PG-13 so that more young people could see it.
"A long treatise on why a piece of congressional legislation should be passed is unlikely to get that much attention," says Knox. "It's really the story — so for instance with the presidential debate campaign, it's really these three girls were so appalled that there had not been a female debate moderator, that the last one had been four years before they were born. They [were] articulate and smart and did not shy away from calling themselves feminist — they just had a great story about three friends saying, 'This is wrong let's see if we can change it.'"
In the wake of the announcement that two of the four presidential debates will be moderated by women, the girls continue to do press for their efforts. I spoke to them following a life appearance on MSNBC this afternoon. "We wrote [the petition] and we did all the work for it. The only thing we physcially could not do was we really didn't have the tools to reach big media names," Elena explained, noting, "we didn't receive any media training." She says prior to working directly with Change.org, the teens promoted the petition themselves on Facebook, Twitter, and by emailing it to friends. All in all they estimate they spent around 24 hours on the whole thing before Change.org started helping — and the work hasn't slowed down.
Sammi admits she's "astounded" by how the petition has exploded. "I thought it would get local support and attention, but it was amazing to watch it grow," she says.
"This has taken up a lot of our summer," Elena adds. "I had to miss sleepaway camp."