Three New Jersey high school students – Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel, and Elena Tsemberis – started a campaign on Change.org earlier this summer asking the Commission on Presidential Debates to select a female moderator, after learning in their civics class that a woman has not moderated a U.S. general election presidential debate since 1992. One week ago, on August 13, the Commission announced that CNN’s Candy Crowley will moderate the second presidential debate on October 16, leaving the three young Women You Should Know to claim, “Victory!” The inspiring teens spoke with us about the origins of their campaign and what this game changing victory means for all Americans.
WYSK Women Talk With Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel & Elena Tsemberis
WYSK: You are all 16, not even of legal voting age yet, so what sparked your interest in the presidential debates, specifically the fact that two decades have passed, marked by four U.S. presidential elections (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008), without a woman moderating a single presidential debate?
Sammi: All three of us go to Montclair High School, and within the school there is a small learning community called CGI. CGI stands for the Civics and Government Institute, and we are all in the community. Through CGI we learn a lot about the women’s rights movement and other social movements of reform. In class, it was brought to our attention that there had not been a female presidential debate moderator in two decades. We were learning about all of the struggles women had to endure in order to gain equality with men, and it was surprising to find out that there still wasn’t gender parity in politics. We were simply astonished that a woman had been overlooked for twenty years, and decided to write a petition.
WYSK: Why do you think it is important for a woman to moderate the presidential debates?
Elena: I think it is important that a female moderates a presidential debate for several reasons. Women have been unseen in this role for two decades. The millions of Americans watching these debates have seen only men moderate for four elections. This sends a message to the girls and boys in our country that only men are capable of doing this job, and girls begin to think that they are inferior and not as capable as men. A woman on that stage would not only represent a step toward gender equality and female visibility in the political realm, but she would add a new perspective. Men should not make the laws for women’s bodies, and it is only fair that a woman touches upon issues such as reproductive choice.
WYSK: When you launched the petition, did you have any women in mind for moderator?
Emma: When we were campaigning all we wanted was for a woman to moderate a presidential debate by herself. We just wanted equal representation on the debate stage. We trusted the Commission on Presidential Debates to pick the best woman for the job. They did. We can’t think of a journalist who would do it better than Candy Crowley.
WYSK: There are three of you behind this petition. Whose idea was it to actually take your collective surprise over the lack of women moderators to the next level and start an online petition?
Sammi: A former student of the CGI reached out to us and said that a good online outlet for our petition would be on Change.org. It allows the petition to be available nationally and internationally through the internet, instead of going door-to-door in our neighborhood. All three of us were excited to use Change.org to increase awareness of this issue. The petition site is easy to use, and just allowed us to really present our petition to the world.
WYSK: How did you get the word out about your petition when it first launched on Change.org?
Elena: When our petition was first launched on Change.org, it was a true collaborative effort to spread the word. The three of us, Emma, Sammi, and I, shared the petition on Facebook and sent it to our friends and families nationwide who would also share it on Facebook. We told our teachers, doctors, coaches, employers, and anyone that we could to increase signatures and increase awareness of this issue.
WYSK: Was there a moment when you realized that people were taking serious notice of what you are trying to do?
Emma: I realized that our movement was being taken seriously when I read that Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney wrote to the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) asking them to choose a woman. She didn’t mention us, and that was good. We didn’t want our efforts to be seen as a cute fluff story because we’re sixteen. When Representative Maloney wrote to the CPD, she was making the struggle serious news.
WYSK: In addition to Rep. Carolyn Maloney, your campaign gained support from some incredibly impressive and influential women: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn voiced support; Sonia Ossorio, President of the National Organization for Women New York, vowed to lend her group’s weight to your quest; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took to Twitter to complain that “it’s been 20 yrs since a woman has moderated a prez debate.” How did it feel to not only be noticed and heard by these powerful and admirable women, but to also be influencing their agendas?
Sammi: It’s extremely exciting to know that so many prominent female politicians supported our campaign. It truly made us feel that we were making an impact on the presidential election process. It also made us feel confident that this was a cause worth fighting for, especially with the other 180,000 voices behind us.
WYSK: Did any men of influence reach out in support of your cause?
Elena: There have definitely been less men of influence to reach out and voice their support of our cause, but two men come to mind when reading this question. The senator of New Jersey, Senator Menendez, contacted us over twitter, and told us he supported us. Also, the Mayor of Montclair called our school and homes personally to tell us how proud he was and to offer us the opportunity to speak to one of his political science classes at the local university.
WYSK: Are you surprised by all of the media attention that you and your petition have gotten?
Emma: We had no idea what to expect. We hoped that our story would be picked up because we expected that it was more likely the CPD would listen to us if we received a lot of attention, but it was unlike anything we had ever experienced or could hope for!
WYSK: Carole Simpson, the last female presidential debate moderator, who moderated the 1992 debate between George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, says her job mainly consisted of walking through the audience and handing people the microphone so they could ask their own questions, as it was the first “town hall” style debate. She told the Huff Post, “I had no control over the questions that were asked, or who asked, or in what order. I was like a traffic cop.” Now that your petition succeeded in achieving its goal, what role do you see a woman moderator playing?
Sammi: We have succeeded in our goal to get a female presidential debate moderator with the CPD’s selection of Candy Crawley. The CPD also chose Martha Raddatz to moderate the vice presidential debates, which makes half of the moderators male and half female. Although Carole Simpson moderated a town hall style debate, it required a lot of responsibility and skill to keep the debate running smoothly. She moderated one of the most pivotal debates in history, and many say that the debate was the reason George Bush Sr. lost the election. Even though she was not able to formulate the questions, she needed to facilitate a discussion between the candidates and make sure they didn’t go off topic. We also understand that Candy Crawley will be allowed to ask follow-up questions. We believe that Candy Crawley is an excellent choice as a presidential debate moderator, and even though she is moderating the town hall style debate, we achieved our goal of moderator gender equality. We want this generation and future generations to see a powerful, positive female role model on the political stage, and that’s what we will see.
WYSK: How many petition signatures did you collect?
Elena: To date, we have two petitions up. One targeted the Commission on Presidential Debates, which collected around 123,000. Our other petition targeted the Obama and Romney Campaigns and the DNC and the RNC and that one garnered around 56,000. Between them both, we have close to 180,000.
WYSK: It was reported that you were ignored by the Commission on Presidential Debates when you went to Washington, DC to deliver the signatures you had collected. We find their reaction surprising and disappointing, especially since the Executive Director of the Commission is a woman – Janet Brown. Why do you think you were ignored? Have you since heard from anyone at the CPD?
Emma: No, we haven’t and we don’t expect to hear from anyone on the Commission, but that’s okay because at the end of the day we got what we and at least 180,000 other Americans wanted. I think that the CPD was surprised at all the attention our petition got. They’re not used to that. They’re used to being able to do their job without interruption and input from others. I also think maybe they were a little defensive. Maybe they weren’t quite aware of the gap they had created.
WYSK: What else can people do as individuals to help spread the word and motivate decision makers into action?
Sammi: To motivate the CPD to stop overlooking women in future debates, we want to make sure that women get considered every election year. We finally closed a twenty year gap, and it cannot reopen. We need to make sure that the public is aware of this political inequality. We want thank to everyone who signed our petitions and believed in our cause. This is a win for all of us, male and female, young and old.
WYSK: Has this experience caused any of you to have aspirations to pursue careers in politics or journalism?
Elena: This experience has been eye-opening for all three of us to the worlds of journalism, politics, and broadcasting. We all have a new found interest in politics after seeing how effective speaking out against something you think is wrong can be. Three teenage girls saw a problem they wanted to fix, put their heads and voices together, and made a difference. I think this has opened the door to politics for all of us in different ways.
WYSK: How did you feel when it was announced that CNN’s Candy Crowley will moderate a presidential debate?
Elena: We had to overcome obstacles, like being denied by the CPD when we tried to deliver our petition, but we eventually were victorious when Candy Crowley was appointed, and we feel accomplished.
WYSK: Do you feel your campaign had any influence on that decision being made?
Sammi: I do believe that we made an impact on the decision. We raised awareness of this issue throughout the past couple of months, and got 180,000 people to agree with our campaign. We traveled to the CPD office trying to deliver our petitions, but were turned away by security. We spoke to numerous news sources and informed many of this blatant inequity. This let the Commission know that we were serious about our petition, and we kept fighting to spread the word despite their refusal to accept our petition. Even if we don’t receive recognition formally by the Commission, our goal has been met. Both Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz will close the unbelievable twenty year gap, and will serve as influential role models for girls everywhere.