It’s a big year in politics with a presidential election fast approaching. To help decide which presidential candidate to support, many Americans tune in to watch the debates, which have been moderated by a man for the past 20 years. When three Montclair High School teens, all aged 16, learned there hadn’t been a female moderator in their lifetimes, they decided to work to make it happen. They’ve created two petitions to encourage those with influence to choose a woman moderator for this year’s debates. They told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that they believe a woman needs to fill the role to show girls that they can pursue any career they want.
Sammi Siegel explained that she learned, along with fellow Montclair High School students Emma Axelrod and Elena Tsemberis, that it had been 20 years since there was a female moderator for the presidential debates, longer than they have been alive. “We were all just absolutely shocked,” Seigel said. “We decided to write a petition about it.”
Axelrod said between the two petitions they created — one targeted at the Commission on Presidential Debates and the other targeted at the Obama and Romney campaigns — they have about 180,000 signatures.
In addition to creating the petitions, the teens traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with the debate commission chair. Tsemberis said they had boxes filled with print outs of petition comments along with a flash drive with signatures because they believed the commission would accept packages. She said when they arrived they were told the group only accepts paperwork, not packages. “We tried telling them that all that was inside was paper but they told us to take our boxes and walk back out,” she said.
Axelrod said it was disappointing that a representative from the Commission on Presidential Debates didn’t speak with them. “We didn’t get to talk to anyone even though they knew that we were coming. We told them on Friday that we’d be coming that Tuesday. Nobody from the commission met with us,” Axelrod said. “They didn’t give us a reason. They were very dismissive.”
While Siegel said the experience was disappointing, she said the work isn’t over. “We’re going to keep going,” she said. “We’re going to try to raise more awareness about this and get more signatures.”
The trio plans to bring materials to members of both the Obama and Romney campaigns, which have influence over the moderator choice.
The motivation for the petitions is for equality. “We want equal representation for us to be successful no matter what we want to do. And for all girls our age, women need to be seen as equal to men in our country,” Axelrod said. “When those huge gaps like 20 years in presidential debate moderators, that just shows the disparity between the treatment of the sexes in our country.”
Tsemberis sees the long gap as a bad representation. “I think it’s symbolic of our country’s pattern of women constantly being overlooked,” she said. “They’re not thought to be as capable as men to fill this position and they’re just not seen as someone or people who are able to do this job, but there are several viable women to do this job.”
The teens aren’t endorsing a specific moderator, saying they trust the Commission on Presidential Debates to choose a qualified woman. Siegel said some names that have surfaced on their petitions include Diane Sawyer, Christiane Amanpour and Katie Couric.
When asked if they would be satisfied with a female moderator for the vice presidential debate, all three responded, “No.”
“It’s like shoving us to the side and saying we’re second place and men are first place and that’s not the way it should be,” Tsemberis said. “And it sends a perplexing message to our nation and it teaches girls to believe that they’re not as capable as men, they’re inferior to men and it really has detrimental effects on teenagers growing up in America.”
Since the presidential debates are watched by millions of viewers, the trio wants the powers that be to think hard about who they choose. “It’s a really pivotal campaign this year too so it’s important to see a woman up there asking her own questions in her own voice,” Siegel said.