How Four Years Shaped Girls’ Political Views

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In 2016, shortly before the presidential election, I interviewed teenage girls about how the campaign had affected them. Based on polls, it seemed as if the United States was about to elect its first female president, after a race that had been riddled with sexist insults.

I followed up with them four years later, just after the 2020 election. We wanted to see how this tumultuous period had shaped them, because political science research shows that what people experience politically during their transition to adulthood often influences how they vote for a lifetime.

It was challenging to find the girls again, because most didn’t live at home anymore and many were living in temporary locations during the pandemic. The first time, I had interviewed teenage girls at two high schools in Oregon — one in liberal Portland and another in conservative Moro. This year, all the young women from Portland agreed to talk with me again, but only one from Moro did.

What I saw in them reflected the mixed message that girls frequently receive from society, something that has come up in other work I’ve done in my role writing about gender issues. Girls are told that they can become anything they want — they sign up for robotics clubs and sports teams and school government. But as young adults, they learn a more complicated message: More doors are open to women, but sexism, of all kinds, remains rampant.

When I started covering gender for The Upshot, a team at The New York Times that examines politics and policy issues, Susan Chira, an editor who had covered the topic earlier in her reporting career, told me that stories about women’s issues must be retold again and again. Every new generation of young women faces the same issues as they start careers and families and come to terms with sexism and harassment, she said.

I’ve found this to be true, and it highlights how unfinished the work of feminism is, and how little has changed. But reporting on stories like this also shows clearly that there has been progress, too.

When I reconnected with the young women this year, they had all voted in their first presidential election and were well-informed on policy discussions. Some had become jaded about the ability of government to fix problems. They had been exposed to more sexism, and the ways in which sexism and racism intersect, in their own lives and on the public stage. They were less idealistic than they had been in high school — one, Sarah Hamilton, 21, said the sexism she had observed had extinguished any goals she had of becoming a leader.

This change was also evident in two national polls we did for this reporting project. Shortly before the 2016 election, 83 percent of teenage girls surveyed said a candidate’s gender made no difference in running for public office. But this year, 80 percent said women face sexism when they run, and only half thought men and women had an equal chance of being elected.

Despite those findings, the young women I interviewed all had high aspirations — they wanted to become a novelist, an animal scientist and a basketball player. One, Ana Shepherd, 18, had decided to pursue politics as a direct result of what she saw the last four years. She was born in Mexico and felt she could help give immigrants a voice in policy.

Their thoughts had been molded by the racial justice protests, by Trump administration policies, by Hillary Clinton’s loss and those of other women in the 2020 Democratic primaries. They spoke eloquently about the importance of representation in government and giving voice to people who had been marginalized. In high school, they had named role models like Beyoncé, the Kardashians and their school principal. Now they mentioned Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Jordan Barrett, 19, was a supporter of Donald Trump in 2016 and the sole student from Moro who agreed to talk. The last four years, she said, have made her learn about perspectives other than those she grew up with, and think about issues like refugee policy and access to health care. She voted for Joe Biden.

I partnered with Ruth Fremson, a Times photographer, on this project, and she shot portraits of the girls in 2016 and this year. The photographs reflected the changes in their awareness, ambitions and sense of identity that I observed in my interviews. In the more recent set of photos, the young women are more mature and composed but still bright-eyed.

Returning to the group also brought up new topics I hadn’t expected to explore in my reporting, most notably about race. Every one of them mentioned race in their discussions about leadership and sexism — they saw these issues as interlinked.

The young women, even the more conservative ones, had progressive views about diversity — something that young people of both parties share, surveys show. They demand that leadership reflects the people leaders represent. Whether it’s in politics, their jobs or their daily lives, they are going to bring these values to the forefront.

Maybe I’ll try to catch up with them again in 2024.

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