Teen who petitioned for female debate moderator: ‘No one — man or woman — could have done it better’

October 17, 2012
Category: Uncategorized

I don’t like to be told there’s something I can’t do. To be specific, I don’t like to be told there’s something I can’t do because I’m a girl.

Whether they meant to or not, and I’d like to think that they didn’t, that’s pretty much what the Commission on Presidential Debates has been indirectly telling every woman in the United States for 20 years by only choosing male presidential debate moderators for the past four elections. The last 12 debate moderators were all men. Twenty years went by without a woman on that stage, and that makes it a trend that started before I was even born.

I don’t understand why women were being passed by for this position repeatedly for 20 years when there has been such an abundance of great female journalists to do the job, but they were, and the message was clear. In my life, I never saw a woman on that stage acting as an authority over the two most potentially powerful men in America. That is, until Tuesday night.

Moderator Candy Crowley talks to the audience at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., before the second presidential debate. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

I think that Candy Crowley did a fantastic job in the last presidential debate, but that’s not what I will remember when I look back on the 2012 presidential debates between Obama and Romney. What I will remember is the fact that she was up there.

Yes, I hope to one day live in a time when the gender of a journalist or really anyone in the professional world is irrelevant because gender equality has already been achieved and is a total non-issue. However, until that day comes we can’t ignore the disparity between the treatment of the sexes in politics and media, because if we do then we won’t be able to fix it. And fix it we must.

That’s what my friends Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis and I set out to do this past summer. When we noticed that there hadn’t been a female moderator in 20 years, we were shocked and disappointed, and we wanted to close that gap immediately. We petitioned the Commission on Presidential Debates and the Obama and Rommey campaigns to choose at least one woman to moderate one of the presidential debates and gathered a total of about 180,000 signatures on our two petitions combined.

New Jersey teens Sammi Siegel (left), Emma Axelrod (center) and Elena Tsemberis (right) hoped to deliver boxes of petitions to the Commission on Presidential Debates in Washington, D.C., this past July. They were turned away. (Photo courtesy: Change.org).

On August 15, the Commission released the names of the moderators and we discovered that not only had CNN’s Candy Crowley been chosen to moderate last night’s presidential debate, but ABC’s Martha Raddatz was asked to moderate the vice presidential debate as well. That makes 2012 the first year in American history with women making up 50 percent of the four total debate moderators.

This was thrilling on so many levels. It’s unclear how much, if any, of the CPD’s decision can be attributed to the work Sammi, Elena and I put into raising awareness of the need for more gender equality on the debate floor (they refused to meet with us and refused our petitions when we tried to deliver them), but the change we wanted had still been made. That’s what matters to us.

Crowley was a great choice and I loved her follow-ups and thought she did a sound job of keeping the candidates under control, especially since we all know from watching Jim Lehrer’s performance as moderator in the first debate that it’s not the easiest job.

At the beginning of the debate, Crowley said that her goal was “to give the conversation direction and get the questions answered.” No one — man or woman — could have done it better.

Crowley moderated the second presidential debate. The final debate between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney will be moderated by CBS’ Bob Schieffer.

But what I will take away from watching that debate is the visual of seeing her up there, just as strong as the two men vying to be the most powerful person in the United States, and one of the most powerful people in the world.

She was in a position of authority over them, and she held that authority well. I doubt it’s easy to tell the President of the United States that his time is up and would he please stop talking. I like to picture women and girls across the country, and around the world, watching the debates and being able to visualize themselves in that sort of position of power and authority more easily than they ever could before. It’s all about the equal representation.

My friends at the Women’s Media Center like to say when discussing the importance of more positive female role models in the media: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” On Tuesday, for the first time in 20 years, Candy Crowley gave us all something to see.


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