Gender politics in school

Natalie Sweet and Liliana Greyf

In the past fifty years, the school has started a rugby team, built a new science building, and now offers panini passes for lab; however, in that same time frame, there have only been five female Student Body Presidents.
In April of 1971, seven faculty members and 12 students proposed the The Student Body President (SBP) position to Headmaster R. Inslee Clark, first reported in Volume LXIV of the Record. Outlined in the report, the SBP would “serve on the Steering committee, call Referendums, call the Forum into session, preside at student referendums, [and] represent students at the Board of Trustees and at other organizations.”
In 1971, Director of the Center for Community Values & Action Dr. Jeremy Leeds ‘72 was elected by students as the school’s first SBP. At this time, the position was held by only one student instead of two. He found the description for the role to not be as clear as it should have been, and he spent a large portion of the year exploring the position.
“[The] first time in my life I had sleepless nights was as the Student Body President,” he said. “I think it’s always been a hard role to navigate, including addressing the concerns of many constituencies as well as developing and sticking to a vision all at 17 years old.”
Prior to the creation of the SBP position, there was ample discourse among the faculty and the students about how to revamp the failing student government, which was essentially inactive, Archivist Hillary Matlin said. “Everyone had an opinion about something and everyone wanted to be involved, but there was no effective way for people to do that,” she said. “Especially since there was a tide of student involvement in the 70s in national and local politics – from Civil Rights to Vietnam – the [SBP] position allowed interested students to make a difference.”
When Leeds returned to the school as the Director of Counseling and Guidance in 1997, the wider culture of the school had changed considerably, he said. The school was bigger, it had moved beyond the grade seven through 12 school it was when he was a student, and it was no longer an all boys school, Leeds said. The Governing Council had a much different role in this different school environment.
“One of the things that an active student government can do is provide a laboratory for citizenship,” Leeds said. “There are a lot of theories that if you want to prepare people for functioning in a democracy, you can’t just tell them about it, you have to give them the chance to do it.”
The role of the student body president itself has changed considerably since the time she was a student, English Teacher Dr. Deborah Kassel ‘84 said. “Student Body Presidents used to plan and lead almost every assembly. Now, there are fewer SBP assemblies.”
The SBPs also lost the privilege to create a SBP video, after a controversial 2016 SBP video that portryed racist, sexist, and homophobic sterotypes, Olivia Kester ‘19 said.
Kassel believes that the changes made to the role of SBP have affected which students choose to run and which are elected. “The changes made have ensured that the vote for SBP is no longer just a popularity contest,” she said. “It isn’t about who makes the funniest video anymore; it’s about who is most likely to make the greatest changes in the quality of student life.”
However, throughout the school’s history and different governing systems, one aspect of the SBP position remained constant: the paucity of women elected.
The first female SBP was Kimberly Devon Westcott ‘82, who won 347 votes to 267—56 percent to 43 percent—over her classmate Dennis Chatsky, according to Volume LXXIV, Issue 29 of The Record. In an article for that issue, Westcott described her feelings towards the historic election as “ecstatic about blazing a trail.”
However, it would take 31 years for that spark to be ignited again. The co-SBP position was created in 2013 by science teacher Dr. Susan Delanty ‘79, who was the Dean of Students at the time. “One of the motivations, as I understood it, was to open up the historically male dominated student governing space,” Leeds said.
When Charlotte Frankel ‘14 learned that she was elected, she was completely shocked, she said. “I don’t think I knew too much about how few women there had been [elected] until I started running, and then that meaning took on a whole life of its own,” she said. “I know from [my younger sister Jane Frankel ‘18] that there has been a huge growth in progressiveness [at the school], but the fact that we [hadn’t] had a female SBP in 31 years was just crazy.”
Frankel felt that she needed to represent women in student government by being a female voice for them, as the first female to fill the SBP role in over three decades. Aside from this goal, Frankel’s central mission as an SBP was to be as personable and approachable as possible and to create a relaxing school environment, she said. Many female students might not feel comfortable approaching a male counterpart, Frankel said. She wanted female students to feel like they could come up to her so they could know that they had a say in school government.
Sofia Del Gatto (12) said that that the lack of female representation in student government over those 31 years is due to the implicit cultural stigma of what it means to be a leader. “It’s hard to detach these cultural values that we have about positions of leadership,” Del Gatto said. “It’s not necessarily an explicit decision; it’s a subconscious value we have that tells us that a man would be a better leader.”
In 2014, Michael Scherr ‘15 was elected with Riya Satara ‘15, who became the first woman of color to be elected as SBP.
For Satara, Frankel was a large inspiration behind her running for SBP. “Once you see someone that looks like you, someone you can identify with, you become aware of the possibility that you can stand on the stage and be a leader as well,” Satara said. “I thank Charlotte Frankel for opening that window of opportunity for me and showing me that our community was receptive to having a female SBP.”
Satara also ran for SBP as a way for her to advocate for issues that she was passionate about and had explored through her involvement with the diversity office on a schoolwide level, she said.
“As a woman of color, I was excited for the opportunity to represent the student body and give back to the community that I had called home for 7 years,” she said. “I hoped to make every student feel as if they were fully welcomed and accepted for who they are, and that they could bring their full selves to this school. I had some ideas from the Student Diversity Leadership Conference that I attended for two years on ways to make our community a more inclusive place and had also previously planned various workshops for Book Day that focused on diversity and inclusivity.”
Having a woman of color run elected SBP was incredibly inspiring to Lisa Shi ‘18, who ultimately ran herself. One of Shi’s goals was to change the mental health culture of the school, she said. While Shi did not get elected, seeing Satara, a woman of color, in a position of power during Shi’s freshman year was really impactful, as it showed Shi that the school community was supportive of women of color as SBPs, she said.
After Satara graduated, four years without females in the role of SBP passed. It wasn’t until Janvi Kukreja ‘19 was elected in 2018 that the school had a woman in the SBP role once again.
In the process of choosing a running mate, gender definitely played a role, Kukreja said. “It’s unfortunate to say, but I think my chances would have been a lot lower if I hadn’t run with someone who was male,” she said. “That’s just the reality of it.”
Kukreja had never witnessed a female student as SBP during her time in high school, but nevertheless always knew she wanted to run for the position. “If I hadn’t won, our grade would have experienced no female SBPs at all, and I think that was really absurd to me,” she said. “No one even considered that it was odd; it was just the norm.”
Kukreja believes that the new co-SBP method has helped more women to earn the role. There have already been two years in a row of female SBPs, which is very exciting, she said. “Hopefully, very soon, it’ll be just as common for two girls to win.”
“The outcome of the elections lies in the hands of the student electorate, and the student body simply isn’t willing to elect the women,” Jordan Ferdman (11) said. “I hope that as time goes on, that changes.”
Though Jaden Richards (11) doesn’t believe the SBPs have a large role in changing the school, he would still judge students who are running for the position on what on what they bring to school instead of their gender when casting his vote, he said. “I wouldn’t feel any more inclined to vote for [two female SBPs] based off their [gender] identity for the same reason that I wouldn’t want anyone to pick me just because I’m black.”
Kukreja’s co-SBP was Nader Granmayeh ‘19, who felt that the role of an SBP was to be a role model, he said. It was important for him to have a woman as someone with whom he could fulfill this role. Having a female in this role was necessary to “connect to different people based on different experiences and different issues,” he said.
Claire Yoo ‘19 experienced her first female SBP as a senior. “I think the most explicit positive results of having a female SBP are not exactly tangible or legislative, because anyone at Horace Mann running for SBP has great ideas to implement,” she said. “The biggest difference for me was having students who could see themselves more accurately represented in their student government.”
Granmayeh also hoped that having a female in the role of SBP could help to end the norm of purely male SBP pairs, he said. Due to the lack of female SBPs in the past, Granmayeh felt that some women were discouraged from running. “It was a reinforced cycle, and I thought it would be really good to discontinue that trend and knock down that barrier [to] create a more inclusive environment,” he said.
Isha Agarwal (12) is the current and fifth female SBP. “It’s appalling to me that even before 2014 there had only been one female SBP in history,” she said. “It’s interesting to consider that four of the five female SBPs have been elected from 2014 to 2019, which I think is representative of a shifting culture within the school and nationally.”
During her time running for SBP, Agarwal noticed that she and Roey Nornberg (12) were the only pair that were a male and female team. “If SBPs are to represent the school, they should represent the diversity of our student body as well,” she said. Although it is hard to encapsulate all the absolute diversity in two people, a place to start can be with gender equity, she said.
“I think it’s incredibly important to have female representation in the student government, which wasn’t there for many years,” Nornberg said. “That’s part of the reason Isha and I decided to run together; to have one boy and one girl as student body president, as opposed to having two boys, which was the norm in the past.”
When Gabby Fischberg (11) entered the ninth grade class-president race, she ran with Liam Futterman (11), and the pair was elected; however, when she ran with a female classmate the following year, they lost. Fischberg attributes this to the predisposition that men are more capable or more suited towards public positions of power, fostered by the lack of female representation in these areas. “[There are] very few women in politics, so when growing up, girls are less enticed to pursue these positions and they have fewer role models to go off of and follow,” she said.
If the community hopes to diversify student government, the school must change its perspective, Del Gatto said. “We have to adapt to a vision of women as leaders that’s different as men as leaders. We can not expect exactly the same from both genders.”
According to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, 126 women currently hold seats in the United States Congress, comprising 23.6 percent of the 535 members. “On a national level, there are few women in positions of power and even fewer women of color,” Ferdman said. “This holds true at [the school] as well.”
When Kassel was a student, there were almost no female candidates running for President of the United States, she said. This was mirrored by the student body; a female SBP had never been elected. However, in the past few years, the norm for female leadership has begun to increase, she said. “In many ways, the school reflects the evolution of society itself. Recognition of the importance of gender equity at [the school] is, to some extent, a product of a changing zeitgeist that now seems to be more accepting of difference.”
The main reason why female SBPs aren’t elected as much in comparison to their male counterparts is because people have not fully accepted female leadership, Satara said. Women’s underrepresentation in leadership exists in every facet of society whether it be politics, business, or education. There is no doubt that we are just as capable.
However, there are too many unconscious biases that come in the way, Satara said. However, in the future, this will change, she said. “In the past seven years we’ve had four female SBPs,” she said. “30 years ago that wouldn’t have been possible. And it’s only going up from here.”