by Annemarie McDaniel
What do astronaut Neil Armstrong, President Bill Clinton, basketball star Michael Jordan, and singer Bon Jovi all have in common? When they were juniors in high school, they all attended a prestigious but little-known program called Boys State. That’s just the beginning of the incredibly long list of famous Boys State alumni, and alumnae from its sister program, Girls State, are just as impressive.
In just a few days at the summer Boys State and Girls State program, high school students run for office, write legislation, draft court opinions, publish newspapers, and more. Usually this is a very fulfilling experience, but this year, at Texas’ Boys State, one delegate’s entire campaign speech was just the words “Cold beer and titties.” Campaign photos featured swimsuit models with the political party’s name, “Feds,” on the model’s breast. Another party’s platform cruelly shamed teen mothers. Boys State creates and fosters incredible future world leaders, and it’s terrifying to see such sexism being allowed by councilors and encouraged other attendees.
I am, in fact, a Girls State alumna, and my time at the California Girls State conference in 2011 shaped who I am today.
When I ran for the position of California governor, the other candidates and I took our race seriously, writing and rewriting our speeches to make sure we hit all of the key issues we wanted to address if elected. That doesn’t mean we weren’t also silly occasionally. One girl whose nickname was Par or Par-Par made golf jokes throughout her campaign; I personally told a hilarious anecdote or two (or five) while running; and there were definitely dance breaks both during our free time in the dorms and even during session occasionally. The conference is exhausting, and being funny is a great way to lighten the mood and have a good time.
Some people say Texas Boys’ State was just young guys having a good time together, but a speech where a candidate stands up, goes to the podium, says “Cold beer and titties,” and sits down, is not lighthearted fun that I’m talking about. If something similar happened my year at Girls State, a counselor or delegate would call out on stage how that is unacceptable. Because it is. “Titties” don’t just exist in their own little vacuum, they’re on women’s bodies, like my own. When a man reduces a value of women to just being her breasts, that mentality leads to the objectification and violence against women we see and hear so often in our media.
It’s the same problem with the campaign logo for the Boys State Federalist Party, or “Feds” for short this year. The Federalist Party chose an image of a swimsuit model from a magazine, wrote “Feds” on her breast, and decided this would be an excellent campaign photo to show other delegates. Sadly, if the Federalist Party was looking to capture boys’ attention, sexualized images do a good job of that. That’s what these boys are seeing at home when they turn on their TV or go online: companies trying to sell a product by using women’s bodies as a canvas. But Boys State is meant to be a place for the state’s best leaders to come together and create the best government and best selves that they can. Sexualizing women for the sake of campaign materials is just the opposite.
The sexism came from both political parties. The Nationalist Party included the following in their party platform: “In the case of teen pregnancies, three years of optional welfare can be provided as long as the person raises the child themselves and notifies their community that they are receiving welfare.” My jaw dropped when I read that bullet point. Teen mothers face incredible societal stigma already, and the leaders of this political party want to publicly shame them by perhaps making them walk door-to-door or put a sign in front of their house, telling the neighborhood that, yes, they are a teen mother, and yes, they are on welfare. This is even more sexist if one remembers that there also would be a man who helped create the child, but the guys at Texas Boys’ State didn’t think those men were truly responsible for the pregnancy and didn’t need to go around telling their neighbors they were a young fathers on welfare, unlike the young mother. If the Nationalist Party hoped to reduce the number of young mothers, their platform could have offered comprehensive sex education and contraception available in schools or more local Planned Parenthood funding. They could have supported young mothers by offering more flexible graduation options or on-campus childcare. But instead of strengthening the community by providing support for young pregnancies, the Nationalist Party chose sexism and targeted teen mothers. Not to mention their platform also outlaws all abortions except in the case of rape, so even if a teenager wanted to terminate a pregnancy, they would be forced to keep the child.
It’s easy to see all of this as being an isolated incident. It’s “just one camp” and “a few young boys” who didn’t realize they were crossing a line. Except this kind of sexism at this year’s Boys State in Texas reflects the sexism we have seen so often in grown-up politics recently. Just last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that buffer zones around Planned Parenthood clinics violate the constitution and that it is legal for Hobby Lobby to deny their employees birth control and other contraception, despite being medical benefits they are entitled to receive. How are these boys going to work around women politicians, or women in any career field, if they run for office in a few decades? Even in our day-to-day lives, this is the same sexism that fuels the sexualizing and policing of women’s bodies we experience when we walk down the street and see billboards of nearly-naked models selling a product, but are simultaneously slut-shamed for wearing “too short of shorts” in public.
In fifty years, a boy at Texas’ Boys State this year could be serving on the court, in Congress writing our nation’s legislation, interviewing political candidates on television, or even just serving on your local school board. No matter where the boys from this year of Texas’ Boys State go, they will have witnessed how there aren’t always repercussions for sexism in politics. This isn’t to blame the Boys State, American Legion, or Texas; this could’ve happened at any kind of conference in any state. But we need to be teaching our boys better. We need our young men who are councilors at these kinds of conferences to step in when that happens, our friends and other attendees to not be afraid to call out sexism publicly, and our future leaders to not say such statements in the first place.
The stakes are too high. When we justify this action by saying “boys will be boys,” we need to remember these boys become men, and accepting their sexism now means we may be forced to accept it for life.