Even shopping at an Urban Outfitters, a retail chain that caused a small scandal this year when it created a T-shirt with the phrase “Voting is for Old People,” 25-year-old Hunter College student Judy Denby hardly fits the mold of the sheltered and indifferent slacker. To earn money for tuition, she spent two years in Kosovo, working in the U.S. Army’s payroll department. She says being in the military was “not a good experience,” and she strongly believes high-ranking officials have abused their power in Iraq.
But Denby has other strong beliefs. “I’m not voting,” she says. “It’s out of our hands. There’s nothing we can do.”
Women like Denby help to account for the 62 percent of females between the ages of 18 and 25 who didn’t show up for the last presidential election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “There is a huge number of women who are on the sidelines of democracy, and young women are on the top of those bleachers,” says Page Gardner, project co-director of the nonpartisan Women’s Voices, Women’s Vote.
Historically, younger women of all races and classes have been less likely to vote than their older counterparts, but they have at least edged out their male peers. Then a study funded in 2002 by the Pew Charitable Trust for People and Press painted a gloomier picture. It showed that only 22 percent of 20- to 25-year-old women vote regularly, versus 28 percent of men in that age group. Could it be that young women are giving up on the game?
Reasons abound for why young women don’t vote. They’re alienated from the political process. Politicians don’t connect with them personally. College life disengages them from the real world. “They are concerned,” says Brandon Holley, editor of Elle Girl, “but they’re uprooted, disorganized. Things don’t occur to them until the last minute.”
Many young women report feeling too uninformed on current events to be confident about voting. Despite her military experience, Denby doesn’t watch the news and says she doesn’t know enough. “Maybe it is ignorance, but I think there’s no difference between the two candidates,” she says.
Taylor Mitchell, 21, is working on a magazine article in which she interviewed young women from all walks of life about their opinions on the upcoming election. “I was disappointed, because anytime a girl was with someone else, they were weak with their responses, especially when they were with guys,” she says. “They would hesitate and ask their boyfriends, ‘What do I think?’ ”
This year, activists on both sides hope to spark a surge in turnout by young female voters. Working with the Dixie Chicks, Rock the Vote has launched “Chicks Rock, Chicks Vote,” a campaign that’s sending volunteers to malls, concerts, and college campuses to teach young women about voting. Bands like Sleater-Kinney, a feminist rock band, are joining with Music for America to sign voters up at their concerts. “Onstage, we sometimes encourage them to vote Bush off,” guitarist Carrie Brownstein says. “But usually we just let them know the registration stands are there. It’s better than being didactic.”
V-Day has begun its own campaign, called V is for Vote: “We have something called ‘Get your Pussy Posses to the Polls.’ Each girl is responsible for bringing friends to the voter polls,” says founder and playwright Eve Ensler.
The concerns of younger women seem to differ from those of older women only with regard to perspective. “For education, young women are concerned about mortgage-sized college debts. For older women, they’re preoccupied with education for their children,” says Christina Desser, co-director of Women’s Voices, Women’s Vote.
Desser says she expects a huge increase in voting by young women, because she’s meeting so many who are registering for the first time. Her optimism is shared by young activists like Molly Kuwachi, 19, who staged a production of The Vagina Monologues at her school and donated the proceeds to a local women’s shelter. “Look, so many of the things we took for granted are in danger, like abortion rights,” says the Connecticut College student. “Look at the March [for Women’s Lives] in Washington. Organizers didn’t think many young women would show up, but out of the million, a third ended up being 18- to 24-year-olds.”
Despite the optimism, it’s all conjecture until November. Says Brownstein, “The older generation is riled up, so I worry that there is some projection. Eighteen-year-olds hardly have urgency about anything, let alone voting, so you never know. But I hope they’re right.”