Peabody Senator Katherine Petosa was eleven years old when she got her first taste of politics– and was promptly shut down.
Petosa recalled how her elementary school teacher chose people for the school student council; she was not even given the option to participate.
“I was eleven, and I remember being so upset that all of these boys were on student council, and I was not,” Petosa said.
Petosa didn’t let this stand in her way for long. She served in student government in middle school and all four years in high school. As a first-year at Vanderbilt, she became senator of East House. Now she represents Peabody College in Vanderbilt Student Government (VSG) and has proposed a bill in the VSG senate to help other women pursue the same success in government that she has had at Vanderbilt.
This resolution, which passed on January 16 with 20 yays, 3 nays, and 1 abstain, allots $1000 to fund an Elect Her workshop equipping female students to run for student government. The one-day workshop from the nonprofit Running Start will discuss the importance of women in government and helps participants develop platforms, speeches, and campaign strategies.
The first annual Elect Her workshop will take place March 31, 2019 from 1:00 to 4:30 p.m. Students can register for the event free of charge here. Programming is geared toward people of all identities, the sign-up says. The event is open to both Vanderbilt and Belmont students, Petosa said.
Gender disparity in politics is not distant to VSG: Last year only 27% of the VSG Senate was female. This year 44% of the Senate is female, but this percentage still lags behind the 51% female makeup of the student body.
Hank Ingram Senator Rob Lusk originally questioned whether Vanderbilt’s Women’s Center should organize the Elect Her program. Lusk’s own investigation into Elect Her had revealed that many colleges, including Duke, Emory, and Case Western Reserve Universities, had implemented Elect Her successfully through their respective women centers.
“In order for this program to be a success, I thought, ‘Hey, why not copy what other colleges are doing?’” Lusk said.
Through email correspondence with Petosa, Lusk suggested reaching out to the Women’s Center and expressed concerns that the resolution did not specify who would administer the program.
In response, Petosa changed the wording of the bill to indicate that she herself would lead the program’s implementation with the help of a VSG committee including Director of Campus Outreach Frances Burton and Executive Assistant Julianna Hernandez.
During the Senate’s discussion of the resolution, Lusk questioned Petosa again about possible involvement with the Women’s Center, but ultimately supported the resolution.
“I asked [Petosa] about the implementation of the program and if it’d be better to have a full time staff instead of a student behind the program, but she assured me of her passion for the program and so I voted yes,” Lusk said.
In the future, Petosa wants to start a student organization promoting women in government that would fund yearly Elect Her workshops, bring in speakers, and provide mentorship for female student leaders on campus.
According to Running Start, women who run for office win elections just as often as their male counterparts do. The problem is that women’s early life experiences condition them to think they’re not meant for politics, Petosa said.
“I remember growing up, I was always the loud one, the annoying one,” Petosa said. “I’ve always been very outspoken, but it was never a good thing. I don’t remember my traits being seen as a good thing until I was in student government in high school– and then I flourished.”
VSG Director of Campus Outreach Frances Burton, who co-sponsored the Elect Her resolution, said she feels her voice in student government has been valued equally with the voices of her male counterparts’. The main issue now is correcting the numerical disparity, Burton said.
“As a female student, it is really cool to be a part of that change of shifting campus culture– and hopefully national culture –around female representation in government and policy,” Burton said.