Why don’t more women run for office at Middlebury?

By ABIGAIL CHANG

COURTESY PHOTOS
Mariana Tahiri ’22 (left) and Khasai Makhulo ’23 (right), the only two women who ran for positions in the SGA this spring. The Campus asked Tahiri and Makhulo, as well as other SGA class representatives, to show off their personalities in these photos for an earlier story.

Among the 13 candidates on this year’s Student Government Association (SGA) election ballot, only two were female-identifying. On April 16 and 17, Middlebury students elected the SGA president, representatives and Community Council co-chair for the upcoming school year. Though women have run for and won the presidential seat for the last five years, none ran for the position this spring.

Varsha Vijayakumar ’20, the current SGA president, said getting women to run and retaining those who are elected from year to year is a recurring problem. While she acknowledged having a woman leading the SGA may be inspiring, she hasn’t seen a change in the makeup of the senate during her time at the college.

Vijayakumar served as a class senator for the two years prior to her presidency. Before her sophomore year, she encouraged several other women to run for their class senator positions. She said that she only ran after none of them decided to.

“I don’t blame them because at the beginning of this year, I had to write an op-ed in The Campus publicly to get men to stop objectifying me in my role,” she said.

Vijayakumar suggested that the election process itself might be a deterrent for female-identifying candidates. Students running for SGA positions include photos of themselves in candidate statements, campaign posters and other promotional outlets. Vijayakumar noted how women in politics beyond Middlebury often face criticism based on their appearances that men are not as often subjected to. This kind of scrutiny may be a concern for female-identifying SGA candidates.

“It is nerve wracking to find a picture of yourself that you think looks good, and to hope that people care more about your platform than the shirt you’re wearing or the way your makeup is done,” Vijayakumar said.

Mariana Tahiri ’22, who was elected junior representative for next year, said she was nervous about running, both because she was the only woman in the junior representative race and because she was the only candidate for her position without any SGA experience. She said running remotely was easier in some respects, explaining that her attitude toward running might have been different had she been on campus.

“I definitely would have thought about it more because I really would have had to put my face all over campus,” she said.

Tahiri, who described herself as a peacemaker, said she opts to talk things out rather than argue, so when she felt some of her peers were not taking her campaign seriously, she worked to explain why she was interested in running. Regarding the small number of female-identifying candidates in this year’s election, Tahiri pointed to the gender gap in politics as a whole and how it might come into play at Middlebury. She hopes to better understand what barriers face SGA candidates and why students are often apprehensive to run.

“Specifically that people feel really scared to really put their names out there,” she said. “Because that’s really what we’re doing, is that we’re introducing ourselves to our entire class, which is a lot of people and that can be very nerve-wracking, that can make people really anxious.”

Current member of the First-Year Committee, Khasai Makhulo ’23, was elected sophomore representative this spring. Makhulo said that while she was surprised that so few women ran for SGA positions this year, she is more concerned about her lack of senate experience and that she is an international student than about being one of only a handful of female-identifying representatives on next year’s senate.

The two Feb representatives are women, although their elections take place at a different time.

Vijayakumar has continued to encourage women to run and reached out to some she believed would be good candidates this spring. As a sophomore senator, Vijayakumar spoke at the Elect Her workshop organized by Chellis House and encouraged women and non-binary students to run for SGA. She said she was unsure the workshop increased the number of women interested in running, but that such workshops are opportunities to provide women with leadership tools and connect them to women in positions of power. She noted the importance of having a network, saying she contacted former SGA presidents to ask how they dealt with descrimination and objectification.

Vijayakumar shared a few ideas for increasing representativeness in the SGA overall. She mentioned how reaching out to academic departments and student organizations might be a more effective means of procuring cabinet director nominees. The current process, which began on Sunday, involves collecting nominations from the student body.

“I think this year was a huge transition year and a year of rebuilding, essentially, the SGA and what we stand for,” Vijayakumar said. “So, I feel like next year has a really good chance of honing in on the representativeness factor of everybody in the senate.”