Can Women 30 & Under Get Elected To Congress This Year?

Illustrated by Veronica Romero.
Sara Jacobs
Sara Jacobs has no backup plan. Either she wins one of the two top spots in California’s 49th district primary on Tuesday or... Yeah, that's it.
"For now, we're focused on this race and I think we're going to win, so there's no need to plan," Jacobs told Refinery29 over the phone.
Her answer could come across as cocky, but instead it just sounds like what a confident person who's aiming to make history would say. After all, it's 2018 and so far no woman under the age of 30 has ever been elected to the U.S. Congress. At 29, Jacobs wants to change that.
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"People comment about my youth quite often and I have to remind them that there have been hundreds of men who have been elected to Congress, it's just that there hasn't been a woman in her twenties," she said.
For example, House Speaker Paul Ryan was elected at the age of 28 and former Vice President Joe Biden won his U.S. Senate bid 13 days before his 30th birthday. The title of youngest congresswoman ever elected is currently held by New York Republican Elise Stefanik, who was elected to the U.S. House at the age of 30.
Jacobs, a first-time candidate, is not alone in her quest this year: A handful of other women under 30 are vying for Congress, including 25-year-old Republican Morgan Murtaugh in California and Democrats Mallory Hagan, 29, in Alabama and Abby Finkenauer, 28, in Iowa. (Last month, 26-year-old Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson was narrowly defeated in her Pennsylvania primary.)
The CA-49 race, however, has attracted a lot of attention because Democrats have been targeting the district with force ever since Republican Rep. Darrell Issa said he wouldn't run for reelection. With all eyes on the race, there's been significant attention on Jacobs, too.
California elections operate on a top-two primary system, also known as "jungle primaries," which means the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party affiliation, make it to the general election. If Jacobs gets one of the top two spots in Tuesday's primary and goes on to win the general, she would then become the youngest congresswoman in history.
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"The people we’ve been sending to Congress — that hasn’t worked," she said. "The only way that we change Washington is to change the people we send there. We need the next generation of leaders to step up."
Jacobs was encouraged to run by Emily's List, the political action committee (PAC) dedicated to electing Democratic pro-choice women. She never thought about holding political office, but after not being satisfied with the emerging CA-49 candidates and feeling the Trump administration was dismantling what she believed in, she decided she would be the candidate.
"As women we think that we need to know more, that we’re not qualified enough," she said, "but there’s no such thing as a perfect candidate or the perfect time."
Jacobs obtained both a bachelor's and master's degree in international affairs at Columbia University. From there, she worked at the United Nations and UNICEF, as a contractor at President Obama's State Department, and an unpaid foreign policy adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Most recently, she ran a non-profit education organization called Project Connect.
But because her stints were mostly months-long, she's been accused of inflating her resume and been questioned on whether she's ready for Congress. She has argued in the past that men wouldn't face those questions.
Gender is something Jacobs is comfortable talking about and she said that she never encountered a lot of sexism in the workplace. At least, until she became a candidate.
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"There's been constant comments about appearance. I never knew my hairstyle would be so polarizing," she said. "People will literally come to me after a debate and say, 'I loved everything you said and you’re exactly what we need, but your voice is too high.'"
Before launching her campaign, Jacobs wrote down a "bunch of mean things" she could possibly hear and had her friends read them in front of her as a way to develop thick skin. She said that even that exercise didn't prepare her for the gender-based criticism she has received.
Illustrated by Veronica Romero.
Katie Hill
Sexism is something Katie Hill also knows all too well throughout her experience as a candidate for California's 25th District.
"I was told, 'A woman couldn't possibly beat Steve Knight,'" the first-time candidate told Refinery29. (Steve Knight is the Republican incumbent, first elected to Congress in 2014.)
"You're questioned over your experience, even though my opponent's actual experience doesn't even begin to compare to mine. You’re questioned over whether you’re tough enough to go against Steve Knight, but if you then act tough you’re perceived as bitchy," she said.
She added: "You're criticized over what you wear, the way you do your hair. You're told to smile more. You hear about sexism in politics but it wasn’t until I experienced it personally that I understood."
Like so many of the women running for office this year, the former executive director and deputy CEO of PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), a non-profit organization working to end homelessness in California, was inspired by the election of Donald Trump. The same day he won the 2016 presidential election, Los Angeles County passed Prop HHH, a ballot measure to help alleviate homelessness in the area. But instead of celebrating the win after the election, Hill spent most of the day consoling people devastated by Trump's victory.
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As Trump kept pushing for policies that would hurt the causes she cared about during the first few months in office, Hill realized that Congress is where she could have the most impact. "The social issues I care about the most are completely dependent on having the right federal partners," she said. Seeing that her home district was key to flip the House and getting advice from someone who thought she should run pushed her to seek office.
In March 2017, she announced her candidacy. If she makes it through Tuesday's primary and wins the general election, she would join Rep. Stefanik as the second 30-year-old woman ever elected to Congress and the second openly-bisexual congresswoman.
Throughout the campaign, Hill has gotten a lot of criticism because of her choice to run directly for Congress instead of seeking local office. Hill said she didn’t think her skill set was necessary at the state and local levels. "Everyone’s path looks different," she explained.
Jacobs faced similar criticism, but she said that her experience has been with the federal government so she feels she would be of more value in D.C.
"Local government is so important, it shouldn’t be seen as a stepping stone," she added. "You want people that will be there for a while."
In many ways, both women have similar platforms. In their conversations with Refinery29, they emphasized their support for universal healthcare, common-sense gun laws, criminal justice reform, affordable childcare, defending reproductive rights, and much more.
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Their youth and gender identity also represents what could be a new chapter for elected officials in Washington, D.C. Nationwide, the median age is 37 years old, but the 115th Congress is among the oldest of any Congress in recent history. The average age for House members is 58 years old and for senators, it's 62 years old. Women are half of the U.S. population, but make up just about 20% of Congress.
"Congress would do a better job of representing America if it looked more like America and better understood the problems that all of America faces," Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at Emily's List, told Refinery29. "So we're proud to support women like Sara Jacobs, Abby Finkenauer, and Katie Hill who come from different backgrounds but have dealt with a lot of issues that are decades in the past for many members of Congress."
For Jacobs and Hill, the possibility of bringing change is exciting. And of course, being part of the army of women running for office this year has been nothing but inspiring.
"I didn’t quite realize what big of a movement I was gonna be part of," Hill said. "What I realized over the past year is that this is a tidal wave, a shift in our democracy in terms of changing the face of what Congress looks like. Not just Congress, but what politics in this country look like."
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