Christina Hughes and Sarah Pollei are the first women in years to run in a student body presidential election with multiple female candidates. Yet it has been 14 years since a woman has been elected USF’s student body president.
In 1976, Yvonne Berry shattered the glass ceiling for female students wishing to become president, yet there have only been five female student body presidents since then. UF, which has only had four female presidents, and UCF, which has only had one female president, have no female candidates currently standing for election. FSU, once an all-girls school, currently has two female candidates.
Jessica Pawelkop, now Jessica Muroff, was the last female student body president in USF’s Student Government (SG) and was in office in 1998, long past the peak of the fight for women’s rights.
“I honestly am surprised I’m the last student body female president because we’ve got a lot of strong women at USF,” Muroff said. “I never felt gender played a specific role or anything (while I was president). I don’t think, just because I (am) a woman, it gave me any kind of advantage or anything like that.”
Muroff, now a senior account manager at Raymond James Financial and a mother, said gender played a minimal role in her professional career. But the current female candidates said they are finding it to be a perplexing barrier between them and the presidency.
Hughes, a junior majoring in economics, said though gender plays a limited role in her daily life, she finds it difficult to be taken seriously as a viable candidate.
“As a woman, it’s been so much of a challenge,” she said. “You want people to look at you and not give you a hug and say, ‘Oh, hey Christina.’ Even though I do have that loving character I’m also about my business and I want people to respect me for my message.”
Pollei, a junior majoring in biology, said she often attracts voters simply because of her gender – something she said is a negative reaction.
“A lot of women will say they’re voting for me simply because I’m a strong woman and they want somebody they can look up to,” she said. “But for me personally, gender is never something that played a role in my life because my mother was always both the father and the mother. She was the one that cut the lawn and cooked dinner and killed cockroaches. I’ve never had the effect of, ‘Oh, I’m a woman. I should be subordinate to somebody.'”
Pollei and Hughes said much of the expectations placed on female candidates lie in their appearance.
“I can understand why it could be difficult to respect a woman and actually get that message when she’s very attractive,” Hughes said. “(People might say) ‘Oh, she’s so pretty. Oh she’s so nice. Oh she reminds me of my sister and my mother and my aunt.'”
Pollei said people often judge female candidates on their attire or hairstyles, even in national elections.
“They may not take you at face value,” she said. “I know with myself personally, and from feedback I’ve gotten from other people, it’s when you start speaking that can either alter it for a good thing or a bad thing to affect your credibility. A man sees you in a nice blazer and a pencil skirt, and that’s just how things are.”
But the way “things are” have changed dramatically since Berry took office as the first female president in 1976.
“When I ran, those were tumultuous times and the women’s movement was in its heyday,” she said. “In some sense, I guess I ran as a candidate of opportunity in terms of the time and the political support that was espoused toward women blazing trails at the time. I felt like it was an opportunity to be a trailblazer.”
Berry, now vice president of Finance and Administration at the University of New Hampshire, said most of her advisers were male, but she didn’t face additional challenges in the presidency as a result of her gender. The majority of her challenges, she said, were the same she reads about today – increasing costs of tuition, the desire for extended library hours and a general lack of resources.
But Berry, who is now also a mother and married, said gender expectations have followed her even after she left office.
“Gender is in everything we do and every decision we make,” she said. “In many circles it continues to be embedded in every interaction we have with people. There’s certainly been an evolution and there are certainly greater expectations on the part of young women to have less challenges than we did. There’s a greater expectation in them to take control over their lives.”
Elizabeth Bell, chairwoman of the USF Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, said in an email to that the
demographic profile of USF student body presidents is surprising.
“I have no idea why it’s been 14 years since USF had a woman student body president,” she wrote. “The activist USF students that I know are all very busy with projects that reach women students at USF, as well as move beyond, to the larger community. Perhaps a woman who might be interested in elected office in Student Government is finding that her talents and energies are better spent on projects specific to her political and activist agendas? Indeed, maybe this is a question for Student Government: Why aren’t we attracting a wider range of students, specifically women, racial ethnic minorities and queer folk, to run for office?”
Muroff, who has been named as a finalist for Tampa Bay Businesswoman of the Year and was cited in the Tampa Tribune as a person “to watch,” said the responsibility of continuing to raise female leaders lies in the hands of existing female figureheads.
“A lot of (where we’ve come) has to do with women going after these goals. We should be empowering our women to go and do these types of things and run for student body president and fill leadership positions if they want that, so we have representation in those kinds of leadership roles more than we do now. I would say, ‘Hey, more women, put yourself out there and do that.'”