The State of Summer Youth Leadership Conferences

Summer fun for most teenagers means no homework, a low-stress summer job, and maybe a vacation with family. But for many high-achieving rising high school seniors, summer means a trip to their state’s Boys State or Girls State summer leadership/citizenship programs. It’s an honor to be a representative at this annual American Legion event, held in each state except Hawaii. And there are real benefits to participating, including nominations to the national conferences Boys Nation and Girls Nation, college application prestige, and the opportunity to earn a college scholarship. But why are these annual conferences still gender segregated in 2019? Do organizers feel that young men and women cannot participate in a co-ed mock government side by side? What lessons are our future leaders learning from these curated experiences?

Over the years, Boys State and Girls State have produced scores of notable alumni. You won’t be surprised to learn that Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Ann Richards, and Cory Booker are among the long list of notable politicians (mostly men) who got their start at their state’s conference. Other alumni include journalist Jane Pauley, football coach Nick Saban, Chicago Bull legend Michael Jordan, and musicians Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, and Garth Brooks. The stated intention of these weeklong events is “teaching government from the township to the state level.” But apparently teaching representative government isn’t part of the mission. What could possibly go wrong when hosting gender segregated policy-making experiments?

At the Boy’s State held in Kansas this year, the mock Governor proposed elimination of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote 99 years ago. Luckily, both chambers of the mock legislature voted down this executive order down, but how was it even a consideration? And just five years ago, at the Texas meeting of Boys State, high school juniors made headlines when they made speeches about “cold beer and titties” and for proposing that teenage mothers receiving government assistance be placed on a statewide public registry akin to sex offenders. It’s no wonder that Boys State is credited with grooming the next generation of lawmakers—like the men who are restricting women’s rights in real legislatures across the country. 

Organizers quickly denounced both of these incidents, saying that the conferences are learning experiences. But would this happen if the learning environment was gender balanced and representative? These young leaders should be commended for their interest in civic engagement and for engaging in experiential learning, but it’s time that these mock-governments more closely resemble the makeup of government of 2019, rather than 1819. Let’s call on the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary to end Boys State and Girls State and combine forces to create combined state leadership conferences for high school students, regardless of gender identity. Young citizens and our future leaders should practice leadership and governing side by side. Anything less is an outdated remnant of sexist periods in our country, offering little value when it comes to leadership skills.

Take Action! Like this idea? Share this article with your local high school and call on them to challenge gender segregated 2020 Boys State and Girls State conferences.