LIZ OSTERHUS FLEUETTE ’84 was already busy enough. She wasn’t looking to get involved in anything more than her demanding career and raising her family, keeping up with friends and generally enjoying life, she says. But that all changed the morning of November 9, 2016. She awoke to the news that the ultimate glass ceiling, the presidency of the United States, had not yet been shattered.
“We’ve had 45 male presidents, many of whom have been excellent. But how can it be that we haven’t had a woman president yet?” she wondered at the time.
She looked at her daughter, Maggie, who at age 5 had announced that she wanted to be the first female president when she stood at a podium embellished with the presidential seal at the National Constitution Center. Something needed to be done to change the trajectory, Fleuette thought.
“If change isn’t taking place on itself,” she says now, “then I need to do my part.” And so Ms President US was born. That very morning, Fleuette bought a “Ms President US” website and email, rented a PO box, and called a contractor to build an office in her home so she could begin the work of turning the tide.
The mission of Ms President US is to inspire and prepare girls for the highest civic leadership positions and to know they can achieve them. The program teaches girls the importance of female involvement in public service, the responsibility it entails, and the opportunity it provides.
As a nonpartisan, nonprofit, community-based initiative, Ms President US focuses on civic engagement and leadership skills for girls entering fourth through eighth grades. Through the program, girls learn about public speaking, diplomacy and listening skills, local/state/federal government, and women’s history, while having an opportunity to meet and greet exemplary female leaders.
There are comparable programs for adult women, such as the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, and the director of that program, Patti Russo, serves on the Ms President US advisory board.
Fleuette’s background in child and adolescent psychology meant she knew that girls’ self-esteem peaks at age 9 and then plummets throughout adolescence.
“This is a nonpartisan program. It’s about girls and their aspirations for leadership,” she says. “We wanted to catch girls before their self-esteem starts to decline during puberty.”
Ms President US also aspires to impart exemplary values in future leaders— values that unite, uplift, and inspire regardless of gender, race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, or disability.
The program takes place during the school year, and girls come to eight monthly sessions after school. “In the fall we teach them about government,” Fleuette says. In the spring, they begin learning about public speaking, and the girls prepare a campaign for Ms President of their town. They build a campaign focusing on an issue they care about (such as school bullying), and then face “voters” at a mock election. The winner then goes on to work with the mayor of her town, with public speaking opportunities and a more in-depth look at local government. High school girls serve as mentor to the younger girls.
“All our invited speakers are women leaders,” Fleuette says. “We balance Republicans and Democrats.” The nonpartisan aspect is crucial, she adds.
“We don’t allow any critique of current or past leaders,” she says. “We keep it positive and focused on the mission. It’s kind of remarkable—there’s not been a single incident of any girl speaking in any derogative way. It’s not a political program. It’s a girls’ civic leadership program.”
The program started in Fleuette’s hometown of Ridgefield, Connecticut, with 68 girls involved this year, and five other Connecticut towns are interested in participating.
“I would love it if every single girl in every single town throughout the U.S. had the opportunity to participate. Every girl counts,” she says. The program is available to replicate; it’s grown to the point that Ms President US has hired a program manager to help identify funding so that it can expand to underserved communities as well.
“If girls can’t see [female leaders] in their own community and state, we have to show them what it looks like,” Fleuette says.
—Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow ’84
To learn more about Ms President US and how to get involved visit www.mspresidentus.org.