A Young Conservative Woman’s View: Ashley Sewell’s “Smart Girl” Politics

Stephanie Rushford, Associate Editor

The 2008 Presidential Election marked the resurgence of conservative women back into the spotlight, with John McCain’s running mate, Vice President candidate Sarah Palin, leading the charge. In the two years since the election, many more “Mama Grizzlies” have run for public office, prompting talking heads and magazine articles to explore the dichotomy of being a women and a conservative.

Yet, while most of the media’s attention has been focused on the baby boomer’s generation of conservative women, young conservative women have been making strides in political circles and on college campuses. One conservative political group that caters to all conservative women of all generations is Smart Girl Politics. Smart Girl Politics, or abbreviated as SGP, has an annual Smart Girl Summit that showcases powerful women in the conservative movement. Some of the notable guest speakers at this year’s Smart Girl Summit were Michele Bachmann, Tammy Bruce and Liz Cheney.

Smart Girl Politics Director of Activist Training Ashley Sewell had the distinct honor of introducing Liz Cheney at the Smart Girl Summit, which she describes as “CPAC for women.” In addition, Sewell describes the sense of community that reverberates from the Summit:

It’s the chance for us to get together and talk about the things that really matter to us…It’s definitely a chance for women to meet and connect with the women they respect and look up to all year round.

Ashley Sewell

However, this young conservative activist was not always politically involved. It wasn’t until after her first job, when she saw the amount of money Uncle Sam was taking from her paycheck, that she became engaged in the political sphere. “When I was 25, I filed my tax return, I had Uncle Sam tell me that I owed another four digits, that to me was outrageous. I couldn’t believe it I got so upset.” With her feelings of anger, Ms. Sewell went to her first Tea Party, which led to a serendipitous encounter with Smart Girl Politics: “I was asked if someone could take a picture of my sign, and I said sure why not. They said they wanted to put it on their website. The next day I went to the website to make sure I was being portrayed in a way that I felt was appropriate, and it turned out to be Smart Girl Politics.”

Additionally Ms. Sewell has nothing but glowing praise for the organization, which has enabled her to have solidarity with other like-minded conservative women, “from that moment on I knew SGP is where I belonged. It was where I could get the resources that I needed to be involved.”

Yet, while Ms. Sewell is a conservative activist associated with a primarily women-led organization, like many other conservative women she does not like to be labeled as a feminist:

“Historically feminism means standing up and fighting for women. And it started out as something so great, equal pay for equal work, and that is the feminist that I identify with. But when you have the [social movement] of 1960s and 70s and everything kind of hinges on abortion; to me that a complete disservice to the word because there is far more to being a women than your reproductive organs. Until we can get a little bit of tweaking on the word itself because it has such a stigma, until we can rebrand it, I prefer to call myself a peopleist.”

Many conservative women have empathized with Sarah Palin’s ideological outlook, and Sewell understands the attraction to Sarah Palin’s brash delivery of the ‘founding fathers” ideals:

“Something that has really been a challenge for us as conservative women is for the last 30 years, and longer than that–since the ERA–women who have been involved in politics have been feminists, and feminists are traditionally liberal. When you have Sarah Palin come along and say ‘Mama Grizzlies,’ that really resonated with people [thinking to themselves], I can be an activist and a women at the same time without feeling like I am harming my gender. Because for a long time that is how feminists saw conservative women.”

One of the many characteristics of Generation Y is its ability to put partisan disagreements aside and work together for the greater good, and Ms. Sewell is no exception. Even though Sewell does not support Roe. Vs. Wade, she would work with pro-choice feminists to eradicate the many inequalities that women still face today.

“I think there are so many places women, regardless of political affliction, can work together. Let’s talk about women getting equal pay for equal work–that is still an issue today. Let’s talk about giving women the opportunity to have employment in the ‘man’s’ world, and let’s make women [understand] that they don’t have to exploit their bodies to do it. A perfect example of this is in sportscasting, [with] Pam Oliver. Why can’t we start elevating women to take those roles? Let’s start talking about education, how we can provide girls with more opportunities in math and science. Why can’t we come together as women, and say, putting abortion aside, and let’s talk about the things that we struggle with.”

Ashley Sewell provides more than just lip service in helping advance other women’s lives; recently, as Smart Girl Politics’ Director of Activist Training, Sewell met with women from Smith College for a training session–led by Sewell–on social media and politics. Sewell spoke highly of the Smith College students: “Those women at Smith College are tremendous. For them to, on such a liberal campus, be so steadfast in their beliefs. And I would say the same think about a very conservative campus… if they were a bunch of liberals. But to have that kind of courage, at that age, is phenomenal. And it was very inspiring to me.”  The experience not only left Sewell in awe of these young undergraduates; she expressed regret in not being “more politically involved” when she was in college.

This upcoming January, Ms. Sewell will be training more individuals as a part of Smart Girl Politics’ SGP 101 initiative. With SGP 101, Smart Girl Politics’ goal is to get more women to run for office at the local, state and federal level.  In 2012, Smart Girl Politics will work to get these female candidates elected. This program will offer two-track training sessions with online classes and one-track training sessions for activists and other for prospective candidates. Sewell will be in charge of implementing and overseeing the curriculum of the SPG 101’s activist track. She describes a holistic approach in creating the rubric for this program:

“We have different levels that you can be involved in, depending on where you are in the process. Everything from ‘I’m angry and I don’t really know why,’ all the way to ‘I want to learn how to be a fundraiser for my candidate’s campaign.’ Taking those big questions of how can I get involved and turning them into an interactive lesson that women can then take and implement and see success. That’s what I do as Director of Activist Training.”

In addition, SGP 101’s activist track will focus on how activists effectively can  support and give time to their candidates and how to organize successfully and get out the vote and voter registration campaigns.

Furthermore, Sewell stressed the underlying message of SGP 101 was not one of partisan politics but of empowering women to become active in the political process:

“This is about really educating and empowering women to take a very active role in what was traditionally a man’s role of political campaigning.  It is done in a non-partisan way, we are not advocating for Republicans, we are not advocating against Democrats. We are taking the whole idea that women, politically, have something very valuable to offer and we are putting them in a position to take advantage of that.”

Ms. Sewell’s does not only have confidence in  the SPG 101’s female candidates for 2012, she believes that Generation Y holds the keys to a political and prosperous future. Ms. Sewell states that “one of the reasons that generation that is poised to take the reins, as an activist politically, is that they are on the very front of technology. Generation Y has the tools and the education, we are more educated than any other generation before us. We are coming out of school ready to change the world.”

Ashley Sewell undoubtedly will inspire many young conservative women to come forward, as she did, and fight for their conservative viewpoints to be heard on Capitol Hill. As much as the media makes the conservative movement (and conservative women) to be a monolith with Sarah Palin leading the charge, there is a full spectrum of what it means to be a  conservative woman in this country. Ms. Palin may have had a great impact on the past elections, and on cable news, but for Generation Y the influence will come closer to home. In Ms. Sewell words,  “It is very inspiring for someone to see a younger person take charge in a positive way. That gets more people involved as well.”

UK’s Rebellion and Resurgence of Youth Activism

Matt McDermott, Columnist

With a new government often comes sharp changes in policy, and at present Britain is realizing full well these consequences. In the coalition government’s 2010 budget, the country is witnessing an austerity package the scale of which hasn’t been seen in nearly 30 years. And voters across all spectrums haven’t taken well to the proposed massive spending cuts, especially students. 

Anger amongst students lies in the coalition’s proposal to dramatically increase tuition fees over the next few years as the government transfers the cost of courses from the state to students. Universities in England will be allowed to charge students tuition up to 6,000 pounds a year, with a top tier of 9,000 pounds in the university to ensure access to low-income students. These policies would amount to a nearly 300 percent increase in fees, up from the current 3,290 pounds per year. Effectively, the rise would help minimize the massive 2.9 billion pound cut in higher education that will go into effect with the 2010 budget. By replacing state aid with tuition fees, many courses will rely almost entirely on student fees for support.

Labor, for their part, have referred to the fee hike as a “tragedy for a whole generation of young people,” while the National Union of Students (NUS) has called the increase an “outrage.”  But in recent weeks this war of words has taken to the street with a much more active voice.  

Since early October, there have been three nationwide students protests against the tuition fees. The first demonstration, sponsored by the NUS, was expected to draw 10,000-20,000 students to London to voice their frustrations. Instead, over 50,000 marched past Parliament and through the streets of the city. While overall a peaceful protest, a select group of activists broke from the demonstration to storm Conservative Headquarters in central London and create the spectacle that was carried on international news. At the time the NUS expressed their consternation and vowed to keep the protests civil. But since the first protest, two subsequent nationwide action days have been held. At each, thousands of students in cities across the UK took to the streets. In all, over 200 students have thus far been arrested, with widespread criticism of what many see as an overbearing police presence at each event. 

The sentiment at each of these rallies has been unified. With their chants of “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts,” students have argued that education is a fundamental right that should exist as an equal opportunity for all. One protester remarked to me, “I come from a family where if fees go up I’d have to drop out of university. My family would be unable to cope with the over 18,000 pounds in additional costs.” I heard the same from many alongside her. Unlike the United States, UK educational institutions currently provide little in need-based financial aid, a reason why course fees are currently so comparably low. And while these new fee increases require some improvements in financial assistance for lower class students, it’s reasonable to question the equitable nature of the rise.

Perhaps most surprising—considering Tories ran on the very foundation of eliminating the deficit—has been the collapse of support for the coalition government. For the first time in over three years, Labour has been regaining a notable lead in public polling, garnering 40 percent (a four point lead over Conservatives) in the latest ComRes poll this weekend. The startling turnaround for the Labour Party comes at the rapid downfall of the LibDems, who have fallen to their lowest point in over four years. 

Their collapse stems from their appeared snubbing of university students, who were their key base of support in the past election. While LibDems vowed to oppose a tuition fee increase during the election, their position changed dramatically once they joined the coalition government. It’s now expected that Nick Clegg will lead the LibDems in voting for the tuition fee increase, or at best abstaining altogether from the vote—in either case reneging their core campaign promise. In fact, most of the vocal protests over the last month have been an attack of Clegg and his failure to live up to campaign promises.

There is a direct correlation between the rise in protests and the national mood. In an poll released this week by YouGov, university students now strong support Labour, 42 percent versus 26 percent for Conservatives and 15 percent for Liberal Democrats. These numbers are shocking; in advance of the election, the same poll showed students backing LibDems by 45 percent, followed by Labour at only 24 percent. In essence LibDems have lost 30 points in the last few months amongst students, their core constituency. 85 percent of students are “sympathetic to the protests against the tuition fees,” and a rather high 27 percent are in favor of using violent action (akin to the direct action against the Conservative party headquarters in the first student protest).  If an election were to be called today, the UK Polling Report and other independent agencies predict Labour would regain an outright majority in Parliament.

For students though, their fight may come to an abrupt close. A vote in the House of Commons is expected this Thursday, and it seems Conservatives have more than enough votes for passage. The true fight may simmer until the next election is called.