If you Google “Texas Boys State,” one of the first five hits you get will be an article on the political blog BurntOrangeReport.com about pervasive sexist attitudes among participants at the 2014 conference. While I won’t quote the chauvinistic vulgarity in the headline — one that was part of a speech given at the session — I guarantee that you will know which one I am talking about if you look it up.
When I was about to shoulder the (simulated) responsibility as the governor of Boys State of Kansas in 2015, my counselors pointed to this headline and told me that even in a mock government, my actions could have real consequences.
The lessons learned at Texas Boys State seem to have faded in Kansas, as this year’s session has ended in another scandal. Jokingly or not, this year’s governor attempted to repeal the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote.
While this incident may be shocking, it is not totally out of line with what we have seen from some officials in actual state governments across the country. For this kind of thinking to change, we need to think about how we educate our future political leaders.
Boys State boasts that it inspires the next generation of public servants through a week that will change lives. This claim seems to hold water, as many of its alumni — Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, for example — have gone on to become prominent public figures. Some of the current attendees of Boys State may eventually be just as influential as their predecessors.
And it makes you wonder what kinds of thoughts these teenagers have regarding the problems that threaten our society.
As a former governor and counselor at Boys State, I would say that I am fairly knowledgeable about what is going through the minds of boys while they are participating. Creating legislation is arguably the most exciting part of the program, and the topics attendees choose to address are the best measure of the types of issues they care about, in my opinion.
I’ve seen boys come together and attempt to create admirable bills (such as one that worked to create more support for those suffering from mental health issues), controversial bills (one that would legalize marijuana as well as select hard drugs) and just plain weird bills (designating the band Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” as the state anthem being the most memorable).
Noticeably absent from this lineup, however, are bills about women’s rights.
In this current day, is it too much to ask of a group of 17-year-old boys to have a thoughtful discussion surrounding women’s rights? Maybe or maybe not — but based on the actions of some adult men elected to actual political office, the answer would appear to be yes.
If we want this dynamic to change, then we need to get serious about educating boys on issues related to women’s rights. As Boys State governor, it never occurred to me that we needed to address these issues in our mock government, and even today, I see that I have failed to educate myself on this topic. Sadly, this type of thinking is mirrored in many of our real-life institutions and appears likely to continue unless a change is made.
While we must continue to encourage women and young girls to become public servants, we also need to socialize our boys and young men to take women’s rights seriously. Actions have consequences, and the consequences of this incident will affect more than just one teen boy who was governor for a week.
Bryce Johnston of Leawood attends the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The opinions here are his own and may not reflect the views of the U.S. government or the Department of Defense.