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Young women worldwide are becoming more progressive — how do you harness their power?

A group of three young women talking and looking at a phone together

Researchers have picked up on a global trend of young women (age 18-30) becoming more progressive—especially compared to young men of the same age. The growing generational gap seems linked to the success of social movements like #MeToo, but the female shift to the left now exceeds the specific issues raised by them: women are more progressive about a whole range of topics and more politically engaged than men. How can progressive parties mobilize their power?

Young women in countries all over the world are becoming more progressive -– while the political views of their male counterparts remain the same, or are moving towards conservatism. This generational divide was picked up in a recent Financial Times analysis of data provided by Gallup: a US analytics company known for its global public opinion polls.

This has not been a slow-burn development: the new ideological gap between men and women aged 18-30 opened up in just the last six years, following decades when political views were spread mostly evenly across the genders. This development also ends a well-established trend of generations moving as one when it comes to political preference and belief.

The fact that such big differences can exist between men and women who, after all, sit next to each other during university lectures every day, or who share a workplace, points to the ever-increasing importance of the online world in shaping values. Experts name the #MeToo movement especially as having been crucial in creating momentum for progressive values amongst women. Developments like the election of Trump and the curtailing of abortion rights in the US and elsewhere have also played a big role, says Devika Partiman, founder of the Dutch organization Stem op een Vrouw, which aims to increase the amount of women in politics. “These combined developments have spurred a new wave of feminism in the Western world.”

But while the female shift to the left seems indeed to have initially been sparked by topics like sexual harassment, abortion rights, and the representation of women in leadership positions, the ideological differences between men and women by now extend beyond these issues: in the US, UK, and Germany, young women have much more liberal views on topics like immigration or racial injustice. A survey conducted by Business Insider found that young women in the US expressed statistically significant greater concern for 11 out of 15 different issues, including drug addiction, crime, climate change, and gun violence. There was not a single issue about which young men expressed significantly more concern than young women.

How much impact the growing political engagement of young women can have became especially apparent during the Polish elections in October 2023, when young, female voters were key to ousting the conservative Law and Justice party –– in favor of the first progressive government in nearly a decade. The Polish women, too, initially mobilized around their outrage over the far-reaching restriction of abortion rights in their country under the incumbent government. The effects of their mobilization, however, now extend far beyond this topic: with pro-EU liberal Donald Tusk leading the new government, the entire country has now taken a progressive course.

A Polish NGO, the Batory Foundation, researched the period leading up to the elections –– and their findings again point to the importance of the online world when it comes to channeling existing sentiments, creating a sense of community around them, and using this to mobilize people politically: the online campaigns, video ads, posts and articles created by grassroots organizations created a sense of urgency amongst Poland’s progressive voters during the weeks and months leading up to the elections, according to the Batory report. This led to the highest turnout in 30 years, due mostly to the increased turnout of women and young people.

If we know that young women everywhere are becoming more progressive and that digital organizing has the potential to channel and amplify their growing political engagement, what lessons can progressive parties learn from this? “What I think is important, is that organizations and parties today really need to look at this younger generation,” says Dutch media pedagogue Jacqueline Kleijer, who works with university-age people in the Netherlands. “How do they make sense of the world? What do they need? What are their stories? And the most important thing to realize is that young people today spend the majority of their time online,” Kleijer thinks.

“Right-wing parties are currently much better at tapping into that online world and culture. Here in the Netherlands, you can see this for instance in far-right politician Thierry Baudet: he clearly models himself after influencer Andrew Tate. He speaks in the same way, he uses the same techniques, he’s on TikTok, and he has even started a meal-box business. He reaches a large group of young men in this way. Whatever else you think of him, this is clever: he offers people a story. I don’t like his story –– but it is still a story. It resonates with young men looking for an idea of masculinity. I think progressive parties really need to put more thought into what their story is: how they can offer people hope, enthusiasm, and a community you would want to be a part of. How they too can tap into that online culture.”

A current roadblock, Devika Partiman thinks, is the tendency amongst progressives to feel a bit ‘above’ the online worlds that are so popular amongst young people today: to choose a sort of ethical high road instead. Jacqueline Kleijer sees this tendency in the institutions she works in, too. “I see teachers being banned from using platforms like TikTok, for instance. But this doesn’t solve anything: it just means that teachers are going to have even less of an idea of what is going on with their students. It seems better to try to understand these platforms, and participate in its conversations –– to think about how you can use its algorithms too, but to tell a better story.”

Another problem Partiman identifies is the tendency of political parties to focus on their most senior, high-profile members. “That is such a shame, especially for young women, because I think they cannot identify with many of the high-profile women they see in politics. These female politicians are often quite a bit older than they are, and they come from worlds that are nothing like the ones young women are growing up in today. But parties hold on to the idea that their communication needs to be centered around party leaders and other high-profile politicians –– preferably around a single face. This made sense during a time when people still shared a relatively homogenous media environment, but we now live in a fragmented world of highly personalized online experiences. So why not make use of the diversity of your party instead? For instance: why not sometimes give centre stage to an 18-year-old, female local representative of your party? Why not let a different person from your party sign your emails every week? Your members are not all going to connect with the same person. Younger politicians often are quite active online, anyway –– but their own platforms are never as large as those of their party. By diversifying the faces representing your party, you reach a lot more people. That is the great thing about the online world: this ability to reach different people in different ways, to tap into the world as people experience it now.”

That last part seems key: in a world in which personalized online experiences play such a large part that they can create a generational divide like the one that has opened up in the last six years, it seems that no one – and definitely no political party – can ignore the influence of online culture. “That doesn’t mean that you have to ‘lower’ yourself to the kinds of tactics used on the far-right, or that you have to focus solely on ‘influencing’ people,” says Jacqueline Kleijers. “It just means that if you want to get the attention of young people – and whatever else you mean to do, you need to have their attention first – you are going to have to understand these online worlds and how they empower young people today. And you have to understand the issues that are important to them. Once you have their attention, you can start the kinds of conversations we so desperately need.”

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