The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
Walking through New Hampshire’s statehouse, Rep. Cassandra Levesque (D) wears a silver necklace of a woman lifting a barbell—a confidence-building pose Levesque mimics in private before entering the 400-seat chamber.
One of three 19-year-olds elected to state legislatures nationwide this past fall, Levesque represents Strafford’s 4th District in a state whose legislators were the nation’s oldest on average in 2015. “I’m very excited to be the voice of young people,” Levesque says. A member of the House Children and Family Law Committee, she’s continuing the advocacy for minors that she began before taking office.
Levesque’s political activism started as a high school senior, when she learned at a Girl Scouts conference that the minimum marriage age in her state was 13. “Most people have no awareness that this human rights abuse is legal in most of the United States,” says Fraidy Reiss, executive director of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Westfield, N.J.
Children married before 18 are more likely than their unmarried peers to drop out of high school. They’re more likely to be physically abused by their spouse and they lack legal rights to escape their marriage. In 2017, Levesque made this the focus of her Girl Scouts Gold Award project by working with New Hampshire state Rep. Jacalyn Cilley (D) to raise the marriage age to 16.
Although their first bill was killed, Cilley soon introduced a similar one. The day Gov. Chris Sununu (R) signed the bill into law last year, Rep. Ellen Read (D) gifted Levesque the necklace she now wears in the statehouse.
As a legislator, Levesque is working to pass a bill that would eliminate child marriage in New Hampshire altogether by raising the minimum age to 18. “Going from sitting in the gallery to sitting right there [on the floor] is a huge difference,” Levesque says. The bipartisan support gives her
hope for the bill’s prospects.
Several months into her term, Levesque relies on support from women—whether it’s finding a copy of The Women’s Atlas, a book on gender inequality, in her mailbox or Rep. Donna Mombourquette (D) stopping to say, “You can make a big difference in our state.”
While she is grateful for the opportunity, Levesque acknowledges that many of her peers can’t afford the job. The salary—$200 for the two-year term—is a big factor in skewing the average age of a representative up to
- An online student at Southern New Hampshire University living with her parents, Levesque also works part time as a Girl Scout leader.
Although she says colleagues generally treat her equally, Levesque has encountered skepticism. Older representatives still stop her to ask if she’s taking a tour. Even in a district with 25 percent of constituents under age 20, voters expressed surprise that she was running, not volunteering.
“There’s a major—and incredibly condescending—effort to brand young women running for office as incompetent and inexperienced,” says Lily Herman, founder of Get Her Elected.
Despite these challenges, Levesque will continue working for New Hampshire’s youth. “No matter how long it takes,” she says, “I will fight to raise the marriage age.”