In 2016, Liz Osterhus, founder of Ms President US, was troubled after the national election. She couldn’t believe that in her lifetime there had never been a female U.S. president. She wondered about the psychological effect this would have on her daughter. At age five, her daughter openly expressed wanting to be president one day and at age eight, she wanted to stay up late and celebrate the victory of a female president, but it didn’t happen.
After that day, Osterhus created Ms President US in Ridgefield. Ms President US is a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to motivating and preparing girls to aim for the highest civic leadership positions and help them achieve their goals. This is a unique program for girls in the 4th through 8th grades. Studies have shown that girls’ confidence plummets at age nine; it used to be age eleven, but over the years, the age of this decline has come earlier. Childhood plants the seeds for girls’ self-esteem for the rest of their lives, so these formative years
“If girls only have nine years to gain the confidence they need for the rest of their lives, then that’s a problem,” says Amanda Cordano, Program Director. “We capture them at the peak of their confidence which means they are going to raise their hand a lot; they are going to be really curious; they are not going to be intimidated by the crowd.”
Osterhus found that there are many programs to support confidence for teenage girls such as student council and debate, but when girls needed support most (before this drop in confidence), it was lacking. She saw a great need and acted upon it.
“Rudy Marconi was the first person I contacted. He’s been chair of our board and he is phenomenal,” says Osterhus.
Ms President US is an eight-session program that unites, uplifts, and inspires girls. Girls learn public speaking, debate, women’s history, to discern the media, to articulate their voices, and to become leaders. They visit the Capitol annually in D.C., meet female legislators, and gain tips from speakers. At the end, they participate in a campaign and election to be Ms President US. The election takes place at the Ridgefield Playhouse with voting from the audience.
Often times, teen mentors help students in the program to hone their skills. One of the team mentors, Lane Murdock from Ridgefield, taught the girls to practice their speech thoroughly and then disregard it once they were up onstage to be more authentic.
Ann Nunes, a parent of one of the girls, learned about Ms President US and enrolled her shy daughter into the program. By the end of the first year, her daughter was holding a microphone in front of a group and in the second year, she ran for Ms President US Wilton and won. Nunes was amazed to see her daughter flourishing in the program with her social skills, speech delivery, self-advocacy, and awareness of the emergent needs in the community.
Impressed by the program, the transformation she saw, Nunes started her own chapter and became Wilton Chapter Director.
“I don’t think we think about it as adults and educators how much value there is in giving kids the experience of speaking in front of a group, holding a microphone, and sharing their ideas,” says Nunes. “There’s so little opportunity for it in your typical school experience and after school programs. When you ask a girl to give her opinion and show how valuable it is, and that there are ways that she can influence public policy just by sharing her opinion, it’s so powerful.”
The girls in the program have created impactful speeches on such topics as pollution and zero waste, animal cruelty, special needs inclusion, period equality, and anti-bullying. One girl, Yustyna Filinskyy, from Wilton, even testified on SB 4, an act concerning the Connecticut Clean Air Act, to protect our environment on her own initiative.
Nunes started as Wilton Chapter Director during Covid. She quickly created a virtual program which brought unexpected opportunities and success. More guest speakers were available to talk to the girls via Zoom. This helped the organization to grow organically, allowing more students from more towns across Connecticut and other states.
Nunes, now Virtual Program Director, is creating a library of sessions and a template for the national level to help other leaders start their own chapters.
“We need to replicate this program in communities nationwide,” says Osterhus. “We’re very privileged to live in the Northeast where there are a lot of women in elected office. However, there are other parts of the country where this isn’t common and it’s girls in those states and communities, especially underserved communities, that we need to reach the most.”
When the program started in 2017, women represented slightly under 20% of the seats in Congress. Today, women represent 27%. There has been progress, but this program is still greatly needed.
Thankfully, Ms President US has never turned down a girl based on ability to pay, and offers scholarships to many students.
“We have a really fantastic team, an amazing team…,” says Nunes. “I feel like we were paving a route to the future for these girls. They are the ones we are handing the future to; they have the vision for it better than we do. So, this is just a way to provide them with the tools to be able to develop the future that they want.”
It’s true what Whitney Houston said; “Children are our future; teach them well and let them lead the way.” •