Mid-term elections 2018: Female MPs give new congresswomen advice

By Hamish Mackay
BBC News

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress

On Wednesday, less than a month after her 29th birthday, New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to the US House of Representatives. Abby Finkenauer, also 29, achieved the same result in Iowa.

Upon formally taking office, the pair will become the youngest women ever to serve in Congress.

While the House of Commons is still some way off achieving gender equality, a record 208 women MPs were elected in 2017 - and the number of women elected before the age of 30 is on the rise.

So, what advice can our MPs offer their US counterparts?

"Always believe in yourself," says Danielle Rowley, who was elected as MP for Midlothian last year, aged 27.

"People will always have an idea of what politicians should be, and you're never going to fit into that, but they will believe in you for being you."

Ms Rowley admits the advice is "dead cheesy" but stresses self-belief is hugely important in an often male-dominated arena.

"The only skill you need is to be passionate about helping people and passionate about representing your area," she adds. "Everything else you can learn, and that's fine."

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Scottish Labour MP Danielle Rowley was asked if she was a male politician's secretary at a recent event

Kirsty Blackman was 29 when she was elected as MP for Aberdeen North in 2015 - a seat she held in last year's election.

Ms Blackman echoes her colleague's views on self-belief, adding: "It really helps to surround yourself with people who are positive and have a similar outlook to you."

Is there anything they wished they had known before becoming an MP?

"I'd always thought Westminster would be a very hostile place," says Ms Rowley, "that it would be a 'boys' club".

"I now know there is a massive group of really welcoming, supportive people who are there for you all the time. I wish I'd known that."

While both women have had positive experiences with other MPs, receiving the wider recognition they have earned can prove a battle in itself.

'I don't fit in that box'

"I've just been at an event in the constituency where there was another older male politician and someone came and asked me if I was his secretary," says Ms Rowley. "I get that quite a lot."

Ms Blackman adds: "I do a lot of my own phone calls and it's pretty unusual for anyone to think that I'm the MP when I'm phoning from my office.

"Quite often they'll say: 'What's your name?' I'll tell them and then they'll ask who's office I'm phoning from.

"'My office,' I'll say."

She adds that people "have this picture in the head of what an MP should look like - and I don't fit in that box".

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The SNP's Kirsty Blackman was 29 when she was first elected as an MP

But not fitting the mould of a stereotypical politician can also be an advantage, says Ms Rowley.

She explains: "When I was standing for election a lot of people said: 'Are you not a bit young? What experience do you have?'

"But I find that a really good opportunity because when people question me I can talk about my experience and explain, while I might be young, this is what I've done, this is my experience and this is what I'm passionate about."

'I still want to be myself'

Unlike many politicians around the world, candidates chasing election in their 20s have grown up in a world of social media.

Should young politicians attempt to temper their online presence?

Ms Blackman suggests only posting things you are "willing to stand by", adding her eight years as a councillor (before being elected as an MP), mean she has never really posted anything she "would have been upset with people looking at".

Ms Rowley adds that she has not tried to "delete or hide" anything from her social media now that she is an MP.

"I got elected being myself so I thought I'm not now going to become what people expect a politician to be," she says. "I still want to be myself."

Regardless of the challenges ahead, Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Ms Finkenauer have already made history.

Their election to Congress is seen by many as a sign of greater opportunities for young people in politics - and their stories will undoubtedly inspire the next generation.

More on this story:

More women than ever before won seats in Congress in the 2018 mid-terms.

More on this story