Social Issues Women's Rights

Teen Who Fought Against Child Marriage is Elected to NH House

As a 17-year-old girl scout, Cassandra Levesque led a campaign to end child marriage in New Hampshire, and was brushed aside by a state legislator. He dismissed her saying it would be absurd to raise the age of marriage from 13 just because “of a request from a minor doing a Girl Scout project.He said he saw no need to change a law that was more than 100 years old.

Ms. Levesque’s first effort to raise the age of marriage failed. Rather than being deterred, Ms. Levesque decided to take her crusade a step further: She ran for the state legislature and won.

Levesque, 19, was elected to the state House of Representatives as a Democrat last Tuesday after an election that saw the number of state representatives under age 40 double in a legislature that was once the oldest in the country. As recently as 2015, the average age of a New Hampshire state legislator was 66 years old.

In doing so, Ms. Levesque (pronounced le-VECK), now 19 and a Democrat, became one of a group of young people across the country who were elected to office for the first time this year. Some said they were galvanized by opposition to President Trump’s policies and a desire to push the Democratic Party to the left. Others were more focused on local issues, such as education, or said they sought to get other young people civically involved.

Kalan Haywood, 19 and a Democrat, was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly. He has said that he wants to pass a law requiring high school students who are 18 or older to register to vote.

In Iowa, Zach Wahls, who as a teenager gave a speech that went viral before the State House of Representatives about growing up with two lesbian mothers, was elected at age 27 to the State Senate.

Meanwhile, in New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, became the youngest woman ever elected to the United States House of Representatives, after defeating Representative Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranked House Democrat, in a primary in June.

Ms. Levesque, who is from Barrington, N.H., became a girl scout when she was around 5 years old, because her mother thought there were not enough children her age in the mobile home co-op where they lived with Ms. Levesque’s father and maternal grandmother.

In 2016, Ms. Levesque, with encouragement from her mother, who was her troop leader, began researching the issue of child marriage as part of a project for a Gold Award, the highest honor in the Girl Scouts. She said she was shocked to realize that girls as young as 13 and boys as young as 14 could marry under state law if they had parental consent and the approval of a judge. Having recently been 13 herself, she said she thought that it was crazy that girls in middle school, “with band posters and stuffed animals and Barbie dolls,” could get married.

“I thought, ‘O.K., I need to change this,’” she said.

She approached a local state representative, Jacalyn Cilley, whom she had known since she was 8 (when Ms. Cilley gave her Brownie Girl Scout troop a tour of the State House) with her research.

At first, Ms. Cilley, a Democrat, said she was sure Ms. Levesque had to be mistaken. When she realized that Ms. Levesque was right, she said she was astonished — and thought that changing the law to raise the age would be an easy lift.

“How could anybody defend the practice of 13-year-olds getting married?” she said.

But a bill Ms. Cilley championed, which would have raised the minimum age for marriage, ran into a wall of opposition from her Republican colleagues. Among critics of the idea was Representative David Bates, the lawmaker who dismissed Ms. Levesque as “a minor doing a Girl Scout project.” (Mr. Bates, who did not respond to a message left at his home, did not run for re-election this year.)

In March 2017, Republicans killed the bill, using a procedural move intended to keep it from being considered again for two years.

“It didn’t make me want to stop — it just made me want to push forward,” Ms. Levesque said. This year, with Ms. Levesque continuing to press the issue, Ms. Cilley and several of her colleagues passed a trio of bills which raised the minimum marriage age to 16 and gave judges more guidance about how to consider petitions for marriage licenses from people 17 and younger.

Ms. Levesque said that among the first things she wants to do is to pass a bill raising the minimum age to get married to 18, since that is the age when young people can sign contracts and get a divorce if they want to. She also wants to raise the minimum wage — New Hampshire currently does not have a state minimum wage, but goes by the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour — and focus on ways to attract more young people to New Hampshire.

Asked if she had a message for legislators who had once dismissed her, Ms. Levesque said that she knew she would encounter others like them.

“I will definitely figure out ways to navigate through it, and I will always stick to my gut and what I feel is right,” she said.

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