From left, Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis carry boxes containing their petitions for a female moderator of the upcoming debates to the Commission on Presidential Debates. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A small phalanx of media people stood outside the Commission on Presidential Debates on New Hampshire Avenue NW this week, while a bored-looking security guard watched from the front steps.

Suddenly, camera shutters began sounding off as Sammi Siegel, 15, and Elena Tsemberis and Emma Axelrod, both 16, walked up, carrying cardboard boxes emblazoned with “It’s time for equality in the 2012 debates.”

Their cause?

The three rising New Jersey high school juniors think it’s wrong that no woman has moderated a presidential debate since Carole Simpson of ABC presided over a 1992 exchange featuring Bill Clinton, incumbent George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. (For those of you about to go to Wikipedia, those were vice presidential debates that Gwen Ifill moderated in 2004 and 2008, not presidential debates.)

The girls — all members of Montclair High School’s Civics and Government Institute, a program that teaches U.S. history through the study of social movements — were shocked to learn from a teacher, Shana Stein, that there hadn’t been a female moderator during their lifetime.

After winning a school-sponsored competition, they wrote a petition intended for delivery to the commission, and they posted it on the site in May. The petition got enough signatures to attract the attention of Mike Jones,’s deputy campaign director.

“Very quickly we saw it start to take off, so we actually reached out to Emma, Sammi and Elena” to offer help, Jones said in an interview.

The petition had about 119,900 signatures Thursday. Between that petition and a second one — addressed directly to the Romney and Obama campaigns and asking them to push for a female moderator — the girls have gathered more than 170,000 signatures.

And they have gained at least one prominent supporter in Simpson, now a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. Simpson commended the girls for their activism.

“I’m very proud of those three young teenagers who decided to launch this petition campaign and are going to present their signatures,” she said. It was not until the girls’ petition was brought to her attention that she realized that no other woman had succeeded her as moderator of a presidential debate.

“I thought that I had broken the the glass ceiling, and here we are 20 years later, no one has gone through this barrier,” Simpson said. “It’s like we’re not seen as authoritative as men, or as qualified. I think it’s ridiculous.”

In an interview, the girls also spoke with indignation.

“A lot of people tend to think that we’ve come a really long way from women’s rights, but we still have a long way to go,” Tsemberis said.

Each of the teens had prepared remarks for reporters.

Axelrod began Tuesday, reading from a crinkled sheet of paper, and told of watching the evening news with her mother and noticing that female TV reporters were better-looking than male reporters.

Next Siegel talked about how the higher up the education ladder she climbs, the fewer girls she finds in her advanced math classes.

Tsemberis was last, talking about her stint at a program called the Girls Institute, in which some teens suffered from eating disorders.

The girls then took their boxes and marched into building, intending to deliver their petition to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Ten, 20, maybe 30 seconds passed, and they were back, boxes still in hand.

“They refused to accept our boxes,” Axelrod, said, explaining that the boxes were considered a security hazard.

For the girls, it was a taste of political disappointment.

But what started as a school project has become a pet passion for the three teens. They have asked Janet Brown, head of the commission, to meet with them. “We’re certainly not going to give up,”Axelrod said.