Elena Tsemberis, Emma Axelrod and Sammi Siegel are longtime friends and 16-year-old juniors in their New Jersey high school's Civics and Government Institute, where they study history, citizenship and social change.

Clearly, they pay attention in class.

I've been following these young women -- whom I call the "Montclair Three" -- since last summer when I read about their gutsy and hugely successful change.org campaign. After learning there hadn't been a female moderator for a presidential debate in 20 years, Elena, Emma and Sammi launched an online campaign asking, "Why not?"

Coincidentally in Montclair for a family event last weekend, I invited the girls to join me for iced tea and cookies to tell me why they did it. (Elena and Emma graciously accepted. Sammi, unfortunately, couldn't be with us).

The demanding three-year program at Montclair High School takes students deep into social issues. In 10th grade, students focus on gender gaps in government and the media.

Emma, whose grandmother protested in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, said she's always "sort of known that women and men aren't equal. In the media, women are like models and men are dressed for the job," she said.

Elena's grandmother was one of two women in her law school class of 400. Her mother is a psychiatrist and her father founded the Washington, D.C.-based Housing First, a national model for addressing homelessness among people with mental-health issues.

Change.org empowers average folks to do something about issues they care about. Recently, a 22-year-old nanny got Bank of America to drop plans for a monthly $5 debit card fee; another campaign got Seventeen Magazine to stop Photoshopping models.

When the Montclair girls learned that female journalists had been absent from presidential debates since Carole Simpson of ABC News questioned President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, they had their issue.

(Gwen Ifill of PBS NewsHour moderated vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.)

"20 years? Insane," Elena said. "Why are they zero percent of the moderators if we're 50 percent of the population? You can't say there were no good female moderators."

"People were just really surprised that women have been absent from that stage, from asking the questions," Emma added. "It sends a clear message that women are unfit to be in these roles. People just wondered, why?"

In early May, aided by a former student, they created their post which read, in part: "Women and men will never be truly equal in our country until they're one and the same in positions of power and both visible in politics."

On Monday, June 4, they checked their change.org site: 12 votes of support. On Tuesday, about 50. On Wednesday, 50,000. In eighth-period Spanish class on Friday, the three girls couldn't stop refreshing their phones. That day's total: 100,000.

Within weeks of launching their Web-based campaign, they delivered more than 120,000 signatures to the Commission on Presidential Debates. Two months later, Candy Crowley, chief political correspondent and anchor of CNN's "State of the Union," was named moderator for one of three October debates, joining Jim Lehrer of PBS and Bob Schieffer of CBS News, who will moderate the other two.

Still, a CNN spokeswoman pushed back at my enthusiasm for the girls, contending that Crowley was selected on her merits, not the change.org campaign. It's true that Crowley is beyond qualified. The veteran journalist has 30 years under her belt, including covering more than a dozen presidential candidates.

But 120,000 unique signatures -- coupled with a heart-felt grass-roots campaign by three high school girls who can't even vote yet -- didn't hurt in the influence department.

Elena said the commission was, in fact, "sort of irritated with us that we were overstepping. But that's not how democracy works." My call to the commission wasn't returned.

But Crowley did offer these thoughtful words to the girls:

“What I wish for you, in fact, what I foresee for you, is a time when being a woman or a minority moderator is no big deal. In the meantime, I hope I do you proud.”

Emma said this effort "has sort of opened up my eyes. I was cynical before about how much power I have. It makes me put myself out there more to work for change."

Elena agrees. "There's a common belief in this country that you need a lot of money to make change. It's easier than they may think."

For now, the girls are heavy into homework and looking forward to getting their driver's licenses. Said Elena: "We are only 16."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350