Friday, March 6, 2009

Today's "Great New Gals"

Every little girl has dreams of growing up to be a princess, and with the first female presidential candidate with widespread support in the 2008 elections, perhaps the first women President of the United States (I do want to give fair recognition to pacesetters like Shirley Chisholm who helped pave the way for Hillary Clinton). Yet, when we take mental snapshots of the U.S. Congress, our state legislatures, corporate boardrooms, and professions such as architecture, engineering and law, men continue to disproportionately dominate the space and the conversation. As little girls grow up to be women, they become aware of their uneven representation, and for all too many, confronting this inequality appears to be an impossible task, and as psychologists may tell us, what we think, often manifests itself as reality.

In a panel entitled, “Big Strides, Diverse Paths: Women’s Journeys to Political Leadership”, hosted by the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Women in Politics at the National Archives on March 5th, a distinguished collection of current and past elected officials gathered to share insight into the vexing question of “why” so many qualified women (and a more diverse electorate) are absent from the important power centers of politics.

Jennette Bradley, Ohio’s first African-American Lieutenant Governor, noted that most women have a strong “fear of failure”, and that they allow their perceptions of themselves to hinder them from following the call to public service. Another member of the panel, Congresswomen Marsha Blackburn felt that women were risk adverse, and unlikely to think about running for office in the first place---primarily because they assumed their “qualifications” weren’t valid for the job. Echoing the previous point about women’s insecurities in comparison to that of men, Congresswomen Mazie Hirono candidly stated that “men don’t let their incompetence stop them [from running for office].” Speaking with sincerity and a bit of humor, Congresswomen Blackburn, a mother of two children reassured the crowd that “If you’ve ever organized a 5 year-old’s birthday party, then you can run a campaign.”

With all of these barriers, you might wonder “how” the five panelists overcame them and made the decision to run for office. Each of these women had unique journeys to office that were motivated by a combination of passion, a personal commitment to serve, and a venerated role model. Universally, these women began their careers with a will to “win” and the personal stamina to be “thick skinned” in the face of adversity, or even failure the first time or even the first couple of times they ran for office. Without a direct invitation to run for office, people like Governor Madeleine Kunin were empowered to seek public office when the realized the impact they could make by transforming their anger into action. Governor Kunin enjoyed the positive feedback that she received when she made her community a safer place for her children by moving local legislators to action, and realized that “if you stick your neck out, you might just get something in reward.” For others, like Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, running for office seemed like “common sense”, as citizens without power and money needed a voice. Although Napolitano had the odds stacked against her(according to many): a working-class background, only a high-school education, and a woman of Hispanic ethnicity, she took “the life she was given, and made lemonade from lemons”.

So, what types of advice did these encouraging women offer to other aspiring leaders and office holders? Governor Kunin eloquently summarized some repeated pieces of advice:
  1.  Overcome your stereotypes of power and politics as something “dirty”. “Power is the act of empowering others.”
  2. Don’t wait to be asked to run for office. Sometimes, women need nudging, so also invite other women you know to take leadership roles (elected or otherwise).
  3. Don’t think you’re not qualified. Most likely you’re more qualified than you think.
  4.  Train yourself to run for office. Learn to read, speak, listen, write, and to develop your voice, as they are valuable tools for your journey. Volunteering on other campaigns or attending trainings for women interested in running for office is great way to “learn the ropes” and overcome fears. 
Regardless of how women take on leadership (whether the halls of Congress or the halls of their own households), these women reminded other women to remember what makes you uniquely you and to hold on to your idealism---even when colleagues, constituents and the media are coming after you “with everything, including the kitchen sink”. Collectively, these women leaders believed it was important for them to find time to be mentors, as “leaders should raise up other leaders”. 

Although we can’t instantaneously change the numbers of women in office in 2008, we can band together to help each other take our place in the circles of leadership, one woman at a time. As Congresswoman Blackburn says, it’s time for the “Great New Gals” to bring some balance to the “Good Old Boys Club”.
Two of the panelists, signed copies of their books at the event.  I've included info on their books below. I plan to write a review of Eleanor Clift's book, and would love to share notes:

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