I am deeply humbled to have been invited here tonight, and I’m also delighted at the opportunity to reflect with you about leadership. I believe that the fundamental meaning of that word is being an agent of change. We don’t yet live in the world we yearn for, and therefore change is required. Leaders gather and motivate others to engender change.
This body has gathered to engender a particular kind of gendered change. The governing bodies of this state and this nation, and many others around the world, are still routinely deprived of the leadership of women. Those legislatures, democracies, and parliaments live in want and scarcity, lacking the perspectives and gifts of half the human race. Some nations have done a far better job. Rwanda ranks first in elected female leadership, with more than half of the national parliament composed of women. In their lower house women hold 45 out of 80 seats; and 10 of 26 in the upper house. The United States ranks 77th among 189 nations; our Congress is less than 20% female. There are some surprising representatives in the list well above the United States – Cuba is second, at just under 50%, Nicaragua has 40% women, Argentina, Mexico, Uganda, Nepal, Serbia, Germany, Algeria and Slovenia are all above 30%. Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Laos have 25-30% women in their legislatures, and Sudan, Namibia, Viet Nam, and Kazakhstan are just less than that. China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Kenya have a higher percentage of women in their national parliaments than the US. That’s profoundly tragic considering that women have been able to vote in federal elections here since 1920 – and since 1869 and 1870 in those hotbeds of feminism – Wyoming (1869) and Utah (1870).
The first woman in the U.S. House of Representatives was Jeannette Rankin, elected in 1917 from Montana. In her two-year term she voted against entering the war in Europe, and for women’s suffrage. When she was next re-elected in 1940 she was the only member of Congress to vote against entering the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The first woman Senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, was appointed by the governor of Georgia to replace a deceased Senator at the end of the session in 1922. She was 87 and wasn’t threatening to run against the governor, who wanted the seat himself. She almost didn’t get to take her seat, and served only one day, but her inaugural address included these prophetic words:
When the women of the country come in and sit with you [men], though there may be but very few in the next few years, I pledge you that you will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness.
Felton was also shockingly prejudiced when it came to race relations, which is a reminder that simply having more women in office does not guarantee greater justice. Some wag has said that we’ll know when equality is reached when the poorly performing women are just as bad as the poorly performing men. I don’t think we’re there yet.
Congress has not been without at least one woman since 1922, but the growth has not been steady or significant until the last 20 years. The 20 women Senators currently serving are the highest number ever, as are the 19% of women in the House. As I’m sure you know, Iowa is among the four states which have never elected a woman to Congress (along with Delaware, Mississippi, and Vermont). Two of the four – Mississippi and Iowa – have never had a woman governor.
Why are elected women leaders essential? Because they bring to the consideration of the nation voices, experiences, and stories that are otherwise too often ignored and forgotten – children, the elderly, trafficking victims, widows in poverty, displaced homemakers, the disabled and deprived and dispossessed. It’s not because men can’t also advocate for these groups, but because women are still overwhelmingly the caregivers for those whom society forgets. Over the centuries, women have been far overrepresented in community responses to addiction, homelessness, poverty, orphan diseases, and lack of access to education, health care, and shelter. The remarkable level of representation by women in Rwanda reflects the trauma that nation has suffered, and women’s experience of that trauma and response to it. It has also mobilized men to help change the social system to include women’s perspectives and experience as part of the public narrative and decision-making process.
Something like that has gone on at Harvard Business School in the last couple of years. After an evaluation of the large gap in relative success of equally qualified women and men admitted to the Business School, a group of administrators and faculty decided to change the culture, coach the women, and basically try to answer the nature vs. nurture question. Why did women with stellar qualifications find it hard to speak out in class? Why did women faculty members get poor evaluations or decline to stay more than a couple of years? You can read the study and I hope discover something of what is needed to better equip women for the political process – and strategize about how to change a system that continues to privilege a few wealthy, white, older men.
We need leadership to change the way in which we form and equip leaders, and we need it all through the educational process. That of course assumes that we have an educational process that serves all our children effectively! We need to encourage girls and boys to try all sorts of fields and not only traditional or easy ones. We need to help all children learn about challenge and adventure, vulnerability and risk, and the fuller life that comes with creative collaboration. Learning to work together is essential to the political process, and its absence is powerfully evident in the recent history of our Congress. We elect leaders to help us collaborate as a society, not to stonewall or refuse to negotiate. “Just say no” is neither an enlightened approach nor effective for very long. It was Einstein who said continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is defined as insanity. And it was our mothers who said, ‘use words to sort out your differences, not fists.’
If we want a nation and a society that makes a better life for all people – what our founders proclaimed as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then we need effective leaders, agents of transformation who can hear and respond to the experience of all sorts and conditions of human beings, not just those who have traditionally made the rules and enforced them.
There have been many effective women leaders and continue to be today. But we need more to inspire us all. Think of Miriam, who helped to lead her people out of slavery in Egypt toward the promised land, and led them in rejoicing at escape. Sojourner Truth is a more recent echo of that kind of liberation, and so is Malala Yousafzai, the young Afghan woman shot for insisting on girls’ right to an education. Think of the beaten and imprisoned leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, Rosie the Riveter and her fellow workers, and Mairead Corrigan and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, mothers of nations.
Until very recently it’s been easier to become a female leader of a nation by inheritance than election. When I was in England several years ago, a man told me that England would never have women bishops because “no man wants to take orders from a woman!” He grossly misunderstood the leadership of a bishop and ignored the fact that Elizabeth II as Queen of England is also head of the Church of England.
That’s a telling hint about why election of women is so challenging. Like the medieval healers and wise women who were burned as witches, women who stand out – who LEAD – are often consigned to anonymity as a way of reducing their ability to transform communities and systems. That anonymity comes both in defining them as outside acceptable norms (witch, prostitute, fallen woman) or by forgetting or suppressing their names and stories. They are known as accoutrements of husbands, mothers of children, housewives and teachers and political organizers, but often without being named in their own right for the leadership they exert and the change they foment. Their names have been omitted from history, and still are from many current narratives.
Women and girls are still understood as nameless commodities in far too many parts of the world, including here. Not only are they the overwhelming majority of those in slavery and subject to human trafficking, they are often valued politically only for their physical image or as a negative foil for another candidate. There is something intensely perverse about the ways in which more than a few women candidates for public office are portrayed both by the media and by their own parties. Sexpot, bigmouth, and clothes-horse are but a few examples. That’s not to say that male candidates have it a lot easier. The work of this group and others has to focus on substance rather than fluff. Hold teach-ins, encourage exploratory conversations, and develop opportunities for leaders to demonstrate their gifts.
Emerging leaders need examples of capable and competent women and men who are whole human beings rather than only caricatures. Too many girls grow up in this society believing that much of their worth depends on appearance. Confidence and courage, the willingness to risk, and the ability to build consensus and collaborative teams are the gifts needed – can we work together on grooming those in the girls and younger women coming up? Befriend younger leaders by sharing time – as a way of teaching the art of living a whole and life-affirming existence. The measure of our lives is not the face we die with but the transformation we have worked in the world around us – even if it is the transformation of only one life.
Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes – and so does political leadership. Women have been effective but often relatively unknown leaders in smaller venues forever – the sewing circle, Bible study, city club, parent-teacher and neighborhood organizations. Part of the task of expanding the venues in which women are active and effective leaders is telling the stories and naming the leaders who have sparked transformative change. Another part is openly confronting and exposing the demeaning practices that often surround the political process here – fresh air and sunshine kill a whole lot of germs. Challenge candidates, political machinery, and the media to seek the good of the whole community, rather than only a privileged few. Catering to the privileged is an ancient human failing, and one that seems in the ascendant right now. We need our decision-making systems to rise above selfishness, for the good of good of each one of us – and all of us.
Tell the stories of effective leaders and recognize them by name, encourage adventure and exploration, reward collaboration and creativity, use words rather than weapons, and insist that all lives are better when the voiceless and less privileged are cared for. That is the basis of the golden rule or the great commandment in most of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions – treat others as you would like to be treated. We need more leaders who can change human systems to function that way.
You are doing that hard work right here. Keep engendering change. Thank you for leading!
 though repealed by federal act in 1887