Madeleine Kunin

Pearls, Politics, & Power

How Women Can Win and Lead

by Madeleine M. Kunin


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It is time for a call to action, for new political leadership to emerge from the women of America. The stories of the women in this book and thousands of others like them who hold elective and appointive offices all over America are making a difference. Others work for change in their communities as volunteers, as activists. The problem is that they are too few.
We need their voices as grandmothers and mothers, wives and widows, daughters and sisters to be heard in the political debate about the future of our country. The debate may be raucous, the process complex, and the rewards not assured, but we cannot stay out of it. Each woman's experience changes the nature and content of the conversation. Politics, as Hillary Clinton said, is not for the faint of heart. But politics is where the decisions are made that determine whether our children will go to war, whether our parents will live in security, and whether Earth itself will continue as we know it.

We have been bystanders to history for too long. We have no more excuses; we are educated, we care, and we are ready to enter the arena. Times have changed since I was first elected governor of Vermont in 1985. When nine-year-old Melissa Campbell visited the Vermont State House in 2006 and saw my portrait, she exclaimed, "Finally, a woman, it's about time!"
It is about time. We have seen two women serve as secretary of state, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice; one woman as U.S. attorney general, Janet Reno; and two women justices in the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. For the first time in our history, we have a serious, qualified woman candidate for president—Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. On January 23, 2007, we saw the portrait of political leadership change in the Congress with the election of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. During the State of the Union Speech, when the camera focused on the triumvirate of the president, the vice president and the speaker, it was as if someone had torn down the scrawled sign nailed to the tree fort that read "Girls Keep Out," and replaced it with "Women Are Welcome."

We see more strands of pearls, flower-printed scarves, and red jackets in the Congress and in corporate boardrooms, but the lineups remain predominantly muted in black and gray. We can no longer wait for incremental change; it has been too slow. Parity will not be achieved by patience. To arrive at equal representation, we must mobilize both our anger and our optimism: anger at what is wrong in America and optimism that it can be changed for the better.

And we have to take risks—risks that we don't have all the answers and risks that we may be rejected. The risk that we can no longer afford to take is the risk of continuing to accept things as they are—a country divided, governed by people who do not reflect the face of America. Bella Abzug made the case for women's participation in public life in 1977: "We can no longer accept a condition in which men rule the Nation and the world, excluding half the human race from effective economic and political power. Not when the world is in such bad shape."

It is time for women to change both the content and style of leadership. Children, families, education, health care, the environment, and diplomacy must be brought to the top of the agenda, not relegated to an asterisk. Women do not vote in unison any more than men do, but there are differences, and these differences will change the outcome on many issues that now divide us.

The long debate about whether women lead differently is not over, but we know that many women are more inclusive, collaborative, consensus builders, and are more likely to work across party lines. Therese Murray, the senate president in Massachusetts, contrasted her leadership style with the man who had the job before and ruled with an iron hand, "We have a different style. They're not afraid of me. I communicate and am more inclined to share power."

Women bring something else. "In male dominated Michigan politics, we bring a level of truth that would be missing if we weren't there," said State Representative Shanelle Jackson.
"Representing the bottom 99 percent of us," was the heart of the campaign that elected Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter.

Women are active in their communities: They volunteer, they contribute, and they support social causes. That is where the seeds of political activism lie. More women need to make the transition from helping people one-on-one in the nonprofit sector—vital as that is—to creating change on a grand scale in the public sector. Making a donation for breast cancer research is good, but obtaining funding for millions of dollars for research in the federal budget is so much better. "It's just a different venue with a greater impact," said New Hampshire House Speaker Terie Norelli, who had worked to reduce sexual violence in her community.
It is time to say that politics does not have to be a lifetime occupation. Just as there are different life stages, there are different political stages from volunteering to getting elected. Public office is not for everyone; but being an informed citizen, ready to speak out for what she believes, is for everyone.

Those of us who have achieved a rank in the political realm have a challenge before us—to convince young people not only that the tools of social change are available but that they have to be utilized by more women if we are to change the policies that frustrate them.
I openly wonder why we aren't reaching young women and getting them more involved in elective politics. What is wrong with the political system that participation does not seem worth the effort? And what is wrong with contemporary feminism? If younger women knew more about women's suffrage—a movement in which women labored for 100 years to exercise the right to vote—would they cherish it, rather than dismiss it?

The younger generation's concern about social justice shows that they want to create change just as much as my generation did.

We have to do a better job of telling them how and why they can keep their idealism alive and create change in their time, in their way. One way is for women to tell them why it is worthwhile to enter the fray; to be the one wielding power, rather than reacting to it. "The fact that you can wake up every morning and think that you can change the world. There is no better job," said Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez.

"If you are young and you are thinking about it and you have a track record and you are passionate about the community do it now. I believe if change is going to happen, a woman needs to do it. We are in a critical time in states and around the country. I can think of no better time for women in office than now. So don't wait," urged 28-year-old State Representative Alicia Thomas Morgan.

Making a difference is easier than most people think. "If you have a complaint, or something does not make sense, or something frustrates you, the solution is out there. The truth is out there. You as an individual probably can figure it out by believing you can, by making phone calls, by asking questions. The tools of social change are pretty tedious but they are actually available to all of us," said Amy Richards, a thirty-seven-year-old writer and social activist.
What we need is a healthy dose of political optimism. "Some people get the dream sucked out of them," said Michigan Representative Shanelle Jackson. "I'm not going to let them take it from me."

We also need to change politics. It is time to take strong steps, as women, as a country, to reverse the trends at work today. Imagine a Congress, a Supreme Court, and state legislatures, composed of women and people of color—not as exceptions but as commonplace as they are in the American population.

To do that, we must do the following:

• Make public office a civic virtue.
• Inaugurate a bipartisan national campaign to elect and appoint more women.
• Ask women to run for office.
• Embrace community involvement.
• Educate girls to exercise power.
• Teach citizenship.
• Link community service to politics.
• Implement campaign finance reform.
• Establish a mentoring bank.
• Teach negotiating skills.
• Change the political culture.

There is one recurring number: 16 percent. Women make up 16 percent of the Congress, 16 percent of top corporate positions, and 16 percent of Parliaments worldwide. These are record numbers for the United States, but they are low compared to women in other countries. The United States ranks sixty-ninth in a list of 187 countries in the percentage of women in lower houses of Parliament. Every female head of state knows she is gaining membership in a club whose rules were designed by and for men. Some were given membership through family names, others by their own determination. Many who succeeded were able to play by the rules while continuing to maintain their female personae and introduce a gender-influenced agenda. Whether they acknowledged or denied gender differences, their very presence at the helm showed that women could be in command in countries that had never before elected women leaders.

The question that follows is: If these countries, historically and culturally far more patriarchal than the United States, elected women heads of state, why do so many Americans still question whether a woman can be elected president of this country?

What are the barriers that make it harder for women and girls to think of themselves as future politicians? Or future presidents? Raising money, facing critics, losing privacy, balancing family responsibilities are all barriers, but these elected women have courageously dealt with them.
It's time to change our picture of what political leadership looks like. This book is addressed to seventeen-year-old Jessica Riegel (and her mother) who wrote, "I could not picture myself at a mahogany desk with stars and stripes behind gleaming white teeth and stiff bobbed hair. I could not picture myself knocking on strangers' doors, or making fundraising calls, or forming a quick, coherent answer to reporters' jabs." She asks, "Why can't politicians look and act like normal people?" At the end of a political training session, she concluded, "Well, they can." We have to change the face of political leadership so that "the woman who looks like their next-door neighbor, who jogs in the morning, who loves horror movies, spills coffee, organizes clothing drives, schleps her kids to soccer practice and orders takeout, is responsible and driven enough to represent them [the voters]," she said.

It is time for the women of America to claim their full citizenship. In 1920 we won the right to vote. Now we must use that right to change what is wrong in our country.

If we need courage, we need look no farther than the political women of Rwanda who survived genocide. Women comprise almost half of their Parliament. "We had to do this," Senator Odette Nyiramilimo said, "for the survival of our children."