My first reaction to the news of Geraldine Ferraro’s death was, like many women leaders of a certain age, sadness for the passing of someone who inspired and challenged us to reach higher than we ever thought possible. When Walter Mondale picked Congresswoman Ferraro as his running mate on the 1984 Democratic presidential election ticket, a frisson of possibility ran through the then-rising generation of aspiring women leaders. Maybe we could get to the top after all!
My second reaction was: do the rising generations of young women even recognize her name or the importance of her story?
Our present age is deeply conflicted on the topic of women’s leadership. Sure, we have the icons: Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and the only other woman ever to be on a presidential ticket, Sarah Palin. A casual observer might say that women leaders seem more abundant in political, civic and corporate life than ever before.
I know differently, as do most women who have climbed the leadership ladder high enough to get very close to that glass ceiling that is real and impervious still in too many places. I sit in too many meetings where I am the only, or one of only a small number of women leaders in rooms dominated by men. And, perhaps because I’m living through what Gloria Steinem warned us about — that women grow more radical with age — I’m noticing that I’m getting more and more agitated about the way in which women have to be ever-so-careful about what we say and how we say it when we are in those rooms side-by-side with powerful men. My experience has shown me repeatedly that women leaders are judged differently and more harshly than their male counterparts, and women must be far more careful about picking their battles, lest we develop a bad reputation for being “too aggressive,” translation, a b****.
I read too many lists of corporate CEO’s and their salaries, and see only one or two women’s names, if any.
I look at lists of board members and realize, with some shock, that women on important boards remain few and far between, and some boards still have none.
I look around at meetings of college presidents and realize, to my dismay, that women remain a clear minority — take out the presidents of women’s colleges and the numbers shrink even more.
Ironically, in the same week that Mrs. Ferraro died after a long battle with cancer, Princeton University released a report addressing an increasingly disturbing phenomenon: although women are the majority of students in higher education today, very few women actually hold campus leadership positions. The report goes on to reveal that women still do most of the work of campus organizations, but they prefer to avoid the ‘limelight’ according to an analysis on Insidehighered.com The article goes on to state:
“Women tend to undersell themselves, and in some cases might be explicitly discouraged from seeking elective office, it says.
“Men, on the other hand, tend to assert themselves with more confidence, even when that confidence is not necessarily justified. “Men tend to speak up more quickly than women, to raise their hands and express their thoughts even before they are fully formulated,” the committee writes, “whereas women may take a bit more time to shape their comments and be more reticent about speaking up” — even though “women are outpacing men on our campus in academic achievement, except at the very highest level.” “
Click on this link for the full Princeton University Report, “Undergraduate Women’s Leadership”
This report echoes a recent story in the Washington Post about a ‘gender gap in student government.’
Complacency is a dangerous disposition. The women at Princeton today — and George Washington and Georgetown and Duke and Harvard and elsewhere — are on those campuses because prior generations of women fought for their right to be there. But real equality can never be taken for granted. Going along with the ‘revolution is over’ mindset is the surest way to keep women on the sidelines, out of the most powerful offices, and, therefore, bystanders to the decisions that only powerful people get to make.
“March Madness” is fast upon us, a hyper-male moment in which millions of people spend untold hours cheering for a few guys at center court. Sure, the women’s tournament is going on — quick, does anyone know who’s in the women’s Elite 8? Gotcha! (Hint: the only Hoyas still standing are the women of Georgetown!!) (Update: Georgetown lost.)
Geraldine Ferraro’s greatest achievement came at a time when women were still striving to reach the top of their game, when we believed that barriers were worth breaking, when we aspired to achieve the ultimate symbols of true equality — election to the highest offices in the land. The barriers remain, but the quest must continue.
The current generation of women leaders have a serious responsibility to consider ways in which we must inspire, incite and encourage the rising generations to take up the cause of women’s equality in the most important places for leadership in this society: the top jobs — the presidents, the CEOs, the board chairs, the members of Congress and the Senate, the Cabinet, the governors, the president and vice president of this nation. That’s where the power resides. Not back in the kitchen making the coffee, not in the secretary’s office writing the minutes, not in the library pulling the stats for the boss’s powerpoint. Sitting back and letting Jack be the SGA president, good heavens, that’s all I could say after reading the Princeton report. Geez, haven’t we learned anything all these years later?
Geraldine Ferraro still matters, intensely so in this age of confusion for too many young women of great potential.
By the way, Trinity and other women’s colleges find even more affirmation of our necessity and worth when we read reports like the one from Princeton. A reporter is working on a story about why so many powerful women leaders — Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, Cathleen Black, Maggie Williams, Susan Burk, Jane McAuliffe, many others — graduated from such a relatively small college. Well, the answer is clear: the women of Trinity would NEVER let Jack do it! Women’s colleges continue to be the most powerful places possible for the promotion of women’s leadership and success.
Geraldine Ferraro was a graduate of Marymount Manhattan College in the days when it was a women’s college. She was a member of an amazing roster of women achievers who graduated from these institutions. Let’s pay tribute to her legacy by redoubling our efforts to inspire, incite and inflame the minds of future women leaders to aim for the highest possible goals. Why stop at the nomination for vice president? Think higher!
Update: just today there is a semi-humorous piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how older male faculty members ignore young female faculty in university departments. Click here to read the article.