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President's Office | Remarks: Women’s History, 2006

Women’s History: Writing the Next Chapter

Remarks for the Women’s History Month Program of the Federal Triangle Partnership, Tuesday, March 14, 2006

President Patricia McGuire, Trinity

Many thanks to colleagues in the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Agency for International Development, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection for inviting me to share this program with you.  Special thanks to Trinity Alumna Gloria Blackwell for contacting me and making the arrangements for today.

Sometimes, my students ask why we have these months — Women’s History Month, Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month.  The questions are often vaguely suspicious, if not downright hostile — is this some patronizing plot, some attempt to appease people who have suffered historic and chronic discrimination?  Do we become enablers of a “feel good” gloss on history if we participate in events that tend to sanitize, homogenize and strip away the pain from the real facts about our collective past?

My answers sometimes frustrate those who want to pick a fight with my insistence that we celebrate these months at Trinity.  No, I reply, we do not observe these moments to indulge in romantic, revisionist history.  Rather, we take this important time to remember history, to learn more about events and conditions that once were obscure, facts that were repressed, to hear voices that once were silent.  And then, with that learning, we consider what it means for the creation of our own history.

Today, we think about women’s history.  The theme this year is Women as Builders of Communities and Dreams.  That’s nice, but not the whole story.  Let’s face it:  women have only had the right to vote for 85 years — in the lifetime of our mothers and grandmothers, we were disenfranchised in this great nation.  Women still only earn, on average, 77% of men’s earnings for the same work (68% for African American women, 57% for Latina women).  Women hold only 12% of board seats in Fortune 500 corporations[1]Only two women are ceo’s of the 500 corporations on the Fortune list; 90% of those 500 companies have no — ZERO — women officers.  These numbers tell us something very important:  the revolution is far from over.  History is yet to be written on the subject of women’s advancement.  We are the authors of the next chapter of women’s history, and these are our themes.

I have a plaque hanging in my office that says:  “Well Behaved Women Don’t Make History.”

Perfect!  Keep that in mind as I get into this text.

By the way, speaking of misbehaving — when I received instructions about today’s event, there was one item in capital letters and boldface type on the instruction sheet, and this made a big impression on me.  The instruction reads:

POLITICAL COMMENTS:  Refrain from making these as there will be political appointees in the audience

Hmmm.  To consider women’s history with no mention of political issues means that we will sit here in silence for the next half hour.

But I have more faith in the political appointees among us this morning.  I’m sure you are not porcelain dolls, likely to shatter if I say the words “Title IX” or “19th Amendment” or “equal pay for equal work” or “glass ceiling.” OK, so far, I don’t hear any explosions.   If I say anything that makes you uncomfortable —- well, good, I’m doing my job.  Back to the notion that “Well Behaved Women Don’t Make History.”

The roll call of the giants of women’s history proves the truth of this statement:  from Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to Sojourner Truth and Mary McLeod Bethune (founder of the National Council of Negro Women, Bethune-Cookman College, and advisor to President Roosevelt), from Frances Perkins (Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the United States) to Oveta Culp Hobby (first woman appointed Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under Eisenhower) to Patricia Roberts Harris (first African American woman appointed to the presidential cabinet as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development with President Carter) to  Sandra Day O’Connor (the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court), from Rosa Parks to Bette Friedan to Coretta Scott King to Dorothy Day to Eleanor Holmes Norton to Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice.  All of these women broke barriers, and each one, in her own way, at some point in her career had to push through layers of resistance, discrimination and even outright hostility.

I’m sure that most were relatively “well behaved.”  But it doesn’t take much for people who want to hold women back to criticize any woman who rises above conformity to achieve excellence.  These women gave meaning to Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous advice, “You gain strength, courage and confidence from ever situation in which you stop to look fear in the face.  You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”[2] So many women pioneers, so many women “firsts” who did what others thought they could not, should not do.  Their success paved pathways for rising generations of women to achieve even more.

But, what’s left to achieve?  Can we realistically have a serious expectation that women’s advancement will continue in the remarkable ways that we’ve seen barriers fall in the last century?  Or should we declare that the revolution is over?

The revolution is far from over.  We owe it to the great women who achieved so much in our history to continue their great work, to write the next chapter of women’s history with even more zeal.  What are we going to write about in this chapter?  Let me mention three themes that have particular urgency today:

  1. Securing widespread acceptance of women as leaders, top executives and professionals; it is one thing to get the job, it is another to be accepted into the leadership club;
  2. Ending the continuing prevalence of sexual harassment and the objectification of women in our culture;
  3. Global women’s education.

First, let’s consider the challenge of securing widespread acceptance of women as leaders, top executives and senior managers.  This seems timely this week as the nation of Chile inaugurates its first woman president (Michele Bachelet).  Germany also recently elected its first woman chancellor (Angela Merkel).

But here in the United States, talk of potential female candidates for the presidency seems more grist for the anti-feminist mill rather than a serious proposition.  Yes, I know that 2/3 of Californians just said in a poll that they would vote for a woman candidate for president.  But, let’s face it, that’s California.  In spite of the many able women who could be president, is the U.S. electorate ready to make a serious choice of a female commander-in-chief?  I think it’s still years if not decades away.

So many unspoken cultural prejudices work against women attaining high office whether through election, appointment or advancement in the private sector.  I have a saying that that higher you get on the ladder, the closer you are to the glass ceiling, the more clearly you can see through to the other side.

I’m pretty high up on the ladder.  I see the glass ceiling very well.  I also see what those guys are doing on the other side:  they’re playing golf.

Consider this item from last Sunday’s New York Times:

The CEO of the investment firm Morgan Stanley just recruited two new board members who are also members of his own club, the Golf Club of Purchase, NY, where the price of admission exceeds $200,000.  The newspaper report goes on to say,

“For the Morgan Stanley chief executive, an enthusiastic golfer who has promised to restore some shine to the old Morgan Stanley name, the selections hark back to an era when the firm was one of Wall Street’s most exclusive partnerships.

“At that time, a premium was placed on collegial ties among like-minded men who could shoot a restorative 18 holes and then retreat to the sanctity of the clubhouse. Today, with chief executives under increasing pressure to have independent boards, that old temptation to have a few golf pals on the board and in the executive suite might be less acute.

“Yet the practice appears to be alive and well, if not as visible. Indeed, golf-obsessed chief executives vie harder than ever for membership in the world’s most exclusive clubs, and many corporate executives still believe that golf is to a board, or a chief executive’s inner circle, as oil is to a car engine: it is the lubricant that makes the machine hum.

“A C.E.O. wants a guy with shared experience and values, a guy, say, who gives him putts within three feet,” said Peter J. Solomon, an avid golfer who runs his own investment bank, referring to the practice of letting a fellow golfer finish a hole without a last short putt. “So many C.E.O.’s are isolated in their own boardrooms. They need to have people with whom they can discuss personal and confidential matters.”[3] Poor fellows!  Golf guys as therapists.

As a woman who sits on a corporate board dominated by men who seem to view golf as a transcendent experience, I can testify to the fact that the male golf bonding experience is quite prevalent in corporate life.

Clearly, social and cultural barriers continue to hinder women’s ability to pierce through the glass ceiling.  Yes, some women take up golf specifically to be on the inside of the club.  But how many of us have the $200,000 price of admission?  Consider that a metaphor that you can apply to many different gender-biased situations for women executives.  And equally important, should we really have to adapt to and adopt the male behaviors in order to win acceptance?  And, what’s the danger for women who do that?  Rather than becoming “one of the boys” the woman who acts too aggressive, to male-like in her approach to business will find herself barred from the boardroom more quickly than the woman who plays her role more subtly.

Too many women find the stress of trying to figure all of this out to be too much.  One of the alarming consequences of the Age of Superwoman that we experienced in the 1980′s and 1990′s is a new Age of Lower Sights on the part of many younger women today.   One bellweather of this problem is the deficit in women partners at law firms.  While women are 48% of law students and 44% of associates in law firms, only 17% of law firm partners are women[4].  Studies have shown that one of the problems today is that women choose to opt out long before the partnership decision is made.  Similar statistics exist in the world of public accounting, where only 19% of the partners are female, and studies show that women tend to be far less likely to desire partnership than men[5].  A 2002 study of women holding top editor positions at major newspapers revealed that only 20% of editors at top newspapers are female[6].  Similar to the findings about lawyers and accountants, the study of editors revealed that women are choosing to opt out of the drive to the top; that work/life balance issues are increasingly important as offsets to the idea of becoming the top leader.  But equally important, the studies also continue to show that part of the reason why women drop out of contention for partnerships and top jobs is that they just don’t think that they can really break through the gender-normed cultures at the top — those cultures that tend to be shaped around the men’s golf clubs and other rites of maleness.  Pioneering is hard work, and of course, there’s always the danger of slipping off the saintly pedestal of the noble pioneer and down into the hellhole of demonization — that can happen when you misread the signs of inclusion as invitations to participate, which are two entirely different behaviors inside the club.  There’s a great deal of stress around developing a reputation as a “mouthy woman” even if you only speak once in any given meeting.

I will come back in a minute to the difference between the idea of inclusion and the idea of participation as those ideas apply to educational institutions.

But let’s turn to my second issue:  ending sexual harassment and the objectification of women in our culture.  This is a problem fed in part by the voracious media and entertainment machine.  Consider these results if you ask Google[7] for the number of web citations for these names:

  • Condoleeza Rice � 2 million
  • Michelle Bachelet � 2,390,000
  • Sandra Day O’Connor � 3 million
  • Angela Merkel � 7,470,000
  • Hillary Clinton � 17,300,000

Serious women are doing pretty well, you say? Consider:

  • Beyonce � 21,200,000
  • Angelina Jolie � 26,500,000
  • Britney Spears � 49,700,000
  • Oprah � 50,500,000

Now, Oprah may just be the best business woman ever, and if she ran for president she might have a real shot.  But in general, women leaders are not nearly as well known as women who are singers and other entertainers.  Of course, we can all enjoy their talent — but the exaltation of women in entertainment is, all too often, not about talent.  Mass culture continues to objectify women in ways that emphasize looks and sexual characteristics over intellect, talent and measurable achievements in a vast spectrum of human endeavors.  Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a Space Shuttle gets 270,000 mentions on Google, but Dynasty’s Joan Collins gets 2 million.

So, how do we tackle this issue?  How do we end the exploitation of women and improve the global opportunities for women to have equal access to work, wages and lifelong economic security?

Education must be the answer.  U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and so many other world leaders have stated this fundamental truth:  the education of women and girls is the single most powerful weapon at our disposal in the war on poverty, the eradication of disease, the improvement of conditions for children and families all over the earth.

Easier said than done.  Around the world, more than 900 million people are illiterate, and fully two-third of those, 600 million, are female.  65 million girls who should be in school are not receiving any form of education[8].

To illustrate the power and importance of global education for women, consider the story of Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement in Africa.  She is the first African woman ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which she won in 2004 for her work in sustainable development in Africa.  She, herself, was one of very few African women to have the privilege of education, including earning degrees here in the United States.  In her Nobel Lecture she said,  “Throughout Africa, women are � often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.”[9]

Ms. Maathai goes on to describe the problem in simple terms:  women can no longer feed their families because commercialism replaced their family farms and then ruined the land.  But the women were reluctant, at first, to take action.  She saw the problem as a matter of education.

“Historically, our people have been persuaded to believe that because they are poor, they lack not only capital, but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges�Further, women did not realize that meeting their needs depended on their environment being healthy and well managed. �In order to assist communities to understand these linkages, we developed a citizen education program, during which people identify their problems, the causes and possible solutions. They then make connections between their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society. �.In the process, the participants discover that they must be part of the solutions. �They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.”[10]

“Entire communities also come to understand that while it is necessary to hold their governments accountable, it is equally important that in their own relationships with each other, they exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity and trust.”[11]

What a powerful statement of the value of women’s education!  The impact of educated women on children, families, communities, private and governmental organizations around the world is incalculable.  We must keep writing the history of women’s educational attainment through improving educational opportunities for women everywhere in the world.

Now, just fair warning, I’m about to make a political statement:  the most important thing the United States government can do to improve the condition of women in this nation and around the world, and, therefore, to improve the condition of children and families is to promote a more ambitious global agenda for the education of women and girls.   We must insist in all of our relationships with governments and nations all over the world that women’s fundamental right to education be honored with genuine, effective schooling for girls and access to universities for women.  At home, we must equally insist that the four decades of law and public policy that protect women’s rights in education and at work remain strong.

Which brings me to Title IX, the law that mandates equal opportunity for women in education.  Remember what I said earlier about the difference between inclusion and genuine participation.  Up until the middle of the 20th Century, as was the case with African Americans and other people of color, women, too, were frequently denied access to institutions of higher education — this is the reason why women’s colleges and historically black colleges were founded.  And even where women had access, they were denied the full benefits of the educational programs through overt and subtle forms of discrimination.  Chilly classrooms abounded.  Teachers called on boys and ignored the girls.  Men talked, women were silent.  Women were denied positions on faculties, or denied tenure.  On coeducational campuses the men’s teams played in the big fieldhouses while the women scurried furtively to find dingy gyms in Quonset huts on the edges of the campus.  I played in some of those places, basketball courts where you had to put your foot against the wall to be out of bounds.

All that supposedly changed in 1972 when Title IX mandated that women should have full and equal access to all educational opportunities, including faculty and staff positions, admission to schools and universities, and equality of programming at all levels.

But chilly classrooms and unfriendly campuses for women still abound.  Just look at the ongoing scandals around women’s treatment at the Naval Academy, but you can find similar situations on many university campuses.  Girls and women are included in all levels of education today, but their inclusion still does not necessarily guarantee full and robust participation.  Here’s another example:  in the District of Columbia Public Schools, the boys play football, but the girls have no access to soccer or other field sports.  So, while the football men can have some hope of being recruited to college on football scholarships, the girls who have no field sports will never have the opportunity of being recruited to play college soccer, including the considerable economic opportunity of a full soccer scholarship.  That’s just one example of the kind of discrimination that still exists 30 years after Title IX.  We must keep the law strong; it must be enforced vigorously.

Women’s colleges continue to exist today because women still need the opportunities to excel in places that take them seriously.  Trinity, like many woman-centered universities and colleges, also welcomes men into many of our programs, but we place women’s learning at the center of our mission and programs.   Now, some people might question why women’s colleges still need to exist; women can gain admission to all of the universities in the nation, and women are, in fact, the majority population in higher education.  Remember what I said about inclusion versus participation:  just because we’re present doesn’t mean we’re welcome or able to take full advantage of the learning opportunities.  On too many university campuses, women are relegated to sitting high up in the bleachers, cheering for a few men tipping off at center court.  March Madness exemplifies the problem.  How many people in this town have the women’s brackets posted on their walls?  How many have serious money riding on the women’s teams?

Trinity and other woman-centered institutions in the nation’s cities have also taken as a modern restatement of our historic missions the education of women who have historically been left outside of the educational clubs entirely:  low income women, African American and Latina women, women whose families do not have long traditions of educational success.  For all of the great examples of women who have made it to the top in this country, there are millions more who wake up in the morning wondering if they will ever be able to break through the cycles of poverty, violence and illiteracy that prevent improvement in their economic condition.  Just in D.C. alone, 38% of adults cannot read at a 4th grade level[12] — the problem of illiteracy is a challenge for women’s education, in particular, because we know that if we can improve women’s educational attainment the chances are that we will improve the educational levels of children as well.

The revolution is far from over.  Even as we tackle the global challenge of women’s education, we need to stay vigilant at home that we do not let short-sighted mythologies about equality having been achieved blind us to the reality that gender and race discrimination remains a real barrier to educational opportunity and economic security for far too many women and girls.

And so, we write another page of our history, women’s history.  We write about credibility, ambition, dignity, educational opportunity, economic security.  We write women’s history today with a profound sense of gratitude to the great women who blazed the trails to the summits on which we stand today.  And as we look out from this perch we see even higher peaks ahead.  So we lay down these words as ropes to the top, confident in our ability to reach that distant goal, lifting each other as we climb, hopeful that those who come after us will find the way just a little easier for the footprints we have left along the way.

Thanks for listening, and may this moment of Women’s History prove to be your incitement to add a few more lines to the magnificent, ambitious, unending story of women’s progress and achievement.


[1] Source:  Catalyst  http://www.catalystwomen.org/

[2] Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living (1960).

[3] All quotations in the golf story are from “A Path to a Seat on the Board? Try the Fairway” by Landon Thomas in The New York Times, Business Section, Sunday, March 11, 2006.

[4] Source:  http://www.law.virginia.edu/home2002/html/news/2006_spr/gorman.htm Law firms that have greater proportions of male partners and that value stereotypically male characteristics may be less likely to hire and promote female candidates, according to U.Va. sociology professor Elizabeth Gorman, who spoke at a talk sponsored by Virginia Law Women Feb. 15.

[5] The study, “A Decade of Changes in the Accounting Profession: Workforce Trends and Human Capital Practices,” was conducted under the aegis of the AICPA’s Work/Life and Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee and explored a wide range of topics, including career advancement, turnover, and mentoring.  Source:  http://accounting.smartpros.com/x51887.xml

[6] http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1709017 “According to a study released in June by the Media Management Center, a training and research program at Northwestern University, the percentage of top editor positions held by women at major papers actually has declined over the past two years, to 20% this year from 25% in 2000. The study, which covered all 137 newspapers with daily circulation of more than 85,000, revealed that the number of women holding the highest editor posts at those papers dropped to 26 this year from 34 two years ago.

The reasons for the reduction vary, according to researchers, who say sexism and discrimination can be blamed for only part of the disparity. Research indicates more women are declining the top editing jobs, or are facing obstacles in getting them, because they want to devote more time to their families. Other findings, based on E&P interviews with more than a dozen current or former top women editors, suggest that the status of women in the newsroom hierarchy is stagnant because of their limited social access to higher-ranking executives who hire editors.”

[7] Numbers cited are from Google on March 13, 2006.

[8] Data from UNESCO Global Equity report.

[9] Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, December 10, 2004, http://nobelprize.org/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-lecture-text.html

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] D.C. Chamber of Commerce 2006 State of the Business Report www.dcchamber.org


Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu

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