"Know Your Why:" Powerful Women Make The Case For Purpose
The power of women leaders across generations and alliances was on prominent display.
Aliyah Houston, an eighth-grader at Dennis School in Decatur, Illinois, along with Speaker of The House Nancy Pelosi, the newly elected female mayor of Chicago and scores of local, state and federal representatives, transfixed an audience of 3,000 recently with calls for women to take action.
At The 19th annual Ultimate Women’s Power Lunch, hosted by Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky in Chicago, Houston received a standing ovation in two ballrooms for her performance of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech.
“If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?” Houston recited from Truth’s speech to applause.
On the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote with the 19th amendment, and a push to pass the 38th amendment, or the ERA, a record number of men and women “gathered to celebrate the power of women in leadership,” said Lori Lightfoot, mayor-elect of Chicago.
At a time when more women than ever hold seats in Congress, with 127 female Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate, Schakowsky quoted Pelosi, saying, “Sometimes you choose the moment and sometimes the moment chooses you.”
Postcards for Rebecca Sive’s recent book, Vote Her In, were at each place setting. The book “includes action plans that all women can follow to help each other become leaders and make the world a better place.”
The reverberations of more females in Congressional leadership are many.
“Having women in Congress, some of whom may have experienced sexual harassment before, is important in fighting against unwanted advances and gestures,” Arizona Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko, who co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Women’s Caucus, tells Roll Call.
Pew Research Center reports, “Women have been in Congress for more than a century. The first, Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was elected to the House in 1916, two years after her state gave women the vote. But it’s only been in the past few decades that women have served in substantial numbers. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the 325 women elected to the House since Rankin’s time (including the incoming new members) have been elected since 1992, and nearly half (48%) since 1998. The pattern is similar in the Senate: 29 of the 56 women who have ever served in the Senate (including the incoming new members) took office in 2000 or later.”
And while in this Congress, more women are Democrats than Republicans in office, that has not been true historically.
“Until the 1929 stock market crash, most of the dozen women elected to the House were Republicans, and for several decades afterward the two parties were generally close. But the gap widened in the 1970s and has persisted, despite a temporary narrowing during the Reagan-Bush 1980s. Of the 211 women elected to the House since 1990, 153 (73%) have been Democrats, as have 25 of the 36 women (69%) elected to the Senate over the same period. Just one of the 35 newly elected female House members, Carol Miller of West Virginia, is a Republican,” according to Pew.
Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, enjoyed a homecoming of sorts, as she was raised in Chicago and as a student at Francis Parker, was friends with Schakowsky’s daughter. Voted as class president of her classes at Parker from seventh to 12th grades, Pressley told the audience, “Women ask the questions that change the conversation.”
Taking to the stage, Pelosi told the audience, “Our founders said the times have found us. The times found women and they ran. The times found women and they voted,” said the mother of five and grandmother of nine. “The times have found everyone in this room.”
As the first woman in history to hold the position of Speaker of The House, Pelosi says, “I focus on my why and my why is bigger than my success.” She adds, “Our diversity is out strength, but our unity is our power. You have to know when to use that power.”
It is time to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which after 40 years is still not federal law. But recently, the first House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing in decades to ratify the ERA opened with a statement by actress and activist Patricia Arquette, according to World Economic Forum.
“There’s a groundswell in this country,” she said. “Women are being elected in record numbers. Women are rising up by the millions and saying they will not be sexually assaulted. They will not be paid less,” WEF reports.
Arquette added, “Women have been waiting 232 years for equality in this country, and it’s failed them. Legislators have blocked the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment for decades, but we’re done waiting.”
“Most Americans favor seeing more women in such jobs, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey: 59% of adults say there are too few women in high political offices,” Pew reports.
The tone is changing in Congress, according to many observers.
Since becoming Speaker, Pelosi says there are now additional statues commemorating historical figures. “There were a lot of white guys in statues,” Pelosi says. “We put up a Rosa Parks statue and a Sojourner Truth bust.”
Pelosi’s comments on leadership and power apply to all women, in all parties. “When you run and when you win, know your why. Know what your purpose is.”
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com