Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World
By Marie C. Wilson
March 3, 2003. Another powerful group of women leaders, this one global, gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The White House Project assembled it to discuss why we matter and how to elevate more of us to power. Many U.S. heavy hitters were there: Madeleine K. Albright, former secretary of state; Judy Woodruff, veteran journalist and former anchor of CNN's Inside Politics; Charlotte Bunch, author and executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University; Democratic pollster and leading political strategist Celinda Lake and her Republican counterpart Linda DiVall; Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation; Pat Mitchell, who ran PBS; Swanee Hunt, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and former U.S. ambassador to Austria; Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, and Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. They came to do what women do: teach and learn, inspire each other, and strategize for the future.
Charlotte Bunch, who has worked tirelessly to guarantee that women's rights are treated as human rights, reminded us it was women who pushed to make rape a war crime, and it was women who made sure females served on the international war crimes tribunal.
Maijorie "Mo" Mowlam, the late British parliamentarian who helped broker the Good Friday Peace Agreement for Northern Ireland, spoke of the importance of networks: "The 'boys club' still operates.. .they look after each other, but not us."
Christine Pintat, formerly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, asked a key question: Can a nation call itself a democracy when "women are so grossly underrepresented?"
Madeleine Albright observed, "If women in government do their jobs, they will improve the lot of women and girls everywhere. They will raise issues that others overlook, pass bills that others oppose, put money into projects others ignore, and seek an end to abuses others accept."
We also heard from a founder of Parite in France, Yvette Roudy, who in 1996 brought together five political women from the left and five from the right to shock the nation with their "Manifesto of the Ten," calling for equal numbers of men and women in politics. In 1999, the "Ten" and its allies got a constitutional amendment to require parity, forcing the parties to include women on their ballots or incur a financial penalty. After the amendment passed, female representation on city councils nearly doubled, jumping from 25.5 percent to 47.5 percent.
Unfortunately, the 2002 results at the national level were disappointing-women only won 12.2 percent of the assembly seats, a slight increase. Parties said they struggled to find candidates-and some preferred the fine to compliance.
Roudy, who at the gathering lived up to the pronunciation of her name (rowdy), insisted that we be more daring. She also urged young women to "seek public office, because it is in politics that you can bring about social change and improvement."
In 1989, with fifty-five years of democracy under its belt, India still had a parliament that was only 8 percent women. This was the motivation for Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research in India. She and others traveled broadly, collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment that would reserve a third of all village council seats for women. It passed in 2001, and 1.3 million women now serve their villages in a whole new way.
Kumari is working to extend this fairness in representation to the national level. She and the centre have lobbied for the Women's Reservation Bill, which would reserve 33 percent of parliamentary seats for women. In March 2007, a United Nations Democracy Fund unit was added to the centre to help marginalized women enter state and national politics in India through building leadership, advocacy, and lobbying, and identifying women who could run for office.
Anita Gradin of Sweden, former member of parliament, pushed legislation that put her country nearly on top in women's political participation: 47.3 percent, the second highest percentage in the world, after Rwanda. She advocated "strong women's organizations to pressure, to work with the parties, to push them both from the inside and out-the men will not do it for us."
Sheila Sisulu, one of the apartheid freedom fighters who insisted on (and got) a power guarantee for women, reminded us that "we don't have to be superwomen. We don't have to do it all by ourselves. We can make alliances, including with men, to make us effective."
But the crowning moment came at the conclusion of a round table where fourteen experts in American politics, policy, organizing, and academics discussed how our country could increase women's political representation. After several questions from the floor, a woman rose majestically and introduced herself as Gwen Mahlangu, a representative in the South African parliament and president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union's Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians. She marveled that America, for all its progress, was still so backward in advancing women in politics. And, with a conviction that took our breath away, she offered to help us become a democracy: "I will stand by you, sisters, I will stand by you."
Since the conference, I think often of Gwen. I also think of those women in India, boarding a train every day, rumbling through heat and dust, setting up colorful tables at each whistle-stop to attract attention and to provide a gathering place, telling poor and illiterate women that they matter, changing lives one signature at a time.