There’s a powerful storm forging across the nation, one which aims to turn the tide, advancing women’s leadership in all spheres right up to the U.S. presidency. The epicenter: The White House Project.
By filling the leadership pipeline with a richly diverse, critical mass of women, we make American institutions, businesses and government truly representative. Through multi-platform programs, The White House Project creates a culture where America’s most valuable untapped resource—women—can succeed in all realms. —– TWHP
Marie Wilson, founder and president, stewards the organization’s initiatives. Born and raised in Georgia, she was the first woman to be elected to Iowa’s Des Moines City Council as a member-at-large in 1983. Marie also served as president of the Ms. Foundation for two decades before leaving in 2004 to focus her energies on The White House Project.
Sitting in a small conference room with Marie at TWHP’s Manhattan headquarters, one senses her dedication and passion for women’s issues. Gracious and down-to earth, she reflects on her background and what brought her to the Ms. Foundation and eventually to The White House Project.
“It’s interesting. Most of the things I’ve done have developed through just observing what’s going on around me, like many women do, and trying to figure out how to get up in the morning and perhaps do one thing that will make a change,” Marie muses as she recalls the journey. “While I was working in Iowa in the early ’80s, the farm crisis was killing the state. Yet at the same time, I could see that there were a number of women creating these little service businesses. I got really interested in what they were doing and decided I wanted to help other women, who were also struggling, to do the same. But none of the men I was working with would give me free reign to pursue that.”
It was on a dare, Marie divulges, that she applied to the Ms. Foundation. Eventually, she left her city council position and joined Ms. with the aim of doing microenterprise work. “When I got to the foundation, I found the two other women in the country who knew anything about the subject,” Marie remarks. “We basically became the mothers of microenterprise. That was actually the beginning of the first project in this country that started to build the microenterprise movement for women.”
At the helm of the Ms. Foundation for twenty years, Marie recalls how wonderful it was to fund women who she referred to at the time as ‘the government-in-exile.’ “They were creating programs and services around the economy and healthcare. They developed living wage campaigns. They created new ways to deal with choice. Finally, I recognized we ought to just get them into the county commissions, the city councils, the legislatures and congress because then we could stop advocating our lives away.”
That seed thought eventually bore fruit. “The Ms. Foundation had been doing Take our Daughters to Work for years by then,” Marie recounts, “and all these little girls had written me about how they were going to be leaders and that they were going to be the president. So when you get thousands of letters, you start to listen up. In addition, there were grantees who had done great work and then had it pushed back by city council or state legislature after they’d gotten a policy in place. Then we had to start over and give them money again. It was just so crazy. I realized I needed to do something about it, so I hired someone to do research on women’s leadership. I was shocked at how few women were in leadership positions anywhere.”
In 1998, that realization led to the formation of The White House Project, which as Marie explains, “allowed us to focus on going through the door of the presidency. We thought, ‘Well, this will get their attention.’ No one can say we’ve already had a woman president.”
And that fresh, bold initiative is exactly what we needed. Supporting women’s leadership roles, whether in government, politics, business, education or religion is especially important in the development of a truly representative society. “We aren’t using all of our democratic resources,” Marie notes. “Abigail Adams wrote ‘Remember the ladies’ and John Adams basically answered ‘Not on your life.’ But we have to remember them. We know that diversity is the key to attaining new solutions. We’ve actually lost so much ground by excluding women of all races from the leadership of our country, communities and companies.”
If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. — Abigail Adams
The key word, Marie concludes, is transformation. Speaking matter-of-factly, she points toward the “enormous bifurcation of parties and a democracy of people who aren’t always educated about the issues—people who don’t know what they’re advocating. That’s why we need to get the kind of women that The White House Project is training into power—those who are dedicated and really versed in the issues and who are helping families and communities survive. It’s important these women make it into all sectors because that’s how it will work.”
The White House Project’s groundbreaking report, Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, provides solutions with regard to achieving a critical mass of women leaders across a number of sectors: academia, business, film, journalism, law, military, nonprofit, religion, politics, and sports. Marie explains the report’s objectives.
“The White House Project’s Corporate Council started looking at people’s comfort level regarding women’s leadership. We reviewed ten sectors as well as the presidency and vice presidency and realized that if we wanted to change things, we had to show people the numbers. So we did the research. It turns out that even though people’s comfort level is rising regarding women in power positions, women’s leadership is not. It’s about an 18% average across every sector. We reflected on what men could do to help change this. First of all, they have to hold their companies accountable. Quotas around board positions are in effect in other countries like Norway, the Netherlands, France, England, Canada, etc. So now we do have some publicly trading companies requiring that forty percent of their board of directors be women. Our own country is horrible about quotas, but quotas work.”
In addition, Corporate Council members, being corporate women who are active agents of change within their corporations have conducted interviews in their own companies, directly asking senior officers why there weren’t more women in leadership positions in their firms. “In these confidential interviews,” Marie reveals, “male executives were willing to admit that women were not only generally more perceptive but were more apt to be working for the good of the company rather than for their self-aggrandizement. They felt there should be more women in power, but it just wasn’t happening yet.”
But it needs to happen, and soon. The time for women to share power with men in decision-making at all levels within the financial, educational, human rights, and environmental sectors as well as in any aspect of social reform has more than just come, it’s been here for a while. We’re especially confronted with this imperative in the realm of peace negotiations. Women need to be much more involved in peace initiatives if we are to attain any kind of lasting resolution.
“When you read about the origin of wars, you’ll see they don’t usually break out over national issues,” Marie stresses. “They’re incited by what goes on inside countries—lack of access to food and water, human rights abuses—these are conditions that cause war. Women actually are more in touch with these types of struggles. They’re usually the ones getting the water and bringing it back to their homes, for example. They’re physically involved with the difficulties, so they understand that issues of human security start disputes. Also, because they’re not usually involved in the fighting, they’re more apt to be able to reach across the table and negotiate. Women have had to learn how to work and connect to people they don’t agree with. They have not had the power or the ability to say, Well, just get lost.”
So what exactly do women have to offer that would be helpful in resolving conflict situations? Marie makes the distinction that beyond any innate qualities, women have had to develop practical skills.
“Women have had to nurture, but I think whether you go into nature or nurture, women have not been at the head of the table. They haven’t exerted the kind of command or control to say War or No War,” Marie remarks pointedly. “Actually, I’m more interested in the skills women have than the experiences that they’ve had as nurturers. Women have had to sit around tables and figure out how to bring groups together. They’ve had to negotiate with each other and with men to have any power at all.”
This idea of women needing to work with each other more and find strength and power in numbers is an important one to consider. In Marie Wilson’s book, Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World, she explains why we need more women at the top alongside men, not just for the sake of fairness, but for the larger social good.
When I look at the issues we face, and when I think of the changes we need, I am as convinced as I have ever been that our future depends on the leadership of women—not to replace men, but to transform our options alongside them. —Closing the Leadership Gap by Marie Wilson
“The aim of the book was to do just what it did,” Marie states. “It was the first book in a long time about the importance of getting a critical mass of women into power. At the time I wrote it, I hoped it would not only jumpstart the work we were doing at the Project—training women around the country for political leadership—but to get organizations and individuals to see the structural issues that are underneath why we don’t have more women in positions of power, that we do need to look at the opportunities women have to lead. It’s also important we look at the numbers. We need a critical mass, at least a third. The idea is to make women’s leadership alongside men normal.”
A lot of energy has gone into the effort to create that normalcy. The White House Project can certainly be credited for pioneering the vistas of women’s leadership, all the while keeping it’s eye on the goal: A woman in the presidency.
“We were ground zero for reenergizing the women’s political and leadership movement,” Marie asserts, “In its way, The White House Project has served as an idea generator and apple seeder. We’ve certainly made strides in negating the notion that women have already attained parity with men with regard to leadership. We’re getting people to stop saying, ‘Oh, we have an organization in our state that trains twenty women a year,’ as if that was enough. Can you imagine the opposite—an organization that trains only twenty men a year to run for office?”
Not likely. Besides, men already have a well-trod path into political leadership. It’s quite a different story for women. Training is what we need, not simply an abstract review, but the kind of schooling that offers a true-grit mentoring, preparing us for not only the practical levels of leadership but versing us in the real-life issues that affect us all. That includes national and international security.
In her 2008 edition of Closing the Leadership Gap, Marie added a new and timely afterword, No More Waiting: Women in Politics and in Time of War, offering her thoughts regarding the importance of including women in the security debate.
“I wrote that afterword when the country was in this terrible situation. We weren’t talking about getting out of Iraq, and we were dealing with Afghanistan. I was also aware that we had lost the elections in terms of progressive stances on war and peace because we had not really helped the country redefine security, or for that matter, define what it would take for us to have a secure world. I felt strongly that we needed to get more women understanding they had to be a part of this conversation—that women had something worth saying.”
Partnering with Participant Media in their social action campaign, START Now Summit 2010: Women Leaders for Nuclear Security being held in Washington D.C. this October, The White House Project is now working to ensure that women are more involved in the nuclear security debate. “We want women in this training who really care about the issue of nuclear security and are willing to get out into the world and talk about it,” Marie states.
Marie reveals that her concern regarding nuclear proliferation goes way back. She recalls coming out of college during Kennedy’s presidency and fearing some future calamity. “I remember being worried about having kids and thinking that one day all this nuclear stuff would kill the children. But thank goodness we’ve been able to get this far. Recently, one of my little grandchildren was over our home and I felt the same knot in my chest I had years ago. I thought, ‘I want this lovely child who is so sweet and who thinks the world is so good to grow up safely in it.’ I’m sure I’m not the only mother, grandmother or aunt with this concern. That’s why I’m happy that we have this opportunity to present the summit with Participant Media as well as the film, Fair Game, so we can talk to women about this issue.”
Participant Media’s Social Action campaign for Fair Game will explore the issue of nuclear security and emphasize the importance of the participation of women in politics. Through strategic local events, and a two day summit on advocacy, organization and communication, as well as education on nuclear security, the campaign will mobilize women across the country to take the lead in advocating for Senate ratification of the New START Treaty. — Takepart.com
Mobilizing women to advocate at all levels of leadership is fundamental in establishing overall security both nationally and internationally. When asked how she feels about women’s economic well-being as an additive in the mix, Marie makes the distinction that although economic security is a desirable goal, it still falls under a larger umbrella.
“A country where the women are more economically secure does have a better shot at overall stability,” Marie states. “Yet it’s important for women to have political power, too. Perhaps we need to do what India has done. That country is ground zero for microenterprise, but India is also ground zero—after working close to twenty years to get there—in establishing women in thirty percent of local government positions as well as in parliament. So yes—economic security, financial security, healthcare and safety—they’re all tied together, but without political power you can’t deal with any of these major issues. It’s the thread that runs through everything. That’s why I’m so devoted to The White House Project, because if you don’t have that thread moving through it all, then what’s accomplished can be sabotaged and changed in a hair’s breadth in a Supreme Court decision. We need that political power.”
And The White House Project, having recently trained 120 women in Duluth Minnesota, is helping to assure we attain it. Marie notes that “if you look at Minnesota, half of the county governments don’t have one woman on a county commission. It’s like that all around this country. People just don’t understand. Across our states, there isn’t the diversity we need at the table, and that’s killing us.”
As a way to germinate a more versatile society at large, The White House Project also calls on us to Ignite a National Movement to Inspire Girls. In 1993, during her time at the Ms. Foundation, Marie co-created Take Our Daughters to Work Day, [now known as Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day] providing the opportunity for adults to take girls into the workplace. She reflects on the roots of the initiative.
“Take Our Daughters was a wonderful experience for me,” Marie affirms. “This simple idea of taking your girl to the office and showing her what you do every day, talking to her about why you are a traffic guard, a bus driver, a surgeon or whatever. We wanted girls to be inspired to change what’s around them in this country—give girls the opportunity to make change in their world and show them how to do it.”
Showing girls how they can aspire to become anything they wish and enter any office of leadership, including the executive office, has been a passionate directive for the organization. It’s certainly led them down interesting roads, eventually landing them at an unlikely door. Could a doll be a part of the answer . . . Barbie?
“Well, it’s interesting. I initially approached Mattel to raise money. They wouldn’t give it to me so I said, ‘Maybe you should make that doll’s dream house a White House so she’ll have something to dream about. Make her the president.” Marie admits she was being facetious. “When Mattel said ‘That’s a great idea,’ I was so surprised.”
But as it turns out, it was another piece of the puzzle that fell into place. Believing using popular culture to be a powerful way to make change, Marie found herself remembering the advice of her mentors. Go where the people are. “Now we’re doing that through film, television and documentaries, as well as with this doll. In fact, we’ve had a wonderful relationship with Mattel. They have a great group of young women who are really dedicated to using Barbie for girl’s empowerment. She’s portrayed as having all these different careers now. Barbie has definitely been reenvisioned.”
A woman’s vision of herself appears to be one of the foundational keys to her success. In the larger scheme, using images to alter how women, as well as men, are perceived allows people to change their view of what could be possible. Once again, with popular culture as the venue, The White House Project aims to transform traditional images of women by honoring artistic works that highlight bold, courageous females that are not only leaders but have revolutionized how women are perceived in their fields. In this way, the Epic Awards celebrates women’s leadership in the media and popular culture.
“We realized that if we wanted to change the number of women in leadership, people needed to see women in different roles. You can’t be what you can’t see,” Marie declares. “Therefore, I thought it would be great to honor the television programs, documentaries, books—anything in popular culture that portrays women as leaders. Actually, it’s been hard in Hollywood to make a film about a woman leader because they don’t sell. But what appears to be happening now is we’re seeing some new films and television programs that are about women spies—tough women. There’s shows like Covert Affairs and movies like Salt. As I mentioned before, there’s also the film Jeff Skoll and Participant Media have made, Fair Game, which is about what happened to Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA agent who was outed.”
But venturing into the world of pop culture is not a new venue for Marie Wilson. “We’d gone to Hollywood for years trying to get a show done about a woman leader,” she mentions. “When ABC finally decided to do one—Commander-in-Chief—Anne Sweeney [president of Disney/ABC Television Group] called me and said ‘We’re doing it.’ So then The White House Project took that show all over the country. We had house parties and screenings as well as a big event in Washington and another here in New York. That show gave us the opportunity to see a woman in a truly powerful position—as the president of the United States. Seeing that image normalizes it for us.”
Yet, even as we perceive images of strong female characters on television and movie screens, women still need to remember that helping each other is essential in reaching our leadership goals. Marie addresses the issue as well as why we sometimes stand in each other’s way, not being as supportive as we could be.
“To a great extent there just hasn’t been enough power to go around for women,” Marie elucidates. “As long as you are vying for three slots, it’s very hard not to be competitive. I was talking to a group of corporate women who I just love. Perhaps I was a bit preachy, but I told them I would really like it if all four of them would just sit down with each other and say, ‘Okay we all need to look at our futures. So where do you want to go, and where do you want to go? How am I going to help you? How are you going to help me?’ Women need to do this because as good as we are at negotiating peace, we’re not good at negotiating power. It’s like the Grameen Bank model. One woman gets money. She gets her business going. The next woman gets some of the money and she get’s hers going. They all help each other.”
Women assisting each other and building security for their communities is sweeping and worldwide. It’s no different at the organizational level. As Marie explains, you can’t change anything unless you’re willing to work with other groups. “We partner with everybody in our states. We don’t even go into a situation until we sit down with people and ask ‘Do you want us here?’ because only if the local Y or the local Latino or domestic violence group wants you in the area, do you actually belong there. So yes, we partner. We’re partnership queens. We can’t do it alone.”
Marie recognizes that beyond these partnerships, one of the most important aspects of The White House Project is the core training they’re providing. “We’ve got the most diversity and numbers of any group in America now in terms of women we’re training. I think that’s our specialty.”
VOTE, RUN, LEAD has trained over 10,000 women—almost all of them in political leadership. “We’ve taught thousands of women how to run for office. They’re women of different races and diverse backgrounds who are not only running, they’re winning.” Also, as Marie indicates, there’s an extra added benefit. “What you need to learn in order to run for office is what you need to learn to be a leader anywhere.”
And creating leaders is Marie’s business. Undoubtedly an inspirational figure in her own right, she has helped women across the nation stand with power and recognize they need to be included in order to create a truly democratic paradigm.
Directing her sights back to the larger picture, Marie offers a final bit of sound advice. “I think it’s always good when you’re talking to anyone about the issues that affect women to remind them how important it is for men that women make progress—that they are empowered, that they are leading. What’s hard for young women is when they are put down for being one of those feminists, instead of people recognizing that to be for women is really to be for men. It’s the best thing you can do. It will change the world for all of us.”
Photos used by permission.