Women Elected Municipal Officials (WEMO) Leadership Conference

July 20, 2019
Women Elected Municipal Officials (WEMO) Leadership Conference

Thank you, Ellen Ann, for that lovely introduction.

Thank you, too, to Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who invited me to speak today, and to everyone at WEMO who has made today happen. 

And to all of you: Welcome to Wellesley! 

It is truly an honor to host this leadership conference for women elected to municipal office in our state, and to do so at this critical moment in our national life. 

As local officials, you are at ground zero for our embattled democracy. As we look towards 2020, there is no more important place to be. 

Among your ranks, I am proud to say there are at least four Wellesley alumnae: Beverly City Councilor Julie Flowers; Megan English Braga of Falmouth’s Board of Selectmen; Lea Anderson of Wayland’s Board of Selectmen; and, last but far from least, Marianne Brons Cooley of Needham’s Select Board, who also happens to work at Wellesley College. She serves as secretary to our board of trustees and assistant vice president. This is a truly critical role. We are so lucky to have her. 

Wellesley College’s overarching mission is to provide an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. These four outstanding women are doing just that. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to acknowledge them. 

* * * 

I don’t know about you, but for me this has been an unsettling year—a year of tremendous highs and equally tremendous lows.

There have been so many thrilling iconic moments, uplifting images: 

Of all the women in suffragette white at this year’s State of the Union—exuberant, united, and primed for battle. 

Of Megan Rapinoe, lavender-haired, arms thrown wide, the embodiment of joyful power on the cusp of a historic World Cup victory—while fighting for equal pay. 

Of women marching around the country, many for the very first time. Running for office, speaking out, refusing to cede ground. 

I think of Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulling on sunglasses as she exits the White House, the essence of deliberate cool after a contentious meeting.

But, of course, that’s just part of the story. 

This has also been dark time—a year during which we have watched our nation behave in ways that would have been unimaginable just two years ago.

I think of the border crisis and the inhumane conditions at camps for asylum seekers. The surge in hate crimes and our seemingly endless epidemic of gun violence. Attacks on reproductive rights that are all too reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale. I think of efforts to strip citizens of their rightful representation—waged not only by foreign powers but also by our own leaders. And, of course, just last week: a president telling four congresswomen of color to go back where they came from.

All of this—and more—went through my mind as I thought about what to say to you today. It’s a lot, right? In this time of crisis and turmoil, what would be most useful? What can I offer you? I care deeply about civic life, but I am not an elected official. I am here to admire and cheer you on, but I am not one of you.

What I do have to offer is my observation—what I can see from here. And that is your extraordinary strengths, both as individuals and together. The inspiration I take from you. The vast potential I see. 

In times of crisis and turmoil, it’s so easy to lose sight of what we’ve already accomplished. This seems especially true for women. As we strive to do more and better, we downplay what we do well. We see this as being responsible, as having high standards. But in reality, it depletes us. It deprives us of needed fuel. 

* * * 

So, on this beautiful summer day, I want to mirror back to you just some of what I see. To celebrate your power and strength, your vision and your voices. 

Let’s start with what you’ve already accomplished. And let’s be clear: Each of you has already made extraordinary contributions. 

Simply by running for office, you sent a message about what leadership looks like, and every day you serve, that message is further amplified. 

Role models matter. Simply by being who you are and where you are, you’ve opened doors—and opened minds. 

In June, we had the honor of hosting both Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright for their Wellesley class reunions. Secretary Albright is class of 1959, and Secretary Clinton is class of 1969. It was tremendously exciting to have them with us—two of the three women who have served as U.S. Secretary of State. Pathbreakers. History makers. Listening to them on stage together, we were in awe.

But one person has been notably less impressed—and that’s Madeleine Albright’s young granddaughter. “So what’s the big deal about Grandma Maddie being secretary of state?” Secretary Albright recalled her asking. “Only girls are secretary of state.” 

Think about it: Between 1997 and 2013, only one man—Colin Powell—held the post, and only for four years. Before him came Madeleine Albright, and he was followed by Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. 

Now this is a funny story, but it points to a profound truth. What we see shapes our sense of what is possible. Every time you introduce yourself, you send a message about what leadership looks like. Your accomplishments light the way for girls and other women. 

Preparing for a trip to India last year, I came across some research that makes this same point. A 1993 constitutional amendment randomly reserved certain village council positions for women. Researchers seized the opportunity—what we scientists sometimes call a natural experiment. How would the councils with reservations compare to those without? 

Here’s what they found: In villages with female leaders for two election cycles, parents had higher career and educational aspirations for their daughters, and girls had higher aspirations for themselves. Specifically, the gender gap in aspirations closed by 20 percent in parents and 32 percent in adolescents. The educational gap between girls and boys was completely erased, and girls spent less time on household chores. 

Of course, we don’t need research to tell us that role models change lives. No doubt, each one of us can point to our own experiences. 

Last year, Yvonne Spicer became Framingham’s first mayor—and the state’s first popularly elected African-American woman mayor. She’s less than 10 miles away, and I’m so happy to be her neighbor. Like me, Mayor Spicer grew up in Brooklyn. And like me, she found enduring inspiration in our congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. 

Unlike me, however, she had the great good fortune to meet this living legend face to face. At the time, she was just six years old. I recently came across an interview with Mayor Spicer where she recalled that meeting. She said, and I quote: “This beautiful African-American woman walks in, and we knew she was a congresswoman, and we didn’t know what a congresswoman did. So, we asked her, ‘What [does] a congresswoman do?’ and I remember her saying ‘I help children.’”

Those words stayed with her. She became a classroom teacher and earned a doctorate in education and now, as the “people’s mayor,” maintains her commitment to education and other issues affecting children. She still marvels at the impact of that brief, long-ago encounter. 

Today, Shirley Chisholm’s former congressional office belongs to another Massachusetts trailblazer. Of course, that’s Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Shortly after her election, she tweeted a photo of herself beneath Chisholm’s portrait with the words: “Because of her.” 

Because of her. 

With those three simple words, she summed up the power of role models—and how their actions ripple across time and place. 

All of you share this same superpower. Each one of you serves as a role model in your community. You will likely never know the full impact of your presence, how you may have changed the course of someone’s life. Simply by being who you are, you move us towards a better, more equal, more inclusive world.  

* * * 

Which brings me to another important point. 

Diversity is not some PC add-on—trendy window dressing. Rather, it goes to the very core of where our commitments lie. It shapes the questions that we ask and how we move forward. 

You see this everywhere, not just in politics. In fact, nowhere is it clearer than in my own field of women’s medicine and health. To give you the story in broad strokes: Until the 1990s, women were assumed to be biologically identical to men—that is, apart from reproductive health and other sex-trait issues. 

This was a terrible mistake, one that we are still struggling to correct. The fact is, women differ from men in fundamental ways, right down to the cellular level. We express diseases differently. We respond to treatments differently. When medicine doesn’t recognize this fact, it leaves women’s health to chance. The result has been untold suffering and, far too often, loss of life. 

Then, in 1993, in the wake of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, Congress saw a sharp influx of women. It was a moment much like our own, a moment where women were standing up to injustice and demanding action. 1992 was called the Year of the Woman—a forerunner to 2018.

In this same year, Congress passed a historic measure mandating the inclusion of women and minorities in phase 3 clinical trials conducted by the National Institutes of Health. This marked the culmination of a remarkable bipartisan effort whose champions included Democrat Patricia Schroeder and Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, who detailed the accomplishment in her memoir Fighting for Common Ground.

So why did this take so long? Why did it take a women’s wave to bring attention to these issues? 

Patricia Schroeder explained it this way: “You fund what you fear. When you have a male-dominated group of researchers, they are more worried about prostate cancer than breast cancer.” 

Now prostate cancer is important! And so is breast cancer. 

Which underscores my broader message: You can’t have excellence without diversity. 

Without it, vital questions go unanswered. Urgent needs go unrecognized and unrepresented. Remember that India research I mentioned earlier? Here’s another finding: Female-led village councils tended to enact policies especially favored by women in that community, such as investment in water purification, support for child health and nutrition, women’s entrepreneurship, and police responsiveness to crimes against women. No surprise, right? From reproductive rights to equal pay to sexual harassment to family leave, women are ever at the forefront of championing issues of concern to women.

Now this is not to suggest that women don’t share equally in other concerns. Quite the contrary. All of us also want good roads, clean air and water, vibrant neighborhoods. All of us want sound fiscal management and a humming economy. 

That said, we also have unique insights into issues that affect us. And more broadly, we know what it means to be dismissed or ignored, an experience that often translates into concern for others. You may have heard Megan Rapinoe make that point recently in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper—how being gay has given her a “boost of empathy” for those facing injustice and discrimination.

* * * 

And all of this starts at the local level. It starts with you. You are the seedbed of our civic life, the future of democracy. 

You’ve no doubt heard the proverb “It takes a village,” also the title of a book by Hillary Clinton. It’s quoted a lot, and I was thinking about why this is. Why not “It takes a nation”? Why not “It takes the whole world”? And I think the answer is this: The web of human relationships is strongest when we know each other as neighbors, when we’re woven into a shared fabric of daily life. This is where perceptions are formed, where ideas take root.

When we live and work together, we are more likely to be seen for all of who we are: Multifaceted. Complex. And ever evolving. Less likely to be labeled and dismissed with a single identity. At least that’s been my experience at a residential college. There is more opportunity—and more incentive—to connect across difference. It’s hard to demonize someone you see every day at the breakfast table. It’s harder to make them “other” when they are so clearly “us.”

I thought of this when I read about Mehreen Butt’s election to Wakefield’s Board of Selectmen, since renamed Town Council—the first Muslim-American woman in Massachusetts to be elected to such a board. 

Looking back on the campaign, another Wakefield board member, Ann Santos, mused that voters might not even have realized the history they were making. “I never heard anyone say, ‘Oh, a Muslim-American woman is running,’” she said. “It might not have dawned on people.” 

What they did see was her energy and commitment—the fact that she shared their diverse concerns and was determined to use her power to build a stronger village, by which I mean town. 

Now I don’t mean to suggest that prejudice does not exist—that would be naïve. But in this story, I see the power of proximity. In a time of polarization and division, of angry tweets and cancel culture, working together for a common good can be a radical act. 

This is not to say it’s easy—far from it. Once again, it takes a village. 

Many of you have probably seen the documentary film Knock Down the House. It follows the primary campaigns of four progressive women running for Congress. Of the four, only one emerged victorious: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But what the film makes clear throughout is how all these campaigns—all these women—supported and fueled each other. 

Just as you will do today. 

Many of you work in settings where you are one of few women—perhaps the only one. It’s so important to forge ties with those who travel the same road. To trade ideas, share strategies, laugh, and commiserate. To brainstorm on how to get more women into office.

When you leave here, you will once again scatter throughout the Commonwealth. But while you hail from many different cities and towns, you are also held in this community. 

Together, you are so much more than the sum of your parts. You are a resource for each other. You are each other’s village. 

Thank you for being here—and have a wonderful day!