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A New Day for Women's Leadership? Obama's Chance to Get it Right

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Last week in Parade Magazine, Barack Obama published a moving letter to his daughters--one that expressed not only his hopes for them but also his dreams for the rest of our nation's daughters. "I realized," he wrote to Malia and Sasha, "that my own life wouldn't count for much unless I was able to ensure that you had every opportunity for happiness and fulfillment in yours. In the end, girls, that's why I ran for President: because of what I want for you and for every child in this nation."

It was a letter that resonated with me deeply, not just because I am a parent, but because the same rationale Obama lays out for what inspired him to run for office is what lead me to co-create The White House Project in 1999. In the seven preceding years I had received letter after letter from girls around the country who had participated in Take Our Daughters to Work Day (a venture I helped launch while at the Ms. Foundation for Women), who told me, among other things that they wanted--yes, expected--to be president one day. And I soon realized that if we adults didn't get serious about putting women into the leadership pipeline, we would have raised the aspirations of a generation of American girls without doing enough to actually make their ambitions achievable.

And while the enormous challenges of the national economy, health care and the dire international problems he faces will challenge President Obama to make good on his promises, I hope he will also remain focused on how vital it is, for his daughters and for all our children, that he continue to enlist women across this country in achieving his goals. He's gotten started by placing a few good women in his cabinet, particularly in the positions that deal with our nation's security: Secretary of state, Secretary of Homeland Security and a cabinet level appointment as US Representative to the United Nations. But these challenges will only be adequately met if he insists that all institutions begin to use all their resources-- especially those represented by our nation's women. That means filling leadership positions from the town councils on up with a diverse and critical mass of women who can govern alongside men and bring the new solutions to the table that we so desperately need.

I know there will be those who say we can't afford to be distracted by issues of gender when the crises we face loom large. But it is precisely BECAUSE we are in crisis that we must take immediate action to get more viewpoints to the table. As a wise colleague has consistently pointed out, if you are planning a trip to the moon, and leave out a vital coordinate, you'll get somewhere in space, but not to the moon. And that's what I fear: that we'll start on a path to solving these problems on earth--problems that are as challenging as the first moon voyage--without utilizing one of the most important assets at our country's disposal: our nation's grown up daughters.

Research by major national and international institutions shows that women bring important innovations to decision-making tables, are more apt to gather more data from those effected by decisions and to think more broadly and long-term about the effects of the solutions being proposed. Men are certainly able to do this as well, but history has made it more necessary for women to think and act in these ways, and their presence at tables of power encourages and supports the men to do the same--especially if women are represented in numbers large enough to make their presence "normal" for both genders.

If you're looking for examples of how women's perspectives have helped shape good policy in the past, here are but a few: it was local women who began the living-wage campaigns and micro-enterprise initiatives that are keeping many people from sinking into poverty at this moment. And they invented new ways to deliver health care, driven by the AIDS epidemic, as well as new approaches to safety through campaigns dealing with seat belts and drunk driving. What motivated them to push for these innovations? The same powerful force that compelled our soon-to-be new president to run for office: the promise of their children's future.

Which brings me back again to where I started. The first women who inspired us to begin Take Our Daughters to Work Day as a national program were the numbers of women from homeless shelters who responded to an early article, published, like Obama's letter, in Parade Magazine. These women pleaded with us to take their daughters to places and expose them to possibilities that would help them build lives different from the ones they were living--lives complete with jobs and homes, and of course, hope.

As he steps fully into his power as the 44th President of the United States, Obama and this administration must follow the lead of the more than 60 countries who rank ahead of us in women's leadership, and honor dreams of those women, and so many more, who want their daughters' futures to look as bright as their sons'. What a legacy that would leave for Sasha and Malia--and for all our nation's children.