Much to his credit, on Wednesday President Obama created a White House Council on Women and Girls to work across all agencies of government and "provide a coordinated federal response to the challenges of women and girls." It's certainly a step in the right direction -- but there is much more that needs to be done to ensure that women and our issues are permanently addressed by and included in our government.
Luckily, the president already seems to have some sense of what is required. At the end of his speech, Obama made a verbal gesture toward what I believe is the only real means of achieving comprehensive inclusivity when it comes to gender and leadership: quoting Frances Perkins (the first woman to serve in a Cabinet level position), he spoke of the need for diversity in leadership and the importance of ensuring women's rights "to sit in the high seats."
Putting women in these so-called "high-seats" is of critical significance to the future of our country, and I have no doubt that a council like the one the president has established could create policies that allow more women to reach them. But if President Obama really wants to make good on ensuring that there are women in those high-up places, his administration must offer more than just a gesture in this direction. The administration must also form a plan that commits to getting more women into power at every level of government across the US. That means school boards and county commissions, state houses and city councils. It means building a pipeline to power that understands that there are "high seats" at every level of government, and that you don't get to the highest of those high seats (at the federal level) without first capturing seats of power further down the political totem pole.
Bella Abzug, one of the great leaders of the women's movement, certainly knew this was true. Bella was also a part of the delegation to Beijing that spawned the inter-agency task force on women under Clinton, and she believed with all her heart that pushing for political parity for women was among the most important issues of our age. Until her death she never saw me without scolding me for not making this a priority of the Ms. Foundation for Women, where I was then president.
What Bella knew then (and it took some of the rest of us a while to learn) was that putting women in high seats of all kinds is the only way to ensure that the changes we still so desperately need -- like those that allow women and men to participate fully in work, family and community -- can come about. Because when women come to leadership, new ideas, different perspectives, naturally come with them to the table. Now, all these years later, I feel like Bella must have back then: frustrated that more people don't understand that until we solidify the governmental will to engage women in leadership at every level, we will continue to take only half-steps towards achieving full equality for women.
Though the US will likely never embrace quotas to achieve this goal (in the way that our European and African neighbors have), that doesn't mean we are without recourse. All we require is a commitment on the part of our governmental leaders to make gender parity in political leadership a priority at local, state and national levels. That is why The White House Project has called for the administration to establish a commission, or a federal task force, on women and democracy -- a group of experts who would be narrowly focused on ways, both public and private, that we can get a diverse and critical mass of women into leadership, from rural county boards to the very highest of the "high seats" Obama mentioned on Wednesday.
This is the next, crucial step that must be taken. And it is the only step that will finally achieve Obama's goal of allowing all of our sons and daughters to "dream a little bigger and reach a little higher." As Bella knew so long ago, it's the one move that could actually make those dreams a reality.
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