Remember the Ladies

Mar 24, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

Like many of you, I listened to Senator Obama's tremendous speech last Tuesday with equal measures of pride and awe: pride at this relatively young man's attempt to bring race from the neglected sidelines of life to the center of our attention, and awe at his bravery in doing it. Facing history head-on is no easy task, but with this speech Obama did just that -- and asked the rest of America to join him in opening up a conversation on race in America that is long overdue. It was a monumental moment in our nation's history.

Being a mother myself, I couldn't help thinking, as I watched Obama speak, of his own, amazing mother, the woman who was written about so movingly in the New York Times recently, and whose courage and commitment to him is largely responsible for that speech. Which in turn made me think of the many women throughout history who have supported and nurtured men into power, but who rarely have been recognized for their role in shaping our nation.

Women like Abigail Adams, who is poignantly portrayed as the brains behind the brawn in HBO's new mini-series about founding father John Adams. Abigail's rendering in this portrait offers a rare reminder us of how much women have contributed to this great Republic, and yet how little attention is given to what we have done -- and how little we have been rewarded for it through advancing us into leadership alongside men.

And women like Eleanor Roosevelt. The creation of the New Deal is often credited to Franklin Roosevelt alone, but the truth is more complex. According to biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, in the aftermath of learning that her husband was having an extramarital affair, "Eleanor Roosevelt delivered herself from unreal loyalties." She became, for the first time, loyal to her own life and talents. As a result, she began to travel and speak and document what was happening to the people of this country, from the poverty of the white coal miners to the struggles of blacks in every sphere of life. And from that work grew the very policies upon which so much of the legislation of the New Deal was forged.

In short, by creating a new deal for herself -- a deal whereby she would use her voice to create a new vision -- Eleanor was ultimately instrumental in creating a New Deal for America.

"Remember the ladies" Abigail Adams wrote to John, back when this new nation was taking shape. It was her plea that the new American Congress not leave women out as they proclaimed freedom for others. But in the end, women were left out -- though it didn't stop them from leading from the sidelines, helping to create monumental advances both before and after they were able to flex their power publicly, as the examples of both Abigail and Eleanor make clear.

Centuries have passed, but Abigail's plea resonates today, when women continue to struggle to ascend to the positions of leadership they deserve.

People are loathe to believe this is true, but here are the facts: the U.S. ranks an astonishing 71st in the world when it comes to women's political representation - behind such stalwarts of democracy as Iraq (33rd), Sudan (65th), and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (57th). There are only nine women governors, less than three percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by women, only one woman leads a Fortune 50 company and we are stuck at approximately 22% of state legislators nationwide.

As Deborah Rhode of Stanford says, America likes to think of itself as a fair country, and to believe that women are represented fairly in every sector-- but that sentiment is a far cry from reality.

Just as America needed the Roosevelts' New Deal back in the 1930s, today, America's women are in need of their own new deal -- and a new conversation about gender in America. Because whatever we may try to convince ourselves, parity has not been achieved on the gender front. When, in the first installment of John Adams, Abigail told her husband to "Send a woman to the Congress," because "she might knock some sense into them," I thought about how sadly familiar her struggle feels even in this 21st Century environment.

All these years later, we are still struggling to get women into the Congress and all the other halls of power in equal numbers to their male peers -- but today we have an opportunity to make new progress, and to commit ourselves to approaching the trappings of gender just as holistically as Senator Obama has asked us to approach the ills of racial prejudice.

"These are difficult issues," Senator Clinton said last week in response to Senator Obama's speech. "Race and gender are difficult issues. And we need to have more discussion about them."

I couldn't agree with her more. Clinton's allusion to gender serves as the important reminder we need that in issues of gender, as in issues of race, we have miles to go before we sleep. True, in this election, we have a woman frontrunner and increased visibility for women as leaders across sectors.

But we're not there yet. "Remember the ladies," was Abigail's demand. It must continue to be ours, too.