09/11/2008 11:25 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Lipstick is Neither Red Nor Blue, But American

2008 will go down in the history books as a rollercoaster of an election season, one that has highlighted at times both the strong spirit of our democracy and the divisions among our nation's citizens.

Yet today, on the anniversary of 9/11, I'd like to remind our country of the importance of a time when we focused not on those divisions but on our unity as a nation, and our civility in the days and weeks that followed a shared national crisis.

At that time, The White House Project's offices were on Wall Street and as the women who left our building ran for shelter or to seek loved ones, they did it together. Everyone was an American that day; everyone helped one another. We gave blood and volunteered, and never once was there a question about what party you preferred.

That was the reality. And as we regrouped, we disagreed on what should happen to see that it never happened again. Differences of opinion, in their honest and fact-driven form, are an important facet of our democratic system - especially when it comes to the fundamental rights and values of our government. The important lesson from 9/11 is the knowledge that we are capable of banding together despite difference, and that we should settle for nothing short of honest and diplomatic disagreement as we address important issues- whether in our personal politics or in our elections.

This standard is one that we envisioned for The White House Project when we founded it ten years ago. Some twenty of us gathered at philanthropist Barbara Lee's home to hold what would become the founding meeting of the organization. We wanted to jump-start the stalled state of women's leadership in the U.S., and decided to capture the popular imagination by setting our sights on the very pinnacle of our collective aspirations - the U.S. presidency.

My fellow visionaries were some of the most experienced folks in the business: from Sunday morning regular George Stephanopoulos and the brilliant communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson to Laura Liswood of The Council of Women World Leaders and the now-deceased playwright Wendy Wasserstein, the room was bursting with notables from the worlds of business, politics and media. Some came because they had foreseen the possibility of Hillary Clinton's candidacy in 2008, but most in the room came together with one goal in mind: to see, in our lifetimes, a woman president.

What was clear from our discussions, however, was that this project would not be about just one woman - that we were intent on bolstering the leadership of women across the board. And while the ambitious name of The White House Project did point to our deep desire to see a woman ascend to the highest office in the land, we were guided by the progressive values that support women and allow them to succeed. It seemed a great way to anchor the project in its true goal - the building of a representative democracy - and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote the inaugural piece detailing the effort which was slowly taking shape.

We never abandoned our progressive values as an organization, and have always put women from both sides of the aisle on our early ballots to show the U.S. that a variety of women across party, race, sector, and region are out there and have the ability to lead our country. When we train women to run for political office, or work with them to lead in the sectors of business and media, we make sure that women from all parties are included. The important distinction for us has always been this: being nonpartisan means transcending political affiliation, while progressive values transcend such distinctions.

My mentor in this way of working was Mary Louise Smith, Chair of the National Republican Party and the first woman to ever head a political party. Together, we lobbied the Iowa legislature on issues of choice and childcare.

We created the Women's School at Drake University that offered courses ranging from management training to dual-career families to dealing with underemployment of women by race and class. Mary Louise and I may have had our political differences, but we agreed on basic rights and resources; we were both strongly in favor of the right to privacy, the separation of church and state and other fundamental parts of the the U.S. constitution.

I've been thinking of Mary Louise as the conversation about Sarah Palin has raised questions about partisanship, particularly among women. Mary Louise, a woman who often worked across party lines, would have been shocked to learn what this new political development has engendered, particularly among women - that those who may honor Palin's progress and abilities would be thought of as partisan if they disagreed with her on the issues.

It's a strange turn of events--because as we women know (and as the media finally figured out during the 2008 primary season) women are not and never have been a monolithic voting bloc. During the primaries I wrote about the divisions among women on the democratic side in a piece that was widely circulated in both Democratic and Republican circles as a thoughtful take on the diversity of women's views. And now, in this ever-historic election season, we continue to be presented with disagreements that rightly transcend both party and gender.

Time and legislation have shown us it is the women senators who regularly meet across party to get things done in Washington and in our home states, and that capacity to transcend party is one of our most important reasons for wanting more women in political leadership. As we commemorate the lives lost and saved on 9/11, we honor them by remembering the valued lessons born of crisis - that we are right to have our disagreements, but that we honor ourselves, each other and our nation by basing those differences in fact, and expressing them with civility and good faith. These are the tenets and the modes of playing politics that make our democracy great - and we threaten that good standing when we indulge in behavior any less dignified.