It’s Time for Women in Government, Public Service to Speak Up

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Page Wilson

(WOMENSENEWS)—Every year, we set aside the month of March to celebrate women’s history, the untold story about how women have shaped and continue to shape our country and our world.

I was particularly excited to see the National Women’s History Project’s theme for this year’s celebrations: the important roles women have played in public service and government leadership. As someone who worked for a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps and a board member of the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit communications think tank, I have a special place in my heart for the often overlooked service and government work women have done to make our country a "more perfect union."

This year, the National Women’s History Project honors such heroines as Daisy Bates, who integrated the public school system in Little Rock, Arkansas; Sonia Pressman Fuentes, the first female attorney in the office of the general counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Ella Grasso, the first woman elected governor in her own right; Barbara Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Congress; Inez Mulholland, a leader and martyr for women’s suffrage; Bernice Sandler, the "godmother" of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in education; and Nancy Grace Roman, the "mother" of the Hubble telescope.

As the National Women’s History Project puts it, these and other honorees "succeeded against great odds." Together, they "dramatically influenced our public policy and the building of viable institutions and organizations . . . and have led the way in establishing a stronger and more democratic country." Other women who made this year’s short list can be found here.

This list, of course, doesn’t come close to capturing all of the women who have played important roles in these fields (and it doesn’t pretend to, either). Indeed, we would need far more space—and far more time than one month allows—to cover the contributions of half of our population.

My Own Story

I don’t claim to deserve a spot on this rarefied list. But, after more than nine decades of life, I decided to share my own story of public service in my new book, "Carnage and Courage: A Memoir of FDR, the Kennedys and World War II." I hope the book, released in November, sheds some small light on what life was like for female diplomats—or, in my case, female diplomatic assistants—in the years leading up to, during and after World War II.

My story begins during the Great Depression, when I was a student at a private school for girls outside of Baltimore. I appreciated my wonderful education and stable, loving family, but, at the same time, felled hemmed in by what I saw as a sheltered existence. I yearned for adventure, exposure and a broader world. I got a scintilla of that when I got a job in a store in Baltimore that had everything to do with horses.

Little did I know then that my horizons were about to expand much farther than I ever dreamed possible.

In 1936, my friend, John Roosevelt, then a sophomore at Harvard University, invited some of my friends and me to celebrate the birthday of his older brother, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr.—the third son of the president. The event was held at the Roosevelt family home in Hyde Park, New York. To my vast surprise, I found myself seated to the left of the president at dinner. He asked me how I spent my time, and I joked, with a smile, that I worked at the GOP headquarters in Baltimore. He roared with laughter.

After we drank a toast to young Franklin’s birthday, the president looked at me and made a toast to the poor Republicans whom, he joked, clearly couldn’t afford to put clothes on their children’s backs. We all laughed.

I had come to the party as a Republican, but left a Democrat—and have remained loyal to the party, and its commitment to social justice, ever since.

Diplomatic Perch

A little while later, I was invited to a dance at the White House. There, I confessed my interest in the U.S. Foreign Service to James Roosevelt, the president’s third son. Jimmy, as we called him, put me in touch with Joseph Kennedy, who had been appointed to serve as ambassador to the United Kingdom. He hired me on the spot as a press assistant, and I was soon off to London.

From my diplomatic perch, I had a close-up view of that largest and most terrible of wars. I looked on as the United Kingdom, France and Italy signed the Munich agreement with Germany in 1938. I shuddered when, a month later, the Nazis shattered the windows of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues on "Kristallnacht." And I watched as Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, prompting England and France to declare war on the Axis powers.

Kennedy had promised my father he would send me home if I were in any danger. That time came in 1940, when Hitler started bombing the bejesus out of England. When I returned home, I found a job at the Washington Times Herald, starting a long and fruitful career as a reporter, author and activist. I got married, had four wonderful children—two boys and two girls. I later got divorced, remarried and became mother again, this time to three fine step-children.

I encountered gender-based barriers along the way, but they never stopped me for long. Before leaving for London, for example, I took a class in international relations at Johns Hopkins University. My sexist professor made it so clear he didn’t want a woman in his class I felt compelled to drop out. I’ve learned better since. As I approach my 100th year, I’ll continue to serve, to agitate and to tell my story. I won’t drop out until I drop dead.

I encourage more women—especially those who have served in government or in public service—to tell their stories, too. Every story, even slice-of-life memoirs like mine, factors into the larger "herstory" that we all need if can ever hope to fully understand our country and our world.

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