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21 Leaders 2007: Seven Who Stake Our Claim to the Future

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Hannah Rosenthal, Bernice Sandler, Elizabeth Saylor, Susan Weidman Schneider, Charlene Ventura, Sheila White Parrish, Marie Wilson

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Hannah Rosenthal, Bernice Sandler, Elizabeth Saylor, Susan Weidman Schneider, Charlene Ventura, Sheila White Parrish, Marie Wilson
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21 Leaders

 

(WOMENSENEWS)--

 

Hannah Rosenthal, Activist With Clout

Hannah Rosenthal

"What will it take to end violence against all women and girls in Chicago and in fact the entire state of Illinois?"

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women, asks the question often. But it's because she wants answers.

"Violence against women and girls is from cradle to grave," says Rosenthal. "Think about it: it's child abuse, bullying, date rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking and elder abuse. It's become a part of the fabric of society and part of the lives of too many women and girls."

In 2006, the foundation launched a statewide anti-violence initiative in Illinois, thanks to a grant from the governor and the General Assembly, based on the question, "What Will It Take?" She plans to ask that question to more than 4 million people across the state during the year, hoping to find innovative ideas and get people thinking, especially those who aren't the usual allies and activists on these issues.

It's an ambitious plan. But Rosenthal likes a challenge.

One late night in 1984, after long months of lobbying the governor of Wisconsin, Rosenthal watched as the state's legislature passed a law guaranteeing pay equity to women.

"I remember staggering home and telling my husband, 'I can now die, but make sure it says on my tombstone that she helped get rid of the wage gap,'" recalls Rosenthal, now 55, who at that time was head of the Wisconsin Women's Council.

In 2002, Rosenthal was named one of the top five most influential Jews in the country by the Forward newspaper because of her work heading the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; she was the first woman ever to hold that post.

Rosenthal was appointed by Bill Clinton to head up the Midwest region of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1995, where she focused on girls' and women's health and eradicating poverty.

She moved from New York two years ago back to her Midwest home to head up one of the largest women's funds in the country.

In the past, more than 80 percent of the foundation's money funded direct services to women rather than advocacy. Rosenthal has been instrumental in shifting the giving so that the two balance out.

"We need to hold systems and all aspects of government accountable for making women's lives better," says Rosenthal. "The foundation moved from being a community foundation to a successful activist foundation.

"Nothing will change if we do not teach women how to advocate for themselves."

--Irene Lew.

 

Bernice Sandler, Title IX Godmother

Bernice Sandler

Bernice Sandler has devoted herself for the last 35 years to making sure that girls and women not only dream big career dreams, but have legal protection if they run into gender discrimination.

Sandler, now a senior scholar at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C., says she started life with conventional Depression-era expectations. "Like most girls, I expected to get married and didn't really have vocational aspirations," says Sandler, who grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. "At some point I thought I might want to be a window dresser for the five- and ten-cent stores, even though I always knew I was going to college."

She discovered a sudden interest in law after she was turned down for a professor's position at the University of Maryland despite a strong resume. When she asked why, a male faculty member explained, "Let's face it, you come on too strong for a woman."

Sandler hit the books and found that there were no laws prohibiting sex discrimination in education. She noticed a little-known footnote prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating in employment. "I was alone in the house and I shrieked because I immediately made the connection that universities had contracts and couldn't discriminate," she says.

She filed charges of sex discrimination against the University of Maryland, the first of about 250 complaints. In so doing, Sanders also took the first step in the legal journey to establish Title IX, legislation passed in 1972 that prohibits federally funded educational institutions from sex discrimination. It was championed by Rep. Edith Green, a Democrat from Oregon, and Sandler became known as the Godmother of Title IX, a law that has changed every aspect of education for all U.S. women and girls.

Since the passage of Title IX Sandler has worked on a variety of issues, including sexual harassment, the "chilly climate"--the subtle discrimination that affects female students and employees--and, most recently, student-to-student harassment.

"In my naivete back then, I thought it would take about a year and then everything would be fixed," Sandler says. "At the end of that year, I admitted it would take a few more years. Of course, now I know it's going to be generations."

--Courtney E. Martin.

 

Elizabeth Saylor, City Hall Fighter

Elizabeth Saylor

Manhattan-based civil rights attorney Elizabeth Saylor took on the largest City Hall in the nation to obtain food stamps and other benefits systematically and erroneously denied to battered immigrant women.

"If you don't feel safe and don't have bodily integrity, you are beaten down as a woman and it's hard to assert rights in any other area," says Saylor, 31, an associate at New York law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP. "Public assistance is often the only support available to them and, without it, many women and children would not be able to escape."

After graduating from Harvard Law School and a judicial clerkship, Saylor went to Legal Aid Society in New York serving as a Skadden Fellow (supported by the global law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP). There she represented victims of domestic violence in public benefits, family and housing cases. She soon discovered that female immigrants were illegally being denied public aid because of a computer system failure to list their situation and identifying them as eligible for help.

In December 2005, with the help of another law firm, Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP, Saylor brought a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York that challenged the city and state's systematic denial of public benefits to eligible immigrants who were victims of violence. In addition, women who appealed the denial and won went back and reapplied only to be illegally denied again.

"With the immigration rules, it's almost impossible for an immigrant to get benefits and assistance without an advocate with them," Saylor says.

In August, a Manhattan federal judge issued an 86-page preliminary injunction that ordered the city to overhaul its error-plagued computer systems and revise faulty training manuals so that battered immigrant women could receive food stamps and other public aid. The suit was also certified as a class action and now includes hundreds of immigrant victims of domestic violence who were wrongly denied benefits.

The parties recently agreed to a settlement, which still needs to be approved by the court. Under the settlement, the city is now required to make benefits available to immigrant battered women seeking assistance. The city is also required to conduct extensive training, continue to fix its computer system, issue a new policy memorandum and submit to periodic monitoring. The battle is not over yet, however. The court will retain jurisdiction over the case and the plaintiffs can return to court if the city does not follow the terms of the agreement.

--Irene Lew.

 

Susan Weidman Schneider, Frank Feminist

Susan Weidman Schneider

Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief and one of the founding mothers of the Jewish feminist magazine, Lilith, knows that mainstream media frequently proclaim feminism as dead. She's read about young women caring little for the issues that their mothers once pow-wowed and protested over.

Schneider, who is 62, isn't worried. "One of my most cherished roles at Lilith has been working with young women," she says. "We've had well over 100 interns walk through our doors over the last 30 years. We have a genuine enthusiasm for welcoming their voices into the offices as well as into the pages of the magazine."

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Lilith magazine prides itself on having a readership that transcends generations. Its tag line reads "independent, Jewish & frankly feminist."

Schneider revels in the wide variety of ideas and issues she gets to discuss--often over lunch around the library table at the Lilith offices--but also enjoys being able to home in on a topic, as she has in her three books: "Jewish and Female" (Simon and Schuster, 1985); "Intermarriage: The Challenge of Living With Differences Between Christians and Jews" (Free Press, 1989); and "Head and Heart: A Woman's Guide to Financial Independence" (Trilogy Books, 1991).

In addition to mentoring her staff, editing, writing her own articles--often about reproductive rights or women's philanthropy--and raising money to keep the operation afloat, Schneider lectures across the country about the evolving complexity of Jewish women's identity, including the pressure to do it all, the rise of interfaith families and the J.A.P. (Jewish American Princess) stereotype, among other issues.

"The task before us when we founded the magazine in 1976 was more diagnostic: figuring out what was wrong, naming it, looking at the grand sweep of social, political and economic issues," she says. "Today there is a tighter focus, a more nuanced view of how to make change. We recognize that the vast differences in women's lives prevent a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems we still face."

--Courtney E. Martin.

 

Charlene Ventura, Shelterer of the Battered

Charlene Ventura

Cincinnati, Ohio, is not thought of as a landing spot for recent immigrants. Yet Charlene Ventura has kept apace as the demographics of the river town changed with new arrivals. Cincinnati is known for its rich history of sheltering slaves fleeing the South in the 19th century. As president and CEO of the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati, Ventura carries that history forward and helped expand the YW's services for battered immigrant women, adding a helpline with foreign-language interpreters and legal advocacy.

The expansion is the most recent example of Ventura's determination to make the Cincinnati YWCA the safe landing spot for all women of her region.

This became her life's work 34 years ago, when, as public relations director for the YWCA, she helped design a questionnaire that was published in a local newspaper. It asked women to record their experiences with domestic violence. When 100 stories of "horrific" abuse poured in, Ventura called a news conference and held a public hearing.

For three hours, women talked in "agonizing detail" about abuse that forced some to live in their cars because they feared the violence they faced at home, as the mayor, the police department brass and the prosecutor looked on.

"Domestic violence was considered a family situation that did not involve legal affairs or the authorities," says Ventura, now 63, recalling the significance of the hearing. She quickly became determined to create a place where victims of domestic violence "could go in the middle of the night."

A year and a half later, Ventura helped establish the YWCA Alice Paul House, the first shelter for battered women in the greater Cincinnati area. Job-readiness and transitional housing programs followed and in 1988 Ventura became the YWCA's president and CEO. An excellent fundraiser, she led the YWCA's campaign that enabled it to purchase and renovate a mansion into the current facility, renamed the YWCA Battered Women's Shelter.

Of the survivors she has helped, Ventura says she considers each one a success story. "They made that first step to seek help in order to leave an abusive relationship and go on to independent living."

--Irene Lew.

 

Sheila White Parrish, Lifter for All Working Women

Sheila White Parrish

Sheila White Parrish, a former forklift operator in Memphis, Tenn., managed to deliver a legal decision this year that is likely to improve the working conditions of all women in the United States.

In 1997, when she was in her 40s, White Parrish took a job in the Burlington Northern Memphis train yard.

At first, White Parrish had the relatively modest aspiration of putting her children through college and eventually retiring from the railroad. But she didn't realize she would be the only woman in the yard. "Some of the men were very happy and some weren't," says White Parrish, now 50. "I was small-framed and most said that if I couldn't pull the load, they wouldn't help me."

From the start, many of White Parrish's supervisors and co-workers made it clear that she was not wanted. There was no lock on the bathroom door and men would often barge in on her. She also received sexually derogatory remarks from her supervisor. During a train derailment one night, he told her to shine a flashlight on him when he was urinating at night. "He even asked me if it was OK for a black woman and a white man to go to bed together," she recalls.

Three months later, she reported her supervisor to the company's superintendent. After a formal investigation, her supervisor was suspended. But the day he came back to work, she was taken off the forklift and reassigned to railroad track repair, a more strenuous job with extraordinarily long hours.

For four years, White Parrish worked outdoors until as late as 4 a.m. through rain and snow. Supervisors would send her out of town to work in rail yards in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, and then put new hires or less qualified men in her position back in Memphis. In 1998, several months after she was reassigned, she was suspended for insubordination and stripped of pay, insurance and benefits.

"They were challenging me, forcing me to quit," says White Parrish. "But I said, 'I'm not going to let them get rid of me.'"

She filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for sexual discrimination and retaliation, and later filed a lawsuit in federal court.

In June, the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in her case set a new standard for defining retaliation by companies in sexual harassment complaints and White Parrish was awarded $43,500 in compensatory damages.

"It felt good to get the decision," says White Parrish. "I hope I helped women to be strong and come forward."

--Irene Lew.

 

Marie Wilson, Campaign Agenda-Setter

Marie Wilson

The buzz about Hillary Clinton's campaign for president is about her strategy and her opponents' strengths. News media focusing on female candidates as contenders, not as feminine exceptions, is exactly what Marie Wilson has worked for during the past decade as founder of The White House Project.

Wilson, 66, began the project in 1998 when she was still president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, a position she held for 20 years.

Wilson was motivated to start The White House Project because she wanted to jump start the issue of women's leadership in the United States. The name was devised to inspire women at all levels to "head for the top."

At the beginning, Wilson asked a focus group of young women: "What would it mean to you to have a woman president?" And they replied, 'I would feel more respected every day,'" says Wilson.

Under her leadership, the New York-based advocacy organization has sponsored groundbreaking research on young women's political participation and analyzed women's appearances as guests on the influential Sunday TV political talk shows.

Wilson is especially proud of SheSource.org, an online database of female experts in numerous fields. The White House Project, in partnership with Fenton Communications and the Women's Funding Network, launched the project in 2005 to link female experts to journalists and media "bookers," those who schedule appearances on the nation's talk shows and news programs. "We want to make it normal to see women on these shows," Wilson says.

The White House Project also aims to spur female leaders to think about security issues and to increase their awareness of national security and foreign policy, areas where women can be perceived as soft by the public.

In March 2004, Wilson announced the launch of Vote, Run, Lead, to boost women's political representation. Since then the White House Project has recruited and trained 1,000 women to run for political office, along with more than 25,000 women to get out the vote for the 2004 election.

"If we want more women to have equal power, we need to put them in office," says Wilson. "The youngest women need to be a vital part of the political system . . . they're the pipeline to the future."

--Irene Lew.

Irene Lew is the editorial intern at Women's eNews; Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief; Courtney Martin is a writer, filmmaker and teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y.

 

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