Commentary

Eleanor's Life Inspires Yearning for Women's Leadership

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

As we observe President's Day and Lincoln's birthday this month, one writer reflects on the lack of female political leadership and the role of the quintessential leader, Eleanor Roosevelt.

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Robin Gerber

(WOMENSENEWS)--As I tour the country talking about my book, "Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way," people often stop me, sigh deeply and say, "If only Eleanor Roosevelt were around today."

People long for her conviction and courage as the United States is pushing war with Iraq, diminishing the role of the United Nations and flailing against terrorism. Women, in particular, have more reluctance about the use of military force than men, with the latest Gallup poll showing male support for the war with Iraq at 59 percent and women's support at 51 percent. Women are hungry for role models of leadership other than the saber-rattling men that surround the president or the male-dominated leadership in Congress.

But women's leadership is treated as an oxymoron. In our society, women are not valued, looked to or easily recognized as leaders.

The evidence is as close as your local bookstore. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani's book "Leadership" fits neatly next to the leadership lessons culled from Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld's lives. Head to the business bookshelf for more in this genre, and you'll find "Lincoln on Leadership," Patton, Reagan, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Grant, Lee, Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, Attila the Hun and Jesus, to name a few, but until a few weeks ago, the only woman on the list was Elizabeth I.

The message: If you want to learn leadership from history's leaders, look to the men.

It's not just about books, of course.

The news: About 85 percent of the sources on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News are male, according to a recent study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Only 15 percent of the sources were women, and they were rarely portrayed as the opinion leaders or experts. Of the women who were shown on the nightly news, almost half were "ordinary Americans" as opposed to experts; only 14 percent of the men were presented as non-experts.

The debate: The overwhelming majority of opinion leaders debating the top issues of the day on Sunday morning talk shows are men, many of them politicians whose leadership benefits by exposure on these influential programs, according to a recent study done by The White House Project.

The gurus: Of the nation's top 50 living business gurus, 47 are male, according to a study released this year by Accenture's Institute for Strategic Change. How did Accenture come up with the list? By counting Web hits on Google, media mentions and scholarly citations. Talk about your self-reinforcing loop!

This overwhelming cultural bias makes it all too easy to forget that women have a strong legacy of leadership in this country. In fact, as I began to write my book about Eleanor Roosevelt's leadership, many people questioned whether the first lady was a true "leader." After all, she wasn't elected to anything, serving only at the pleasure of the men who either married or appointed her.

But Eleanor Roosevelt had all the qualities Rudy Guiliani brought to leadership--and then some. She used her platform to achieve her vision: human and civil rights for all, equal rights for women, and a better life for our nation's children. She was authentic, ethical, fearless and bound to the concerns of the least fortunate in our society. In her day, Eleanor enhanced the national debate on a range of issues in ways that were creative, bold and grown from her experience as a woman.

Eleanor Roosevelt didn't believe she was exceptional, but rather driven by a sense of duty and conviction. Shortly after becoming first lady in 1933, she wrote a book called "It's Up to the Women," exhorting women to take political and economic leadership as she had. She had absolute confidence that they could do it, reminding them, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do."

As we face a new and uncertain future, it's still up to the women, not because women's leadership is better than men's, but because it is different. Studies show that women generally prefer collaboration and consensus. They bring a woman's perspective to agenda setting, and are typically more willing to empower others to lead. Women "lead from the heart, but manage from the gut," as Dana Drago, head of small business banking for Bank of America recently said.

The failure to look to women as leaders weakens national debate and action in every arena from war to welfare. And it reinforces the brick wall that separates women from top jobs in every role, from Fortune 500 CEO to the U.S. presidency. At a time when we need the best leadership drawn from the largest pool of Americans, we're stuck in the sexist mud.

If Eleanor Roosevelt were around today, I'm sure she would remind America of this: "Women, whether subtly or vociferously, have always been a tremendous power in the history of the world." It's time we recognized that power for what it is: leadership.

Robin Gerber, senior scholar at the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership, is the author of the recently released "Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way: Timeless Strategies from the First Lady of Courage" (Prentice Hall Press).

For more information:

University of Maryland--publications
"Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way":
http://www.academy.umd.edu/eleanor

Council of Women World Leaders:
http://www.womenworldleaders.org

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers:
http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/


 
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