Following a career that has spanned congressional candidate, community leader, organizer and businesswoman, Siobhan "Sam" Bennett has found the perfect place for her fighting attitude and political savvy. She is the current president of the Women’s Campaign Forum, an organization that seeks to launch women into elected office.
A former small-business owner who was active in local politics and the nonprofit sector, Bennett decided that putting women in office was crucial to achieving her personal ideals.
Bennett knows firsthand that it’s no easy task to change the gender balance in politics. In 2001, she ran for office as a first-time candidate against Sen. Roy Afflerbach for the Allentown mayoral race. Nearly overcoming her competitor, Bennett lost the race by just 46 votes.
However, Bennett describes how her opponents used gender as a means of bias in the Congressional race. For instance, she explains how the first major article for a local newspaper described her as "a phony political whore."
"This was a wake up call for me. However, I did not let this discourage me," says Bennett.
In November 2008, Bennett ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in Pennsylvania’s 15th congressional district. Flexing phenomenal fundraising skills, she received nationwide attention and successfully won endorsements from over 35 national organizations, including the Women’s Campaign Forum, League of Conservation Voters and EMILY’s List. Although Bennett did not defeat her opponent, Charles Dent, she did get more votes than any other Democrat ever received for that seat.
In April 2009, Bennett stepped to the helm of the Women’s Campaign Forum. The organization endorses, raises funds for and provides networking opportunities for female candidates who support reproductive choices to enter the political sphere and gain political power.They run a "pipeline" project called "She Should Run" and offer a slate of endorsements in every election season.
"After years of working to make a difference, it became clear that the most significant way was through politics. If more women were in office, health care and other issues would improve," she says.
The Honorable Ann M. Butchart was elected to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in November 2005.
Butchart graduated from Rosemont College in 1973 and from Temple University Beasley School of Law in 1993. Prior to her election to the judiciary, she was a sole practitioner who maintained offices in Center City and Kensington. The focus of her practice was civil matters, including Social Security Disability, personal bankruptcy, employee benefit claims, estate administration and zoning for nonprofit community groups.
Butchart has always been an active community resident. She was a Democratic committeeperson in the 18th Ward, where she also served as ward attorney and ward chair. In 2001, she was a founding board member (and became board president) of the Kensington South Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to the revitalization of the neighborhood. She also served on the board of the Liberty City Democratic Club, where she co-chaired the Endorsement Committee, and was president of the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight. She provided pro bono services for the Democratic City Committee and community groups in Philadelphia on complex zoning issues. She was also appointed to the Mayor’s Advisory Gaming Task Force where she served on the Site Selection Committee.
Butchart has been active in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community since the 1980s. She was interim director of the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force, a board member of the Liberty City Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club and president of the Philadelphia chapter of Dignity, the national organization of LGBT Catholics. Butchart and her partner of 26 years, Marian Luongo, are registered domestic partners in Philadelphia.
Elizabeth Wallace Ellers has traveled the globe for 15 years to locate promising philanthropic investments. "As I learned more and more about the issues–and the impact that is possible–I knew that I had to create a way to share it with others," she says.
She founded The globalislocal Fund in 2005. The partnership began with a group of 17 women in the Philadelphia area who wanted to pool their resources to help alleviate poverty around the globe. Ellers didn’t initially intend for the organization-at-large to be women-only, but the success of this pilot group showed her the benefits of such an arrangement.
"Women enjoy collaborating with their peers," she says. "And the majority of the most vulnerable people in the world are women and children. When targeting the causes and consequences of poverty, by definition, we’re targeting women and children. So there’s this great sense of connectedness."
Today globalislocal is made up of 55 women in the tri-state region, who each give $1,825 or more a year (that’s $5 a day) and take an active interest in the targeted investments the fund makes. As a group, they meet with leading social innovators to learn from people in the field about key issues and effective strategies for addressing root causes of poverty. They work with nongovernmental organizaitons, nonprofits and social entrepreneurs to identify sustainable, high-impact initiatives. Each year globalislocal’s partners decide which projects the fund will invest in to achieve the greatest social return.
Over the past four years, The globalislical Fund has invested over $500,000 in solutions to alleviate extreme poverty in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Although some of the funded projects are women-specific, such as banks making micro-loans to women, even gender-neutral investments provide returns for women in a community.
"If you were to invest in anything to do with clean water or wells or anything of that sort, for instance," Ellers says, "women and girls, the vast majority of the time, are in charge of getting water for the family. That time saved means they can be productive economically or in school."
The next goal for 2009 is to begin expanding their local model to other cities around the country. Ellers says The globalislocal Fund has grown and will continue to grow because "it’s deeply gratifying to be able to share the satisfaction that comes from experiencing your impact and making the world a more secure and just place."
Dr. Carrie Jacobs, who has worked with adolescents for over 30 years as a social worker, psychologist, mentor and community leader, opened a center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning, or LGBTQ, youth in Philadelphia for one simple reason: Services did not exist for this population.
"There was such an unmet need–many LGBTQ youth had no one to turn to for support," she says.
Jacobs, who has a degree from Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and a doctorate in psychology, founded The Attic Youth Center in 1993 as an eight-week pilot project. Against expectations, "a lot of youth came and wanted to participate," she recalls. "I was determined to continue to provide these youth with a safe and affirming space."
Over 16 years later, The Attic has grown from a weekly meeting held in the attic of a "mainstream" youth-serving organization to a well respected, multi-service agency. Located in a buzzing four-story building in downtown Philadelphia, The Attic now has 12 full-time and 9 part-time staff that provide over 500 youth a month with an array of programming. These programs deal with youth leadership, health and wellness, academic enrichment, arts and culture and career readiness. The Attic also provides counseling and case management.
"The Attic has a unique focus on youth empowerment, which means giving young people a seat at the table in terms of running the center," says Jacobs. "We have youth on the board and youth who participate in interviewing staff and making programming decisions."
Jacobs and The Attic have received numerous awards and recognition. In 2008, Jacobs was identified, among a group of 100 women, by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as a leader in the movement for full equality. In the same year, she was asked to serve on the Mayor’s Advisory Board on LGBT Affairs, where she chairs the Education Committee. Jacobs also provides professional training for social workers and child welfare professionals on the needs and experiences of LGBTQ youth.
There are many more programs available to LGBTQ youth now than there were 16 years ago, but Jacobs says that many of these adolescents continue to feel unsupported in their homes, schools and communities. "This is particularly true for youth whose parents have asked them to leave their home or those whose peers continue to harass them at school," she says.
"So many youth come through our doors, grow up and change, and that’s what makes this work so worthwhile."
Mary Patterson McPherson has never thought twice about the value of women’s education.
"I had a working mother, which not many people had in my day," she says. "She was a schoolteacher so I thought being a schoolteacher was a really good thing to be. As a result of her work at a private school, I got to go to that school and saw from an early age how important it was for women to get an education."
McPherson now holds an extraordinarily influential position in academia as the executive director of the prestigious American Philosophical Society. Founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin for the purpose of promoting "useful knowledge," the society provides research support for scholars, has a publication program, runs a museum–with a current exhibit on Darwin–and has a leading research library. Members of the society meet in Philadelphia twice a year to hear papers on a variety of fields.
Her mother’s inspiration launched McPherson into a career of championing the role of women in the academy. With a degree from Smith College, a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Delaware and a doctorate from Bryn Mawr under her belt, McPherson started her career as a Bryn Mawr professor. In 1978, she was named president of the college. She served there for nearly 36 years and is widely credited for revitalizing the school’s reputation and for recruiting a diverse pool of students.
"Since Bryn Mawr was such a small institution, I created and established personal relationships with the women to inspire them to follow and achieve their goals," recalls McPherson.
McPherson also served as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s vice president and as program officer for the liberal arts colleges. She was also the chair of the board of trustees at her alma mater, Smith College in Massachusetts, and has been involved in 10 other educational institutions.
McPherson supports women in academia because she believes it sets the trend for women in the working world.
"Women have done better professionally in the academy than in other places, even though it’s been slow to come here too. But you see that what’s happened in the academy kind of trickles down to other professions–there are more female deans of law schools and now half of the entering classes are women."
Dr. Ana M. Negron abandoned her traditional medical ways to increase the wellness of her community.
"I had been practicing medicine for 20 years, prescribing pills to treat signs and symptoms, and becoming increasingly frustrated because I was not making patients any healthier," she recalls. Negron holds degrees from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine and the Family Medicine Residency Program at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia.
"Meanwhile, in my life, I had been practicing wellness with regard to my cooking and eating. It was then I decided to bring my life and my profession together in harmony."
When workers at Negron’s health clinic encouraged her to share nutritional information with not just her patients, but with everyone, she decided to found the Greens on a Budget project.
The Greens on a Budget workshops bring people together to create a "rainbow salad" with Napa cabbage, cilantro, abundant vegetables, rice and beans, fruit and nuts. She says that after people get over their "colorful-everything-salad shock" they realize: "I’ve been killing my family with what I feed them!"
She has been thrilled to be introducing health into others’ lives. With some exceptions, most of the class attendees are women. They often come with their children, taking what they learn back to their families and communities.
"Women make the decisions about what to buy based on family expectations," she says. "During the workshops they realize that instead of fried, meaty, breaded and smothered in cheese meals, they could offer nutritious, delicious, easy and inexpensive dishes that would be well received by the family."
Today, Greens on a Budget offers five or six core workshops around basic recipes, including salads, rice and beans with kale, baked cauliflower, squash soup and frozen fruit. During each workshop Negron, who has her own wellness practice in Bryn Mawr, emphasizes "food literacy," budgeting for foods that are healthy. She also encourages people to prepare food in advance, involve their whole family in the preparation and improvise on recipes using foods from their lives and backgrounds. This way, she says, these foods and recipes become their own.
"When we break away from the mainstream," she says, "food becomes a primary way to support wellness and bolster our core. Today it is a joy, after 30-some years of practice, to finally be immersed in health care!"
Pat Reeser has developed a reputation as a woman who gets things done. As owner of HER Catering company, a long-time seller of Carlisle Designer fashions for women and through her involvement in various charitable organizations, she knows how to get projects moving.
When the founders of Home of the Sparrow, a transitional shelter for homeless women and children in Chester County, wanted to get their project off the ground, they were told to contact Reeser.
"They came to me one morning and we met on my back deck. I listened to them and it all sounded very good. I told them I was interested and I would consider it and whatnot, and then a sparrow flew into a birdhouse as we were meeting. That was the signed, sealed and deliver sign for me," she says.
When the project began, the shelter was the only one in the entire county that allowed women to keep their children with them.
Reeser absorbed herself in the project, using her family and network of connections–she’s an avid churchgoer and active in the community–to raise money. She threw parties at her home, using her fashion and other business contacts to give them flair, and even organized a tennis tournament with local notables.
"I love the organization," she says. "All kinds of wonderful things just fell in place."
Since then, Home of the Sparrow has welcomed hundreds of women through its doors, not just offering shelter, but also life skills lessons, counseling and help finding employment. And they do it all with the women’s children there.
Reeser is also a major supporter of Voyage House, a safe place for homeless, abused, and "throwaway" adolescents, who often are young women.
At the age of 80, she says she never forgets that she could be in another woman’s shoes.
"I have a roof over my head and I don’t have to worry where the next mouthful of food will come from," she says. "It really pulls at your heartstrings to see women in a situation where they don’t have a roof over their head and they have little children. I feel good that I was able to help in a little way."
Raymond Shanahan is the ultimate good neighbor. As head of Orion Community Inc., he and his staff and volunteers have helped over 300 women and girls in just the last year–but not in the traditional manner of most social service agencies.
Orion’s mission is to not just help families with a particular or immediate need, but to address diverse aspects of a single problem until the famliy gets back on its feet–sometimes months or years down the line.
The organization, serving the greater Phoenixville area, uses resources and advocacy to help those who are looking for or want to keep a home, find employment, collaborate with schools and social services and access clothing and food.
Shanahan is adamant that, unlike specialized government services, he and others from Orion do not pigeonhole those who seek their help. This is particularly true for single mothers, for whom he says there are few compassionate resources and much stigma.
"One of the founding principles is that we deal with the entire individual. The other thing we avoid is the idea of labels. People aren’t ‘clients’ but any neighbor who could be in need at any time" Shanahan says. "We don’t call them impoverished or ill, rather they’re John, Mary or Susy. We create a respectful relationship with the understanding that we could be them at any time."
Shanahan formed his approach after decades of working as a social worker and crisis counselor for the U.S. Air Force and other government agencies. With that wealth of experience, he decided to specialize in helping those who have slipped through the cracks or who have been labeled as hopeless cases.
Orion, founded in 1978, receives no government funding and its three staffers and volunteers try to do things entirely their own way in partnership with community groups. This approach includes helping the same people multiple times if need be. The Orion staff has done everything from finding temporary housing for an immigrant family whose mother suffered a stroke to driving people to job interviews to helping families pay the rent.
"At Orion we never say our case is closed on anybody. No matter how many times people fall down, if you’re motivated to get back up, we will assist you," he says.
"It’s a matter of being responsive and understanding. We respect everybody and respect their fight."
An awful tragedy, the ultimate loss, shattered the life of Dorothy Johnson-Speight in December 1986. Her 3-year-old daughter died of bacterial meningitis. She struggled with enormous grief, but as she began to heal tragedy hit again. In 2001, almost 15 years to the day, her 24-year-old son was killed in a dispute over his parking space. Having been comforted by a group after her first loss, Johnson-Speight knew she had to start her own group to channel her grief and make a difference.
Johnson-Speight joined forces with two other grieving mothers and founded the organization Mothers In Charge, Inc., which seeks to prevent violence through direct work with youth and communities. The group consists of courageous mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters who are working to support and create positive change.
It’s clear to Johnson-Speight why this is a women-led initiative. "If you look at the whole aspect of the grief and loss process, women are nurturers," she says. "We provide that to each other and the unfortunate common bond of the loss acts as a way to nurture, help support and empower these mothers who have gone through these horrible tragedies."
The work of Mothers in Charge ranges from helping individuals to political lobbying. They do presentations and workshops with kids, parents, schools, faith-based organizations and even the FBI. They tackle both violence prevention in the short term and the root causes of violence, such as anger or poor self-control and self-esteem.
They’ve lobbied for stricter gun laws in their area "so 15- and 16-year-olds can’t get their hands on guns," Johnson-Speight says.
On Saturday mornings they work with kids who have struggled with acting out, teaching them methods for peaceful conflict resolution and anger management.
Their biggest, most lasting, partnership is with the Carson Valley School, where students are sent by courts either because they’ve suffered abuse or have other serious issues and problems. The organization runs programs for each age group, focusing on literacy, grief support and more.
"All those kinds of programs serve as rites of passage to help them grow up to be productive adults," says Johnson-Speight. "You don’t immediately see the results. But with some of the kids who are in the programs for longer periods of time, sometimes twice a week, you see the benefit of your work."
For grieving families, she says, "It helps us tell the story of our children, keep their memory alive and stay connected with them, because through that connection we’re able to help someone else."
Carol Tracy became a lawyer for a single purpose: to advocate for women’s rights. As the executive director of the Women’s Law Project of Philadelphia, she has led the group that has been at the forefront of all the major legal battles women have faced in the past few decades.
"I went to law school later in life. I was in my mid-30s and went specifically so that I could do women’s rights laws," Tracy says. "Midway through law school I discovered there were only 25 jobs at most doing this kind of work in the United States. I had been a long-time supporter and board member of the Women’s Law Project. So when the position of executive director opened, it was thrilling that I could live up to my life’s goals."
Founded in 1974, the law project has an office in Philadelphia, a smaller one in Pittsburgh and a staff of attorneys, social workers, development experts and project staff.
The law project’s staff are experts in both national and local issues. For example, they served as counsel in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which challenged a Pennsylvania law that required, among other provisions, that a married woman notify her husband in order to obtain an abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the husband notification provision, but upheld other onerous restrictions. Casey was widely believed to be the case that would overturn Roe v. Wade, but fortunately the core elements of Roe were upheld.
The law project also discovered the mismanagement of sex crime cases by the Philadelphia Police Department and challenged the police to properly investigate all cases of rape and sexual assault. This resulted in major changes in police practice. The project’s team went on to work with the police to review case files and ensure that sexual assaults were handled appropriately.
Under Tracy’s leadership, the Women’s Law Project has also taken notable Title IX cases, successfully winning settlements for female athletes at many educational institutions, including Tracy’s alma mater, The University of Pennsylvania, in 1994.
"When history looks back on this era, I believe that the two most significant events that changed the future of women will be the Roe v. Wade decision and the enactment of Title IX with its impact on athletics," she says.
"Both of these connect around women’s control of their bodies. There are few things that are more inspiring to see than young women athletes. The downside is that the attacks on reproductive freedom are unrelenting and female athletes are still treated like second-class citizens in many places. We still have a lot of work to do."
Connie Williams may no longer hold elective office, but she still possesses a bully pulpit to advocate for women’s rights. Involved in politics since she was a girl, she served 12 years in the state legislature, becoming a statewide hero for many, but particularly women and girls.
"I’m from a political family," she says. "So running for political office was something that was considered an important value."
In her official statement released when she announced in 2008 that she would not run for re-election, she said she "has not abandoned her goal of helping women and will continue her work to establish a new policy that would require all hospitals to inform rape victims of all of their options, including access to emergency contraception, and she will continue her fight for prescription equity, so that women with health insurance policies that cover prescription drugs can count on those policies covering the cost of prescription contraceptives."
Williams’ resume reads like a guide on how to get important work done, including serving on the governor’s Advisory Committee on Minority and Women Business Opportunities and the state’s Public Television Network Commission, as well as being a member of the Forum for Executive Women and a trustee at The Episcopal Academy.
Williams was a local powerhouse while her daughter was in school as chair of the local Democratic committee. After her daughter graduated from high school, though, she decided it was time to step it up. This was around the time that Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a Philadelphia congresswoman Williams had campaigned for, lost her re-election bid.
"I decided I would run for office," she says. "And it has been the best 12 years of my professional life."
Williams first served five years in the Pennsylvania House, founding and co-chairing the House Children’s Caucus.
During her subsequent two terms as a state senator, Williams championed issues such as safe child care, diversifying the business community and equal funding for women’s sports. She was also the only woman in leadership in the Senate Democratic Caucus at the time.
One of Williams’ proudest accomplishments is a law that protects women publicly breastfeeding their children.
"In Pennsylvania, women could be arrested for indecent exposure or obscenity for breastfeeding," she says. "It took years, but I got my bill finally through and we got it in."
One issue that Williams is most concerned about is involving more women in electoral politics and encouraging them to run for office. But for that to happen, she says, women need support systems.
"We’ve had a lot of young women work for us," she says. "As they move on in their careers, I hope they will run for office."
Wendy Wolf is now, has been and intends to remain an activist for reproductive rights.
"I majored in population studies in college, so reproductive rights has been in my bones for a long time," she says. "Particularly, being in college in the late 1960s transformed me into the activist that I am today."
Wolf earned a doctorate in demography and sociology from Johns Hopkins University and enjoyed a long career as a social policy analyst and evaluator. In 1988, she founded the Center for Assessment and Policy Development, which works with national and regional foundations to craft and implement major children’s initiatives to improve outcomes for poor children and families. She also has served as director of research for Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that creates programs to assist low-income communities, and was chairperson of the board of the Healthy Teen Network, based in Baltimore and designed to help young families make informed reproductive health choices.
Wolf wanted her expertise to make dramatic social change, though. She joined the Women Donors Network, a group of women of wealth who use their collective power as donors to influence policy.
"When I retired, I found a new calling–to work with independent donors. It was more exciting because you can move them quicker, they are more willing to take risks and they are easier to mobilize," she says.
As for targeting female donors, it’s a surprisingly open field, says Wolf. "There were not that many organized mechanisms to martial women’s support. We can be a catalyst for change."
Today, Wolf is the key point-person on reproductive rights issues for the Women Donors Network. In 2005, the network founded the Reproductive Rights Action circle, a group of over 60 women who have raised $759,000, which in turn has leveraged over $1.75 million in foundation grants to reframe reproductive and other health issues and to help win policy fights. They have had many successes and the work has provided a values-based method to talk about sensitive issues without walking away from the topic of abortion.
The network’s approach has also provided a mechanism to recapture the center and build on broad public support for a host of reproductive and other health issues. For example, Wolf and her colleagues were involved in fighting the Colorado "personhood" ballot amendment–which would have given a fertilized egg constitutional rights. They broadened the focus beyond abortion to important life decisions and in the end the ballot amendment lost 3-1.
Lynn Hardy Yeakel understood at an early age that a double standard existed for women and men.
"The defining moment was when I was turned down for a job I was qualified for because they said they weren’t ready for a woman at that level," she says. "This was soon after I graduated from college and I naively believed job opportunities were gender neutral."
Today Yeakel serves as director of Drexel University College of Medicine’s Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership. She also holds the Betty A. Cohen Chair in Women’s Health.
As Yeakel’s unusual career path evolved, she always kept women’s needs in mind. In 1994, she was appointed mid-Atlantic regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She held that post until 2000, working on initiatives such as the Freedom From Fear campaign, which sought to end family violence, and "Envisioning a Healthier Philadelphia," a campaign that brought together over 60 public and private organizations in an effort to increase access to health care.
She also co-founded and ran the first and largest women’s funding federation in the nation, Women’s Way. She followed up with a 1992 campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Arlen Specter–the then-Republican member of the Judiciary Committee who grilled Anita Hill–and her candidacy provided the platform to speak out on women’s issues.
Throughout her career, Yeakel has used a personal touch to draw people’s attention to women’s concerns. "It’s about making the connections to women’s lives and experiences that really resonate, whether I’m talking to men or women," she says.
The women’s health institute headed by Yeakel since 2002 runs the Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program, which preps senior female faculty for top leadership positions in the academic world of medicine. Yeakel also began the Woman One Award and Scholarship Fund, raising $1.5 million in medical tuition scholarships for women of color. There are currently 10 Woman One scholars studying medicine at Drexel, plus five alumnae practicing medicine in underserved communities.
"I try to help younger women as much as I can and I feel gratified when they’re successful and find the direction that they want to go," she says.