Deborah Slaner LarkinFunding Serious Change(WOMENSENEWS)–My path to funding women’s political leadership begins with the example of my parents, especially my mother, Luella Slaner.


Had she been born later, I have no doubt that she would have risen to a high level of leadership. A Wellesley graduate in political science, Mom’s first political experiences came from working in our Westchester County community with the League of Women Voters. The New Yorker wrote an article about her, "They Damn Near Killed Luella," that detailed the determined efforts of a group of women who traveled monthly and sometimes weekly to Albany to lobby for permanent voter registration in New York state. It was in these meetings and strategy sessions where she learned the grueling efforts necessary to make political change.

Mom served as a trustee on the village board, became its president and then acting mayor. She aspired to run for U.S. Congress, but that just wasn’t in the cards. My father, a successful businessman, was very supportive, but in the 1960s wives of successful businessmen had obligations to their families and husbands’ careers that for her were insurmountable.

Mom was also an athlete. She and my father started out playing tennis together, but he was no match for her and they switched to golf. He couldn’t best her there either.

They saw a clear connection between sports, confidence and leadership; a philosophy that was reinforced in our family. Like Mom, I became a competitive athlete in many sports. This month I will be traveling to Tucson with my tennis team to compete in the USTA 4.5 League National Championships.

Like her, I also married, had a family and became a civil activist. Unlike her, after earning my M.B.A. in marketing, I pursued a business career ranging from being a charter boat entrepreneur to a Madison Avenue advertising executive to serving as the executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Working for Title IX

As a nonprofit much of the foundation’s work lies outside politics. We worked to provide scholarships, conduct research and educate the public on the importance of sports and physical activity for girls and women. But my passion for gaining Title IX compliance took me to many congressional offices on Capitol Hill and meetings with government officials.

Title IX requires every institution that receives federal funds to provide equal opportunities for boys and girls in all areas of education, including math, science, athletics, sexual harassment, career education, technology and employment. The law has been on the books for over 35 years and we’re still fighting to keep it strong.

After leaving the Women’s Sports Foundation, I decided to focus on advancing participatory and leadership opportunities for women. I started with education. In 1997 I endowed the Linda K. Bunker chair that funds a professorship to advance educational equity and leadership opportunities on behalf of my good friend and colleague who taught at a major university.

I did a lot of soul-searching before taking that leap. It was a big financial commitment, bigger than I had ever dared to do. It was a lot of money and it would "out" me as someone who had means. I knew that would have repercussions, unless I gave anonymously.

Ultimately I decided to be open about this gift because I feel it is important to see women supporting women in a very public way. I hope it spurs other women to do the same.

Named Fund for Daughter

I was also honored to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, and chaired the Westchester Fund for Women and Girls. And I joined the board of the National Women’s Law Center, where I continue to work on Title IX issues and started the MARGARET Fund (May All Resolve Girls Achieve Real Equity Today) in honor of my daughter to advance the cause of women and girls. This fund helped the center win two landmark Supreme Court cases.

In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education the court ruled that schools are accountable under Title IX for student-to-student harassment and in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, the court confirmed that Title IX prohibits retaliation against complaints about sex discrimination.

Jackson, a basketball coach, complained that the boys played in a new gym; the girls’ gym had wooden backboards, bent rims and no heat. The girls only traveled to away games by bus if they had the same schedule as the boys; otherwise they were on their own. The girls were denied a share of donations to the athletics program and money from admissions and concessions sales, making it difficult to pay for necessities.

I still get choked up when I think about the enormous courage it takes for a parent or teacher to take on a school, let alone the Supreme Court. The impact these cases have had not only on the individuals involved but also for thousands of other students and families is on a scale I could have hardly imagined when I started the fund.

Shared Commitments

It’s strengthened my conviction that it is critical for women to fund political change. When we direct our dollars to organizations and candidates who have the power to change policy, our dollars are leveraged to a degree so vast it is impossible to calculate. It is far more than most of us could do with an individual donation.

I support EMILY’s List, a political action committee started by Ellen Malcolm that trains female, Democratic, pro-choice candidates and develops get-out-the-vote campaigns. Importantly, Malcolm recognized that pooling the millions raised would not only get female candidates elected, but has gotten EMILY’s List a seat at the table that shapes policy.

I met Marie Wilson about 15 years ago and helped out with the sports component of her "Take Our Daughters To Work Day" program. I love the work she does and her vision that in order for this world to be better, safer and equitable we need to see women and men lead together.

Ten years ago, Marie asked me to serve on the board of a new organization she created: The White House Project; its mission is to advance women’s leadership in all communities by filling the pipeline with a richly diverse, critical mass of women, up to and including the presidency. I’m one of several founding members who have made significant financial contributions. But my support doesn’t end there. I take on leadership roles that require my time and expertise; I like being hands on.

Progressive women like my mom and the generations of women before her have always been leading the way to get the changes women need. We’ve been essentially doing "government" work, exploring issues, proposing policy and organizing campaigns but without the authority to make it stick.

If we really want to put those policies in place permanently, we need to help elect many more women to our city councils, Congress, judgeships and executive offices and support those organizations that train women to run for office and win elections.

"A seat at the table" isn’t enough unless we also help run the meetings and have the votes to make our voices count.

Deborah Slaner Larkin is an entrepreneur, social activist and philanthropist whose professional experiences span the nonprofit, corporate and government spheres. A former advertising executive and director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, she’s gone on to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, the National Women’s Law Center, the White House Project, the Westchester Fund for Women and Girls and more. Her focus is to advance participatory and leadership opportunities for women.

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