Women in Leadership: Different Generations and Cultures, Same Goal

Fri, June 09, 2023 4:48 PM | Anonymous member

Searching Google for “greatest historical leaders” or “most influential leaders” will garner a variety of lists outlined by different individuals.  Many of these lists are similar in who they give recognition to including everyone from Gandhi to Hitler. 

While the leaders on the list may vary in what one may consider ethical, there’s one thing that they all have in common and that is the fact that they are all men. Lists that contain female leaders require further scrolling or the use of the word “women’ or “female” in the initial search. 

It’s important to reflect on this as it highlights a common theme in many societies and that is the inequality of women.  While the Google search results reflect a lack of equality in the recognition of women in leadership positions, it is also reflective of the lack of opportunities women have been given throughout history to hold positions of power. In many instances women have been forbidden from obtaining an education or were brought up with the belief that an education or employment wasn’t important for women.  Fortunately, there has been no shortage of women leaders in history who have fought to gain equality for women everywhere.  

Millicent Garrett Fawcett 

Millicent Garrett Fawcett was born in 1847 in the county of Suffolk, England. Her father was not only a wealthy grain and coal merchant but was also a very liberal man who expected his children, including his daughters, to remain knowledgeable of and be capable of discussing current politics, both domestic and international.

In addition to raising the children, Millicent’s mother also helped run the family business, setting an example of a woman’s role outside of the home and encouraging an environment of independence. Millicent wasn’t the only female in the family to push the boundaries of societal norms; her sister was the first woman in Britain to train as a doctor. With her family background, it’s easy to see how she gained the confidence necessary to become the woman and leader that she was. 

In 1867 Millicent married Henry Fawcett, who was a professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge. Having come from a similar background as Millicent, his political leanings were liberal, and he remained active in politics. 

Henry lost his eyesight in a shooting accident, and Millicent supported his writing projects and his work as a radical, independent-minded Member of Parliament. In time, Millicent went on to write an economics textbook called “Political Economy for Beginners” intended to simplify economics to be better understood by elementary aged children. She enjoyed great success in this niche market with the support of her husband and his connections. 

At twenty-two years old, Millicent began her political career in London at the first women’s suffrage meeting. She did not believe that women’s emancipation was something that could happen with dramatic change in law but was something that would happen over time.

As a result, she sought out little wins in hopes that one small change after another would lead to the final goal.  She also didn’t believe in ruffling feathers to sway opinion to her cause; instead she presented her arguments to appeal to the general public and, more specifically, men, as they were the ones that would be voting. 

In her time, Millicent worked for women’s emancipation in many areas but most passionately in women’s right to vote, equal opportunities for education and employment, and protection against sexual exploitation. As the leading member of the National Vigilance Association, she worked as president of its Preventive Sub-committee at attempting to reduce the incidence of prostitution. While serving with the National Vigilance Association, she also helped to improve the lives of child actors on the London stage and get a law passed to raise the age of consent for marriage to 12 for Indian girls. 

The women’s suffrage movement faced many trials over the years, including division from within due to varying opinions, but in 1899 the suffragists had to pause their efforts when the war began in South Africa.  After the war, efforts were renewed and while they may not have had a great impact on women’s rights during their time, they helped to pave the way for future generations.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in 1933 in the state of New York 13 years after the 19th amendment to the United States constitution was passed granting equal rights to American women. Ruth’s mother, having marched in women’s suffrage parades at the age of 15 and 16 herself, was a huge influence on Ruth.  While the passing of the 19th amendment was the first step of many to help bring equality to women in the U.S., more work is continuously needed to reach that goal. 

In 1956 Ruth was one of 500 students to begin classes at Harvard Law School. While the school had opened its doors to women in 1950, at the time Ruth began school she was still 1 of only 9 other women to begin classes that year.  Even with the admittance of women, the school was still predominantly male. 

After graduation, gaining employment did not come easy to Ruth as many firms were still not hiring female lawyers.  Ruth was fortunate that Gerry Gunther, a teacher from Columbia, recognized her potential and placed several calls to judges he had existing connections with.  One judge, initially reluctant because Ruth had a 4-year-old daughter, finally decided to give her a chance.

Ruth was fortunate to be married to a man, a lawyer himself, who recognized her potential and what she was fighting for.  As a result, in the late 1960s, when Ruth co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, her husband stepped back from his own career to take over the responsibilities at home so that she could remain focused on her endeavors. Ruth was known to say that the most important career choice she made was in choosing the right partner, and her husband has said that his most important career choice was supporting her. 

As Ruth had to overcome the obstacles of being a woman in a role typically help by men, she did so while battling cancer on four different occasions which she did with grace and dignity.  Knowing that she could not step away from her position, she continued to work through her treatments.  

Ruth is now remembered as the “Notorious RBG” thanks to a book written by a law school graduate and journalist which included the summary of Ruth’s dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court’s decision of Shelby County v. Holder. Ruth was known for her dissenting opinions and her signature dissent collar is easily recognized by most people today. 

While Ruth admitted to being a feminist, she did not believe laws should enforce women’s rights, but gender-neutral rights.  She recognized that the equality in our society wasn’t just the belief that a woman’s place is in the home but also in the fact that a man’s place was not in the home. In an interview she provided multiple examples of cases where men had to fight for equal rights as a parent due to social security and other programs being designed to help women, but not men in the same position. 

Malala Yousafzai

Malala was born in Pakistan in 1997 and became an activist for girls and women’s rights at the age of 11 when she began writing a blog for the BBC.  The blog was originally anonymous and detailed the real-life fears and struggles of a young girl living under Taliban rule. By the time she was 15 she’d gained much recognition and was seen as a threat to the Taliban who attempted to assassinate her. Fortunately, she survived. 

The most influential force in Malala’s life was her father; an outspoken activist for children’s right to an education himself, he continually supported Malala in her efforts. The assassination attempt did not deter her from her mission; instead, she continued to speak out using her newfound fame as a platform for her agenda. She has used her story to bring awareness to the rights of young girls throughout the world to obtain an education speaking in media interviews and in front of global leaders. In addition to many other awards, Malala is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace prize. 

Having now graduated from Oxford University, Malala continues to use storytelling to influence the world and fight for equality, specifically when it comes to education for girls.    

In researching these women, as well as many other women leaders, a common theme becomes obvious; change cannot come from one big act but is the accumulation of small acts that influence a continued growth in people and in cultures.  While all three of these women are from different cultures, and different generations, each one was fighting to continue the improvement of women in their societies and were able to do so thanks to the support of their families. 

It is also clear that each one recognized the importance of providing women with equal opportunities for education to truly better society.  Most importantly, they all saw that equality for women would have a greater impact on our world and making the world a better place for everyone is the real goal for each of them.

About the Author: Michelle R Schoenebeck, MBA is the Marketing Director at Austin Women in Technology and is an accomplished product management leader with multifaceted skills including 15+ years in product management with 13 years in enterprise SAAs. She holds a bachelor's degree from Texas State University and an MBA from Fitchburg State University with a dual concentration in management and marketing. Michelle is a Tournament Director and Division 4 Commissioner with the Austin Coed Soccer Association and is currently fostering a rambunctious Boxer puppy. Connect with Michelle on LinkedIn

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