Women Who Lead
New Organization supports female world leaders
By Ken Gewertz
Since World War II, only 36 women have held their country's highest political office. This past Tuesday, three of them were at the Kennedy School of Government to launch a new organization that will help and encourage women to enter politics and serve as a resource for women in leadership positions.
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, president of Iceland from 1980 to 1996, will chair the organization, called the Council of Women World Leaders. Also on hand to inaugurate the Council and explain its aims to the press were Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, prime minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica from 1980 to 1995, and Maria Liberia-Peters, who served as prime minister of the Netherlands Antilles from 1984 to 1986 and from 1988 to 1994.
"Our first aim is simply to be seen, by women and by men," said Vigdís (by tradition, Icelanders are addressed by their given names). "We are a reality, we ladies who have reached the heights. We want people around the world to know that it has been done."
The Council of Women World Leaders was founded by Laura Liswood, who serves as its executive director. The Council's headquarters will be located at the Kennedy School.
Liswood is the author of Women World Leaders: Fifteen Great Politicians Tell Their Stories (1997) and is active in women's leadership organizations, including the International Women's Leadership Forum and the Washington Women's Political Caucus. She is the former commissioner of the Seattle Women's Commission and is a fellow of the Kennedy School's Women's Leadership Initiative.
"Our understanding of how leaders lead, who they turn to for advice, and how they make decisions is currently based on leaders we have seen in history," Liswood said. "Now we can broaden our knowledge, and a young girl can imagine herself as president of the United States once she sees this group."
Among the lessons taught by the three women leaders who gathered at the Kennedy School on Tuesday is the fact that a wide variety of career paths may lead to political leadership.
Liberia-Peters, for example, whose Caribbean nation is a member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and includes the islands of Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire, St. Eustatius, Saba, and part of St. Maarten, began her career as a kindergarten teacher who became involved in children's issues.
"My work in education made me realize how important the early years were in forming a human being and that you cannot separate politics from human development," she said.
Liberia-Peters said that her rise to political prominence came about almost unintentionally as a result of her involvement in children's issues.
"There comes a moment when you realize that if you really want to make a difference, the only way is through politics, and then you walk right into it. In my own case, I thought, well, I'll try it, and if I don't like it, I'll say goodbye. But then you realize you've entered a one-way street, and you remain because you are continually challenged."
Liberia-Peters stepped down as prime minister in 1994 and is now a member of parliament.
Vigdís, who was Iceland's first female president and the first woman in the world to be elected a head of state, arrived at her position through a lifelong interest in literature and drama.
After graduating from Reykjavik College in Iceland, she continued her studies in France, Denmark, and Sweden, finally returning to Iceland to teach. She gained recognition in Iceland by presenting French lessons on national television and was appointed director of the Reykjavik Theatre Company in 1972. In 1980 she was asked to stand for president.
"I was elected not as a woman, but as a human being," she said. "Afterward, I realized how fine it was for my country that this had happened. I was proud of my countrymen to have the guts to do that."
In Iceland, the presidency is a nonpartisan office, which is often held by intellectuals or people in the arts.
"The president is a little bit behind the line of fire, but has immense power to form the government, to sign or veto bills, and to act as a negotiator in disputes," she said.
Vigdís said that one of the strongest influences on her career was her mother, Sigridur Eiríksdóttir, a pioneering leader of the nursing profession.
Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, who studied law in Canada and England and was called to the English Bar in 1947, became the only female lawyer in Dominica, a Caribbean island nation about one quarter the area of Rhode Island.
A member of a politically active family, Charles became involved in politics in 1968, forming the Dominica Freedom Party (DFP) and becoming government opposition leader in 1972. In 1978 Dominica achieved its independence from Britain. In 1980, the DFP won a large electoral victory and Charles became prime minister.
Her first years in office were marked by great turmoil, including two devastating hurricanes and a coup attempt by the Ku Klux Klan. Charles weathered these storms and remained prime minister for three terms. She is now retired from politics.
Asked if she thought women's leadership style was different from that of men, Charles said that women were more detail-oriented.
"Men tend to make decisions and leave it to others to carry them out. Women follow up on their actions to see what is happening to their plan. But I think if you are efficient yourself, you will find efficient men who will get along with you," she said.
Vigdís agreed that men and women approached the task of leadership differently, but she said that the ideal would be to combine the two approaches.
"I don't want women to run the world alone," she said. "But if men and women could run the world together, things would be very different."
According to Liswood, the Council's mission is to provide a network of exchange among current and former women leaders, engage in fact-finding missions, find practical solutions to national problems, foster debate among policy experts and advisers, to be available to newly elected leaders upon request, and to encourage the participation of young women in leadership roles.
Other supporting leaders of the Council are Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan (1988-90, 1994-97); Kim Campbell, prime minister of Canada (1993); Edith Cresson, prime minister of France (1991-92); Maria Pintasilgo, prime minister of Portugal (1990-91); Kazimiera Prunskiene, prime minister of Lithuania (1990-91); Mary Robinson, president of Ireland (1990- ); and Hanna Suchocka, prime minister of Poland (1992-93).
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College