Some Women Are Born Leaders

An original article by Sarah Weddington

Look around you. Look and you'll see women today in a variety of leadership positions. Elected officials, heads of major corporations, presidents of universities, and much more. Or those women leaders might be from your family, your community, or your work or educational setting. But in virtually every field, women are still a thin veneer when one compares the number of women leaders with the number of male leaders in the same or similar fields of work. Young women have increasingly expansive attitudes about themselves and leadership. I cheer that change. For example, one of my favorite cartoons is of a boy and a girl playing in a backyard. The boy has on the stethoscope and is holding the doctor's kit. The little girl says, "O.K. You can be the doctor, I'll be the Secretary of Health and Human Services." I like her attitude.

In the past, women have often been uncomfortable applying the label "leader" to themselves. One of my favorite Austin, Texas (my hometown) personalities is Lady Bird Johnson, widow of former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. I once told her that I admired her leadership. When I see the beautiful flowers in Washington, D.C., or walk the Hike-and-Bike Trail in Austin, or see a roadside with wildflowers instead of road signs, I am reminded of what Mrs. Johnson has accomplished. But her response was, "Oh, I am not a leader. I just helped my husband." I respectfully disagree. Women have always been leaders, but they have seldom had the top titles of leadership. An obvious example is that no woman has been US President or Vice-President. The percentages of women leaders are growing, but the numbers are still quite low. Sometimes women who didn't plan to be leaders are pushed by life's circumstances into that role, such as the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who lost a child in an accident caused by a drunk driver, Nancy Brinker, whose sister Susan G. Komen lost her life to breast cancer, Wilhelmina Delco, an Austin woman who wanted lights to guide her kids as they walked to school and who eventually became an important state official in Texas in her pursuit of excellence in education for her children and the children of others.

Other women leaders were featured at the first museum to focus on women, The Women’s Museum, which opened in Dallas, Texas on Sept. 29, 2000. I was on the Board of the Foundation of Women’s Resources, the sponsoring group. Unfortunately, the museum closed on Oct. 31, 2011, but it did receive 1.5 million visitors. Hopefully a similar institution will be created to commemorate and inspire women leaders.

We can enhance the leadership skills we already have, and we can build new skills. Doing so allows us to have an impact on issues we now care about and on those that we are pushed into by life's circumstances. How? First practice leadership. We know that practice is the way to improve sports skills or musical skills, or trial skills and other skills.

And practice is also the way to develop leadership skills. Those who are leaders in educational settings today are those most likely to be leaders in community settings tomorrow because they are learning and practicing necessary skills. I started out as the President of the Future Homemakers of America of my high school. I later became Assistant to President Jimmy Carter. Second, use the "critical eye" as I did in the White House and in other positions. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter are among my favorite leaders. A friend recently commented that Jimmy Carter is the only President who used the presidency as a stepping stone to doing more important things. People worldwide know him for his volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity, for example. I am not asking you to be a constant critic. Rather watch what leaders do that you admire and copy such, watch poor leaders and avoid their mistakes. For example, I learned humor by watching others who were better than I and learning from them. Now I know that humor requires exaggeration and an element of surprise. For example, George Burns died when he was 100. But when he was 96 he is reported to have said, "I can do everything today that I did when I was 18." And then he said "Just goes to show how lacking I was when I was 18." Young women today live in a wider world for women than I did at their ages, and I am grateful to have been part of the process of changing the laws, societal attitudes, and self attitudes that have limited women.

And third, be "divinely discontented." Look around and see what you want to change, what can be improved. I became a leader in women's issues because those were the ones that most affected me and my generation. Whatever issues compel you to act, I believe that we need more leaders with the human relations skills and the focus on education, healthcare, and community issues that women often have.

Nothing is more exhilarating than being able to make a difference. Women have always been leaders, but the women leaders of today – younger and older alike – have a unique opportunity to leave thumbprints on modern events. I hope that you will help me prove that, indeed, some leaders are born women.

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