Empowering Public Employees: Lessons From the Women's Movement

Just as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem once gave voice to millions, unions bring nameless federal workers out of the shadows


Reuters/Darren Hauck

I recently visited Madison where I spoke to Wisconsin Women in Government, a group founded 24 years ago to support women who choose a career in public service. I welcomed the chance to talk about the ways women discover their power, a subject near to my heart and experience. Even though I'd grown up in a very political family, I'd never imagined as a young girl that I'd become a lawyer or run for political office. That's what guys did. But eventually the women's movement empowered me to develop talents I didn't know I had and inspired me to encourage other women to do the same.

When I was in college, I saw women rally, conduct sit-ins and teach-ins, and march in the streets. In large groups and small meetings, women told their stories, demanded their rights, and passionately argued that they were equal to men. Women friends became class speakers, were hired to teach in law school, and won lawsuits. Heartened by their words and actions, I went to law school myself and founded a group called Women in Politics.

Just as the women's movement supported individual women and girls (like me), unions give public servants their identity.

I couldn't have accomplished these things without the support of other women who were also becoming empowered. Led by trailblazers like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, we gradually came to see ourselves differently and stopped believing what the world kept telling us--that we didn't have it in us to make it a man's world. We changed ourselves and we changed society. Friendship and solidarity made these transformations possible.

It wasn't easy. I didn't have a single woman professor in college. After law school, I applied for a job at Legal Services, and since I had two children, asked if I could work part time. The director said no. He wanted Legal Services to stick to the same standards as large law firms. They didn't have part-time lawyers, and neither would he. A few years later, he was elected to Congress and joined a family-friendly caucus. He had changed, like many others.

Again, during my 1986 congressional campaign, I was constantly challenged with "How can you run when you have small children?" I answered that my father had run when he had 10 children and another on the way, but this apparently wasn't convincing. Six years later, when I ran for lieutenant governor and my youngest was turning three, not once was the question raised.

When I arrived in Madison a few days ago, I drove to the state capitol in the late afternoon and was told that they had lit the classic white marble dome green and white after the Packers won the Super Bowl. The nearby convention center, inspired by a Frank Lloyd Wright design, wowed me with its large spaces, lovely curves, plenty of light, and a stunning view of the sparkling blue lake. It was so peaceful. There were no signs of the protests that had captured the nation's imagination the previous winter.

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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Mixed God With Politics and Lost Their Way. From 1995 to 2003, she was Maryland's first woman lieutenant governor.

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