You’ve heard the saying, “A woman’s place is in the home”, or you’ve certainly heard variations of this little expression. Interestingly, but not surprising, most of these declarations of a woman’s place are from men. I read somewhere that it started with the Greeks and playwright Aeschylus, who in Seven Against Thebes, 467 B.C., wrote: “Let women stay at home and hold their peace.”
From the United States Supreme Court, to fighter pilots, and who knows, maybe even soon—The White House—women are demonstrating leadership acumen with style and grace. Even in the labor movement. I like to say we’re in a Golden Age of women union leaders. Everywhere you look women are taking the reins of some of the most influential organizations, and helping to keep labor and nations focused on the issues that matter and make a difference in the lives of working families.
Here in the United States, there’s Randi Weingarten, Lorretta Johnson, and Mary Cathryn Ricker at the American Federation of Teachers; Mary Kay Henry at Service Employees International Union; and Elizabeth Shuler at the AFL-CIO. Right here at NEA I am fortunate to have my colleagues, Becky Pringle and Princess Moss, who help guide our work on behalf of students, our members, quality public education, and working families.
This week I had the opportunity to join another group of inspirational women from around the globe for a panel discussion at the 7th World Congress in Ottawa, Canada. Our stimulating conversation focused on the impact of women in unions, and the impact women leaders have had on issues of gender equality and other issues affecting women in their respective countries.
It makes me incredibly proud that with more women leaders, unions are more focused on social issues such as immigration, gun violence, college affordability, health care, marriage equality, and budget cuts to education and things that matter to real people. I believe our renewed focus on these issues will help positively drive union membership and result in a renaissance for the labor movement all over the world.
A brief look at history shows us focusing on social issues is a good thing. In the 1900s, Mother Jones, a former teacher, led the charge on social justice related to child labor, mine safety, and collective bargaining. “Miss Lucy” Randolph Mason also tackled child labor and the minimum wage in the 1920s by using boycotts to pressure fair wages in manufacturing jobs. In the 1960s, NEA’s first black president, Libby Koontz, established the Human & Civil Rights division of the NEA; organized teacher protests for fair treatment of black teachers in the South; and fought for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
These brave leaders established a historical precedence of women making meaningful progress by advocating for social justice and issues that help working families. Without doubt working families have benefitted from the causes advanced as a result of women leaders.
The first leaders of NEA in 1857 didn’t even let women become members. Today, women comprise 58 percent of NEA’s board members, 60 percent of state presidents, and 52 percent of local presidents. Overall, women are an increasing proportion of U.S. union membership. Currently 44 percent of U.S. union members are women with that number jumping to 50 percent or more thanks to strong unionization rates in certain job sectors such as nursing, teaching, and clerical work. By 2020, women will be a majority of U.S. union members.
Let’s be clear though, our work is far from done when it comes to increasing the imprint of women leaders. I’m guessing it doesn’t come as a surprise that growth of women in union membership does not equal growth of women in union leadership. We’ve got our work cut out for us.
Consider this. In the U.S., women are about 21 percent of lead union organizers, and they hold relatively few top union positions, even in unions with strong female membership. Just as we need a pipeline of girls and women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers, so, too, we need a pipeline of girls and women into all aspects of leadership — public, political, philanthropic, corporate, educational, and unions.
And just how do we go about accomplishing this? Just as we always have: by joining together. Unions are the natural birthplace of powerful women, and powerful women are the foundation of successful organizing efforts.
At NEA, we are actively creating opportunities to develop more women leaders. For example, we have established Minority Leadership & Women’s Leadership trainings at the national and state levels; ensured strong representation of women in skills at emerging leaders’ trainings; and balanced gender representation in Leadership Summits.
We encourage others to take a thoughtful and deliberate approach to giving women more opportunities to take on leadership roles. A plan does not have to be elaborate, but there must be a plan. It should not happen by accident. Further, the simplest elements of a plan can have the strongest impact:
- Encouraging our sisters to step up, appointing and training them; and
- Helping them find confidence, authentic voice and their innate power to lead.
Women have defied odds and beat back challengers and challenges. Despite the best efforts to socialize us into our places at home, we continue to break down barriers and crash glass ceilings. We’ve had to be tough for our families and we bring that same passion and leadership from our homes to boardrooms, classrooms, and all that we do. We must encourage each other and help mentor the next generation of women leaders.
There is real power in knowing our strengths. When we know our strengths, when we seize our inner power and move out of our comfort zones, and when have been trained and equipped with the tools of collaboration, communication, and problem solving, we are unstoppable and the world we live in is better for us all.
It has been said that a strong woman stands up for herself. A stronger woman stands up for everyone else. I for one am glad and encouraged that a woman’s place is not just in the home—it’s anywhere she wants it to be! I’m proud of the trails we’re blazing and our constructive use of our woman power for the common good — for our children, families, our smaller worlds, and the bigger world in which we all live.