By Erin Dunn, age 20
In the last couple of weeks, I have been extremely busy—finishing my internship at CWEALF, moving back in to school, and starting classes for my junior year at the University of Connecticut. I was particularly excited to begin this semester, as I am enrolled in a fascinating variety of classes all related to politics, human rights, equality, and law.
One class that I am taking this semester is entitled “American Political Leadership.” It is an extremely interesting time to be studying this subject, considering the upcoming presidential election, and many high-profile debates regarding what makes an effective and iconic “leader.” Our first assignment in this class was to write a short paper on our favorite American politician, to share with the class. Sounds simple enough. I decided to write about the fabulous Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
I fully expected to hear a variety of responses from my classmates, including leaders from throughout history and from both major political parties. I expected some heated discussion regarding certain controversial figures. I did not expect to be the sole student that admired a female political leader. That’s right, you read correctly. In a class of over 30 students, not one of my classmates wrote about a woman politician or leader. In fact, there was a striking lack of diversity—only one student chose a nonwhite leader, speaking about Martin Luther King, Jr.
Even more startling is the fact that at first, I did not even notice. The fact that my classmates chose Reagan, JFK, FDR, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, emphasizing their strength and power, seemed nothing out of the ordinary. I was a certainly amused by some of the politicians that my classmates chose, but it was not until hours later when I was recounting the most unique choices to my best friend that I came to the realization that no one else admired a woman leader. The complete lack of women and minorities in our system of political representation remains normalized and entrenched. This fact is disheartening, deeply infuriating, and unrepresentative of the population of Americans that the political system serves.
Why are there not more opportunities for women to take leadership positions? Why can’t men (three-quarters of my class is male) look up to strong female leaders? Why does history look back and highlight great figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Bobby Kennedy, and Joe Biden, but not equally great figures like Lucretia Mott, Shirley Chisholm, and Senator Warren (a majority of my class had not even heard of her!)? Women have largely been forgotten in the “masculine” world of power and politics, but women have a voice, too.
Many of the leaders discussed were idolized for their strength, their perseverance, foreign policy accomplishments, and their ability to get things done. To this I respond: women can be just as strong, just as persistent, and just as able to unite people. We just need the chance. We need to continue to chip away at the antiquated gender stereotypes that equate femininity with weakness and domesticity, and masculinity with assertiveness and the public realm. Women must be empowered, must be given opportunities, and we also must learn to take them.
A leader should not be defined by their gender, race, or other social constructs, but by their talents, their commitment, their innovation, and drive. There are countless American political leaders whom I look up to, many which happen to identify as male (and many who do not!), but this is definitely not the quality that defines the “great leader.” For the world to truly be free of gender and race-based oppression, every individual with passion to make a difference should be able to look in the mirror and think: “This is what a leader looks like.”