A woman in a leadership position is still not a common sight worldwide, but there are women who are creating a new path for others to follow, breaking the limited ideals of a trained society.
“While we have made strides this past year, we still have much to do,” said Robin Bowen, first female president of a public four-year college in Arkansas.
Bowen created a new path for women in the state of Arkansas, a path for women to be leaders who make changes for the future of education. Educating a more diverse campus has come from her leadership, not only with the Arkansas Tech University student population but also with the campus workforce. Although she is the first female president of a public four-year college in Arkansas, women have come before her to make this path.
The first woman known to be president of a college was Emma Elizabeth Johnson at Johnson University in Tennessee in 1925. Both Johnson and her husband ran the college
that her husband started, but when he passed away she took control to keep it going. It wasn’t until more than 50 years later that Hanna Holborn Gray became the second female president of a university, at the University of Chicago in 1978. Though women have stepped into positions of leadership, making that step has not been easy for
Men have also tried to help women create paths to offer better opportunities for women to be politically, socially and economically equal to men. An Arkansas law proposing women’s suffrage, the struggle for the right of women to vote and run for office, was initially introduced by Miles Ledford Langley of Arkadelphia, a representative to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1868.
On Feb. 11, 1868, Langley made a motion that “all citizens 21 years of age, who can read and write the English language, shall be eligible” to vote. The next day, he delivered an address to the Arkansas House of Representatives on the need for women’s suffrage. He was laughed at.
Women’s suffrage turned into the 19th Amendment, and through voting women have been stepping into more prestigious positions of leadership. In 1917, Jeannette Rankin, of Montana, became the first woman to serve in Congress. In 1922, Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton became the first woman to serve in the Senate and is the only woman to be a senator in Georgia.
Currently in the United States women in legislatures make up only 24.2 percent; for every
1,000 people in legislation, 758 are male and 242 are female. Of the 50 states, six have female governors. Of the largest 100 cities, 13 women are mayors. The path is being made, though progress seems slow.
“I think it’s important to have men and women in any deliberative body just like I think it’s important we have different professions,” said Andrea Lea, Arkansas’ second female state auditor.
Lea was not on a path of leadership and equality. She was a woman whose leadership began as a stay-at-home mom. She said she ran her household well and when the circumstances called for it, she figured out how to start the Russellville High School Swim Team so her son could continue swimming into high school.
Once she figured out the logistics that “one person can make a difference,” Lea went to college and graduated with honors from Arkansas Tech University with a bachelor’s of science degree in 2004. Lea says her husband “supported everything” she did.
She also found support in a woman who went door-to-door, a stay-at-home mom just like her, who talked to her community to win her place in the political arena, “the mom in tennis shoes.” Even though she could not remember the lady’s name, she remembers the impact the woman had on her.
This “mom in tennis shoes” inspired Lea to take the same route. She figured out what political position she wanted, got a map of her area and put on her shoes to go door-to-door. Lea won that race by 50 votes to be a Russellville City Council member. That was the first of many trials that she would face in her leadership.
The “mom in tennis shoes” is the democratic senator from Washington, Patty Murray, who has held this position since 1993. A woman who made a path for other women to follow.
Women have faced many trials and adversity in their fight for leadership and equality. In 1872, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first female candidate for United States president but was never officially recognized by men. Seeking to be more politically active, Woodhull established the Equal Rights Party and became their U.S. presidency choice. She was arrested on obscenity charges a few days before the election and did not receive any electoral votes. Since then not a single woman has appeared on the presidential ballot, but through progress and support that may change this year.
“It’s important to help one another and to build one another up,” said Leslie Rutledge, Arkansas’ second female attorney general.
“Be the best you can be so they can’t ignore you.” -Andrea Lea, referring to being a woman in a leadership position
A woman who had great women supporting her and lifting her up throughout her life, Rutledge was on a path of leadership and equality. It started with two strong grandmothers, one owning her own business in the ’70s.
Rutledge also had the opportunity to work for women in leadership positions, such as Justice Josephine L. Hart. Having strong women in her life paved a path for Rutledge to become her own woman in leadership.
“I have been around women who have been elected to leadership positions and have been criticized not for being a woman but criticized as anyone would be criticized, for decisions they made,” said Rutledge in an interview of the female influences she has had in political settings.
Having strong women lead the way and make a path for other women to follow is not an easy journey. This journey requires that a woman be the first in a male dominated field, first to get people to change their views and first to been seen as equals.
“Be the best you can be so they can’t ignore you,” Lea said of being a woman in a leadership position.
Lea, Bowen and Rutledge have become the best in their fields, and they have been hard to ignore as equals. They have created new paths for other women to follow after a foundation was laid for them, a cycle of women and men creating new paths for future female generations.
Change is coming. For the last 100 years, since the states became united, since the women’s suffrage movement, since the civil rights movement, change has been happening for women everyday. Women helping women to step up. Men helping women to step up. Women in leadership positions will become a common sight.