Women must continue to persist to rise as political leaders of America

Women must continue to persist to rise as political leaders of America
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Back in 1972, Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, ran to be president of the United States. She did not prevail, but her pursuit was crucial in the persistence needed to elect a woman to the White House. Today, Joe Biden is poised to put a woman on the ticket as vice president, something that was first tried in 1984. Biden may even make new history by partnering with a woman of color.

His announcement that he would select a woman to be his vice president followed the 2020 Democratic primary when six women ran for president, both white and African American, signaling a major shift from the past. It comes at a time when women are at the forefront of society. During this coronavirus pandemic, most nurses, teachers, child care workers, home health aides, and local public health officials are women.

It also comes at a time of demand for social justice. Women leaders like Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, those organizers of Black Lives Matter, and many others have raised their voices and have been heard. It comes at a time of economic crisis when racial and gender disparities are mirrored in the coronavirus pandemic and the struggle for social justice. Women voters are clearly more than ready for change.


But the path to the White House has been tough. In 1984, the Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco. The buzz was tremendous as Walter Mondale was set to announce the nomination of the first woman to be his vice president. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE led the volunteer host committee as she showed her fundraising efforts in gathering support for this event. As chief of staff for campaign member Barbara Mikulski, I had the credentials to be present that night. Mikulski went on to become the first Democratic woman elected on her own right to the Senate in 1986.

Every woman who worked on the 1984 campaign somehow found their way to the floor that night. It was an electric and extraordinary moment. The image making mirrored the times. Geraldine Ferraro appeared in a white dress as if to say the country could handle a woman acceding to power, but only if she came off as demure and virginal, looking like she was about to walk down the aisle. The ticket went down in defeat, but it was a crucial moment leading us to where we are today.

In 2008, John McCain faced a very uphill battle against Barack Obama. McCain surprised the country by picking Sarah Palin to be his running mate for the election. Looking for a game change, his advisers thought the Alaska governor might close the significant gender gap and add in more charisma to the campaign. That bet did not pay off. Palin was not prepared and, while previewing support for Donald Trump, set back the ascendance of a woman candidate on the national stage.

Yet we persisted. In the Democratic primary that year, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFederal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work Biden soars as leader of the free world Intercept DC bureau chief says Biden picks are 'same people' from Obama years MORE, a champion for women around the world, lost to Obama. But in 2016, she appeared on stage to accept the nomination for president of the United States. She also wore white, but times had changed. Now it was a bold choice, a pant suit, echoing the white dresses of suffragettes a century before. Such need for persistence from women remained when Clinton lost the Electoral College vote to the misogynistic Trump.

The country took a step back before moving forward again. After nearly four years of chaos, sexism, and racism from the president, the United States may finally move into the future. Some have argued that women are acknowledged when there is a mess to clean up or when power no longer matters. But women are coming to the forefront because of our persistence. We understand how to wield power for good.

We know how to clean up a mess. We know how to be effective principled leaders. So when a woman is sworn in as vice president, we will know it is because of Chisholm, Ferraro, Clinton, and even Palin, along with all of the women, brown, black, white, and every other color, who ever took a risk to lead and persisted until she did. To get to that historic moment, however, we must persist, register, and vote in the election this year.

Wendy Sherman is a professor and director of the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership, a counselor for Albright Stonebridge Group, and a former under secretary with the State Department. She is the author of “Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence.”