Almost all of the news comments on the Democrats’ debates held this past week mentioned that for the first time women were a prominent part of the lineup. Ever since Samuel Johnson made his famous quip about women preaching in public, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all” women have had to prove themselves worthy of speaking out in public settings.
After all, it was more than a century after the establishment of the United States that a woman was first elected to Congress. That was Jeannette Rankin, who was elected from Montana in 1913. Rankin had become a public figure by her work in the women’s suffrage movement. Before running for Congress, she had been the first woman to speak before the Montana state legislature. There she urged that women should be allowed to vote. She succeeded in getting the vote for Montana women and moved on to fight for a national vote on suffrage.
Women had been fighting for the right to vote since 1848 and it was through the struggle to win that right that many women became accustomed to speaking in public and making their voices heard. They had many years of struggle, because it wasn’t until 1920 that the Women’s Suffrage amendment was finally ratified.
Women have served in Congress now for more than 100 years, but their move into power positions has been very slow. It’s hard to believe that in 1984, it was considered daring for the Democrats to nominate Geraldine Ferraro as their vice-presidential candidate. She was the first woman to appear in national debates before the election and her appearance was a welcome change for many voters, although of course, her team did not win the presidency.
Last week’s debates, however, showed a distinct change in the power structure of the debates. Many of the male candidates thought their best way to win attention (and potentially votes) was to interrupt as often as possible and take over the argument. But on Thursday night they were put in their place by Kamela Harris who had one of the most-quoted lines of the debate, “The American people don’t want to watch a food fight. They want us to put food on the table.” And a few minutes later she made a stinging attack on Joe Biden—no one interrupted her then.
And Harris wasn’t the only woman who raised the level of the debates. Elizabeth Warren, during the first debate, stuck to her points and talked substance instead of yelling and interrupting. And we can’t forget Amy Klobucher who quietly mentioned that the three women on the debate stage had far longer records than the men in fighting for reproductive rights for all women.
There is no question that women today are ready to speak out about national policies. Perhaps the more relevant question today is: are men ready to engage with them on a level that will benefit all of us?
Four years ago I wrote a blog post about the initiative being undertaken by the Treasury Department to update the twenty dollar bill by replacing the picture of Andrew Jackson with a woman—the first woman to be honored on a major currency in America. The United States has lagged behind the rest of the world in having women pictured on currency. Dead white men have monopolized U.S. currency ever since the country began issuing money. But now we have a chance to move into the 21st century. Let’s not lose it.
After several years of work on the project, The Treasury Department came up with a plan to design a new twenty dollar bill the most commonly used paper currency—the one that comes out of the ATM each time we go to our bank to replenish our supply of cash.
The new design features Harriet Tubman, a 19th century activist who helped many Americans escape from slavery and begin their journey to freedom. The plan was to release the new bill in 2020, the one hundredth anniversary of the passing of the suffrage amendment that gave women the right to vote.
Suddenly last month, the New York Times reported that Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, announced “the design of the note would be delayed for technical reasons by six years and might not include the former slave and abolitionist”. Further reporting, however, soon revealed that planning for release of the bill was well underway. No convincing reasons have been put forth for delaying the release for another seven years.
Reactions from Congress came quickly. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat from New Hampshire, introduced the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2019, which would compel the Treasury Department to print $20 bills with Tubman’s likeness as soon as 2021.
Perhaps the only way to get Washington to move ahead with its project is for all of us to weigh in on the decision. Andrew Jackson has had his day. It is time for the country to recognize a woman who rescued scores of people from slavery, served as a spy for the Union during the Civil War, and devoted her life to making the lives of others better.
You can help by letting your Senators know you support Senator Shaheen’s bill. Perhaps it would also be a good idea to contact the Treasury Department and let Secretary Mnuchin know Americans are watching and hoping that the promise made to release the new bill in 2020 will be kept.
In her speech to the Harvard University graduating class this week, Angela Merkel urged a cautious optimism: “I experienced firsthand how nothing has to stay the way it is,” she said. “This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I wish to share with you: Anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change.”
She went on to list some of the problems the youthful graduates might want to change: “Protectionism and trade conflicts jeopardize free international trade and thus the very foundations of our prosperity,” she said. “Wars and terrorism lead to displacement and forced migration. Climate change poses a threat to our planet’s natural resources.”
Angela Markel’s common sense optimism, as well as her acknowledgement of the difficulties facing the world today grow out of her life experience. Born in 1954, she was raised in East Germany during the difficult years when the Soviets controlled that nation. In university she studied science and did not engage in public life. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany that she was drawn to political life. Few people would have predicted she would become a leader. But, improbable or not, this quiet woman made her way past the bombastic male leaders of the party and eventually emerged as the leader.
Since becoming Chancellor of Germany in 2005, Merkel has been acknowledged as the leader of the European Union. She weathered the immigration crisis of 2015, encouraging Europeans to accept the humanitarian necessity of helping Syrian refugees to find a place in European society.
Now Europe is facing continuing turmoil as one country after another reveals a strain of populism that rejects immigrants and wants to turn the clock back. Merkel has said that she will leave politics in 2021 and allow someone else to negotiate the future. But her contribution to building a united Europe will not be forgotten. As historians look back on the first decades of the 21st century, I am certain she will be recognized as the outstanding political leader of our times.
Angela Merkel is not the only woman leader who is leaving the limelight. Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is also stepping down. May took on the onerous task of working out a Brexit plan to move Britain out of the European Union. After the referendum in which voters chose by a narrow margin to leave, several of the noisy male supporters of the move stepped back and chose not to handle the mess they had created.
Theresa May was the only political leader willing to take on the hard work of actually coming up with a plan. She came up with a number of plans, but, unsurprisingly, someone found fault with each one. The fact that she did not succeed in finding a magic formula that would suit everyone was almost inevitable.
When Theresa May stepped down, the media talked about her a failure. Perhaps they should wait to see whether any of her critics comes up with a foolproof plan that will be accepted by all sides. No one has shown any sign of doing that yet. I can’t wait to see whether any of the guys who have been jeering from the sidelines will step up and hit a home run now that they are on their own.
It is time for us to honor the courageous women who have not just talked but have taken on some of the world’s most serious problems. As Margaret Thatcher once said: If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.