Where to Now?: Women's Leadership Needs New Direction

At the rate we're going, it could take 100 years for women to achieve equal representation in Congress. Some say the only way to change that is to start small and start young.
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By Vanessa Gezari
Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jennifer James Soto arrived in Georgia on a Friday afternoon. The air was thick with humidity, and the campus on the outskirts of Atlanta was deserted except for her and the other women. They carried their suitcases into dormitories and laid out their clothes on narrow student beds. That evening, Jennifer dressed carefully, choosing dangly earrings because her kids weren't around to tug them. This weekend would be the longest she'd spent away from her son and daughter since they were born.

She made her way downstairs, where she and the other women found seats in a windowless conference room. They would spend the next two days here, listening to women who held elected office and women whose job it was to prepare other women to run.

"Consider yourself the candidate this weekend," a conference organizer told them. "Wear it. Try it on."

At 37, Jennifer still radiated the youthful energy of the track star she'd been in junior high school. She had degrees from Harvard and from Columbia Law, and had worked 13-hour days as an intellectual property attorney in Palo Alto, Calif. More recently, she'd been living in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., changing diapers and making sure her kids ate enough green vegetables. She was no politician, and she wasn't completely sure she wanted to become one, but on this summer evening, she was feeling her way toward a half-acknowledged ambition that had dogged her for years.

She and 79 other women had come to Agnes Scott College in Decatur for a weekend-long political training conference run by the White House Project, an organization aimed at boosting the number of women in elected office. In a matter of hours, Jennifer would stand at the front of the room, looking out at the tables surrounded by women in suit jackets, jeans and, in one case, screaming electric-blue stiletto heels.

"Good afternoon; thank you so much for coming," she said. "My name is Jennifer James Soto, and I hope to have the opportunity to be your next governor."

It was the first time she'd said this aloud to anyone outside her immediate family, but there was no time now to contemplate its significance.

"One of the most important people in my life has been my father," Jennifer went on. "He instilled in me integrity, discipline, but also most important, or equally as important, how to dream."

A retired Army officer who had grown up poor in rural Georgia, her father had drilled that sense of possibility into Jennifer every day until his death when she was 19. He encouraged her ambition to join the school football team: You're fast; you can catch a football; try it. (She ended up becoming a cheerleader.) The family moved from Cheverly to Florida when Jennifer was in junior high, and in ninth grade, her all-white classmates elected her, the sole African American, class president.

Two years later, she went to Washington to serve as a congressional page. It was 1988, and only 23 House members were women (today, three times as many are). Being so close to Congress awed and excited Jennifer, but garden-variety sexism thrived. She and the other female pages quickly sensed that some congressmen doubted their abilities. "It was always questioned: 'Can I handle it? Can I do it?' " she recalled.

The Iran-contra hearings, which were winding down, added to Jennifer's lingering distaste for conventional politics. She was appalled by the bitterness of the debate. "The level of disrespect, even if it was just a few people, that was enough for a 16-year-old to be like, 'Wow, these are our leaders?' " she said.

Jaded, she began looking for other ways to make a difference. She took a year off before Harvard to volunteer with City Year, an urban community service program and later traveled to South Africa to work with a conflict-resolution group. The day before she graduated from Harvard, she received the Ames Award, given to two graduating seniors for "selfless, heroic, and inspirational leadership."

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