By: Marilyn Rubin
Traveling back through time, scant few women leaders have been included in history books. The contributions of those who have often been minimized or treated as outliers. In Egypt, for example, Hatshepsut (1478 BCE- 1458 BCE) chose to rule as a man and is usually represented as male throughout most of her reign. Wu Zetian, the only woman to have been emperor in China's history, ruled during the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Opinions differ as to whether she was a successful ruler or an unscrupulous schemer. Wu, aware of these conflicting opinions, ordered on her deathbed that nothing be inscribed on her tombstone so that future generations would be free to judge whether she had been an evil woman or someone who contributed greatly to the Tang Dynasty and the long-term history of China. Her legacy would establish a paradigm for female leaders through the centuries and across the globe – don't be too strong, don't act like a man, and never show that you are as smart as (or smarter than) a man.
Despite examples of female leaders throughout history, it was not until the end of the 19th century that countries around the world would begin to give women the right to vote and to run for elected office. And, it would take many more decades before there were enough women leaders to take notice of their presence on the world stage. In the U.S., women make up 27% of the 2021 Congress, a significant increase from the less than 1% representation in the 1920s and less than 10% representation into the late 1980s. But, women still face a long road before they have representation equal to 50+% of the population.
After more than 230 years, the U.S. finally has a female vice president. There are also other indicators of the changing role of women. By the time Barbie turned 50 in 2009, she had held down more than 125 careers with the latest being a computer engineer –quite a change from her first job as a teenage fashion model in 1959.
Organizations advocating for public service are also turning the corner, not only growing the number of female members but also empowering their increasing role in leadership positions. Within the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA), for example, the role of women has evolved dramatically since the Society was established in 1939, from near non-existence to token representation to major participation. While it took 35 years for ASPA to elect Nesta Gallas as its first female President in 1976, 15 women have been president since then, including five of the last six.
The National Academy of Public Administration (the Academy), established in 1967 as a program of ASPA, incorporated as an independent organization in 1970, and chartered by Congress in 1984, inducted its first Fellows in 1967, none of whom were women. A year later, in 1968, the first woman, Julia J. Henderson, was inducted as an Academy Fellow, and a few more were inducted each year until 1978 when five of the 23 new Fellows were women. The number hovered around five each year for another 20 years until 1996 when 16 of the 51 newly inducted fellows were women. In 2020, of the 45 Fellows inducted into the Academy, 22 were women. Today, the Academy’s President is a woman and of its five standing panels, one is chaired, and three co-chaired, by a woman. There is still a way to go, but women are on the move at the Academy.
Close to half a century ago, Nesta Gallas wrote that “…the spectrum of beliefs and concerns about the status of women in the profession” could be summarized as “…discrimination against, underrepresentation of, and underutilization of women…” (Gallas 1976, 347). The increasing number of women whose voices are being heard at the table where decisions are being made provides evidence that while Gallas’s statement still holds some truth, it does not ring nearly as loud.