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In the Lead: The Honorable Barbara Hackman Franklin on the 19th Amendment Centennial

On this Women’s Equality Day, August 26, 2020, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 19th Amendment states, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

In this edition of In the Lead, the Honorable Barbara Hackman Franklin discusses this important milestone in American history. Her unique perspective stems from serving in leadership positions for five U.S. Presidents, leading the first White House effort to recruit women for high-level government jobs and being listed by TIME Magazine as one of the 50 Women Who Made American Political History.

In her responses below, she expands on successful strategies employed by suffragettes, why few women are in global positions of political and corporate leadership and important actions that young leaders can take to press forward with efforts towards fuller equality.


Q. You have served in leadership positions for five U.S. Presidents, which give you an unusual perspective on voting and its foundational role in ensuring women’s leadership and participation in governance today. You have also spent time reflecting on the suffragettes and their long road to the 19th Amendment. How are the strategies they employed, as they worked to secure women’s constitutional right to vote, relevant today as women seek to lead both in government and the private sector?

Having the vote encouraged and enabled women - like me - to participate in politics and government at the highest levels.

I so admire the multitude of women – and some men -- who made the 19th Amendment a reality. The struggle took decades. The suffragettes overcame ridicule, abuse and imprisonment.

Over the years, they used a variety of strategies and tactics – peaceful protests, picketing, planning, lobbying and building alliances – to gain attention for their cause. But what strikes me most about the suffragettes is that they never lost sight of the goal – the vote for American women. And they passed that mission on from generation to generation.

Things are different today, and I doubt that some of these tactics used a century ago will bring more women into leadership roles. However, there is one thing to emulate – articulate the goal.

If, for example, that goal is 50% of Congressional seats held by women, then the next step is to lay out a plan of action to achieve it. Set a time frame with important milestones along the way to measure progress. And then, keep track of progress. When a milestone along the path is fulfilled, consider this a “reward” and celebrate it!

This is simple “management by objectives,” which I learned years ago at Harvard Business School and know that it is the key to accomplishing anything. And I also know that the essential first step is to decide on the goal – and then get started!


Barbara Hackman Franklin

Q: In 1971, you led the first White House effort to recruit women for high-level government jobs. From a recruiting perspective, why do you think there are still so few women in positions of political and corporate leadership in the U.S. and across the globe?

There are still many challenges for women, both internal and external, on the stereotypical ideas about women in leadership. And these challenges cause resistance to women in leadership roles.

From New York City to Brussels and Shanghai, there's no consensus about women in leadership.

There's more consensus than there was, but there isn't a uniform agreement on what a woman leader is supposed to look like, act like, perform like, lead like and even dress like. There are concerns that women are too emotional, not tough enough, not strong enough and that the leadership role will conflict with responsibilities at home.

Let's look at men in leadership. Men have all different shades, colors, types, who are in leadership roles and this variety causes no fuss. The consensus about a male leader is that differences are fine, built upon many years of experience and cultural reinforcement. But, there is still some resistance in many people's minds when it comes to women in leadership.

A simple fix would be to get more women into top-flight leadership roles and reframe how we see women as leaders. To do this, inclusion and developing women leaders must be a priority for corporate boards, CEOs and elected officials.
During my time in the Nixon White House, tremendous progress was made by increasing the number of women in top policy making jobs, in the mid-level career service ranks and on presidential commissions and boards.

Also, during this time, Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment, President Nixon signed Title IX of the Education Amendments into law and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed.

Some within that Administration felt these policies were not worthy of a president, but President Nixon felt otherwise. Progress would not have happened at that time without his committed leadership and determination to see more American women in positions of authority.


Q: You have said your hope is that by providing a greater understanding of the arc of history you can inspire younger women leaders to press forward with efforts toward fuller equality. In addition to voting, what is the most important action these leaders can take to achieve this goal?

Let's start with elected office and politics in America. Currently, about 25% of Congressional seats are filled by women. In state legislatures, women hold about 30% of the seats.

Now, I'd like to see 50% of Congressional seats filled by women and 50% of state legislature seats as well.

Progress is happening, but taking it to the next level will need a concerted effort.

The main political parties need to make this a fundamental priority, and women need to play a role. From deciding we will help each other regardless of ideology to collectively identifying qualified women who want to run.

Women sometimes haven't been as good at raising money. But that goes back to the stereotypes about what a woman leader or Congressperson should look like. And there still are folks who are reluctant to back women. Getting into the political game with a long-term mindset with the necessary resources will make a big difference.

I hope that the next generations of dynamic women leaders will continue to press enthusiastically for progress, consolidate the gains already made, and not allow any backsliding.

One thing is certain: more women in positions of leadership in government at all levels will require sustained effort and support for the goal - as well as women supporting each other. If we can achieve this, I believe our country will be kinder, more prosperous and safer.


In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of American women gaining the constitutional right to vote, Penn State University Library Press re-released the book A Matter of Simple Justice: The Untold Story of Barbara Franklin and a Few Good Women. Learn more about the book here.


The Honorable Barbara Hackman Franklin, the 29th US Secretary of Commerce, is President and CEO of Barbara Franklin Enterprises, a private consulting firm in Washington, DC. She advises and advocates for American companies doing business in international markets, notably China. Franklin has served five US Presidents. In 2017 TIME Magazine named her one of the “50 Women Who Made American Political History.”

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In the Lead: The Honorable Barbara Hackman Franklin on the Centennial of the 19th Amendment
In the Lead: The Honorable Barbara Hackman Franklin on the 19th Amendment Centennial
International Women's Forum