An Interview With Marie C. Wilson

In 2008, the world watched as Hilary Clinton campaigned for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Although she didn’t receive the nomination, the fact that she was able to even enter the race and was taken seriously, considering an attempt to do so even 50 years ago would have been dismissed and ridiculed by the nation, proves how far we’ve come. So often we take for granted the significant presence women have in politics today, and the people who made this happen. Marie C. Wilson is definitely one of these people, and one who won’t settle until women are not only present, but equally represented in politics.

Marie C. Wilson is former president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, where during her 20-year tenure she raised millions of dollars for programs promoting women’s health, education, and economic power, and the co-founder and current president of the White House Project, whose mission is “to advance women’s leadership in all communities and sectors, up to the U.S. presidency” because when you add women, “you get a nation that responds to challenges by drawing on the strength and wisdom of all its people, women and men.”

The FBomb got the chance to talk with Marie C. Wilson about our generation - the next generation of leaders: what she thinks of us and our futures, our obstacles and advantages, and where men and feminism fit in.

How do you think this generation of girls will transition into leadership roles?

I see young girls in America today bringing a kind of different model of leadership to the table. And that leadership will not only help feminism but it will help the world, society. It’s much more of a shared leadership, it’s a much more diverse group of women. It’s young women or girls who are comfortable and familiar with difference. And ones who I think expect something different of boys and the world and have the benefit of some moxie and courage that I think our generation left for the last generation. So, I actually feel very positive. I even watch my granddaughters and I see that from 2 on up – the world has changed in terms of who they are and what they can do. So I feel very positive about it.

So do you think that your expectations for our generation and trying to help us lead will become a reality?

Yeah, I do. Not only because of who you are but what’s going on in the world. There’s a growing knowledge that if we don’t get some people at the table who have this different approach to joint leadership and collaboration with each other with boys, with men, a kind of broader view of what constitutes change and by that I mean a good perspective on the importance of bringing people together across different sectors to get things done. I just think it’s a more open generation – it’s got all this stuff ahead to be open – you had to be open because all this information is coming at you from all these different ways. You have to be much smarter because you’ve had to parcel that information.

Have you seen the effect on young girls of seeing role models, strong women and women of color, in the media?

Yes I think the fact that you have Michelle Obama and you have a cabinet with Susan Rice and women – real diversity of very competent women in the cabinet. And I think you have the top woman in America in Pepsi, and you have one of the top women who is helping us in Xerox. So you have some diverse women in the private sector, you have some very diverse women in politics you even have some diverse women in the media right now. So it’s not enough to make an enormous difference but it’s enough to start really seeing some change. This visibility of women is going to make a difference. The visibility of Michelle Obama herself- she’s such an attraction and here she is interested in politics and policies. I don’t know what changes, or how fast, but its making a difference.

What are some of the obstacles you face in promoting women’s leadership?

The problem is that people don’t want to look at the fact that we’re not there. I do speak at colleges and the women will say after I speak “but there are more women in college then there ever were” and I say “yeah and when you get out there will be less of you going into the top positions and that isn’t moving fast enough for your generation.” So I think it’s kind of hard for people to believe that it’s not normal and unfortunately they are a token. We get one woman up and it’s like – it’s done. Oh, Hilary Clinton won, we have a woman on the supreme court. But there are also those of your generation who haven’t had to fight quite as hard. My generation fought hard, the one before that fought hard. It’s easy for you to feel that we made a lasting difference, and we did, but we haven’t changed the major thing, which in my opinion is getting women into power in sufficient numbers.

Second wave feminists, such as yourself, are undoubtedly responsible for the major strides women have made economically, politically and socially. However, it seems that my generation is being held back by a different force- the media surrounding pop culture. Though we’re not explicitly being discriminated against it still seems as though women are being held back and being held to different standards than men, let alone the effect it has on women’s confidence. How can we change this?

I’m of the opinion that I doubt you use popular culture. Audre Lorde said that the master’s tools don’t dismantle the master’s house, but I think popular culture is the exception. What I’m trying to do with the White House Project, with a whole staff of young women, is to actually use popular culture to get films and T.V. and documentaries made that actually show women as leaders. Because it’s there, you can’t do anything about it in some ways. It’s hard to fight because its everywhere and if you try to fight it you get cast aside as a radical feminist, but if you use it then what you all need to do is get power. You need to own the media. You need to take power and take leadership positions in it because you want to make more movies that show women as leaders, you want to keep putting out different images of women so that you contradict it. And you should call them on it when they’re wrong. But you’re also going to have to own it.

How do you think boys fit into increasing our leadership potential and how will they effect our leadership in the future?

I think young boys today have at least seen women like Hilary Clinton run for president, they’ve seen women in sports and have a kind of respect for the toughness and perseverance of women they have seen. But they also have seen leaders that have made them that much more conscious of girls’ possibilities and progress. But I think the hard thing is that they’re going to be more competitive with you because I think it’s going to be women’s time to lead – you’re growing into a different type of leadership right now. But as you grow into leadership, men’s lives are going to change in your generation. And that’s going to be a little tough. The men in your lives are going to have to do much more childcare and aren’t going to have the only path to the top opportunities in America. And I think there will be competition for the top jobs and that will be tough and what is I think unfortunate is that its kind of under the surface right now. But also, the more women get power, particularly girls get power, the more fashion and popular culture will sexualize them. So that’s the other edge that’s hard for girls, that increased sexualization has happened at a time when girls and women are having more power. So whether its choice or what goes on in the media these are all kind of underground ways women are kept out of power. And get power through rather than power. 

Is there any general advice you’d like to give to my readers?

Well, I think when I look at young women, teenage women, I think the most important thing is that you understand that having more women lead in this country is really good for men. Because I think often women your age have been told that there was a feminist group and they hated men. And to be for women is to be against men and you have to give up friendships. I would certainly tell them to partner with people, men particularly, who have real interest in their agency and their power and their movement. Women who are at the top don’t have families and children quite often, and what you need at the top are people who have a deep understanding of what it means to have families and children. You need people who have their hearts and their heads. Find partners who really can do that. Have friends around you who are good people and support you but tell you the truth and look for sources of leadership because I’ve done the research on this and if you want to stay strong and resilient for the rest of your life then go and change things. Change what’s coming at you because resiliency for young women is about social change, it’s about taking something that’s going on and doing something to change it and I’ve seen girls do amazing things because at the Ms. Foundation we funded girls who did projects that changed their high schools, their communities, their cities. I mean girls have enormous power. And I think you should use your power because you’re still seen as daughters, and you don’t scare men. Daughters are the keys to change for men. And I think you can tell grown men things because you’re seen as their daughters that I can never tell them so I expect you to use being the daughters of our country to promote good things for each other.

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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