Story by Jennifer McManamay
This fall, assistant professor of international affairs Padmini Coopamah is teaching a seminar called “Women and Power” for students in the y:1 first-year program. Developing a course on women and political leadership had long been on her to-do list.
For one thing, Coopamah studies developing nations and has been following the rise of women in elected office all over the world. Then the College selected “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” for the 2013- 2014 Common Reading. She was one of several people to nominate it.
“When it was chosen, I said, ‘This is the perfect time to offer this course’ because, with the rebranding of the College in the last couple years — we can change the world, women as leaders — it all really tied together,” she says.
The book argues for the “girl effect,” the idea that empowering women with education, health care and, especially, economic means is the answer to the abuse and exploitation of women and alleviating poverty in underdeveloped regions. Coopamah knows it’s too simple an approach.
“I agree that we need to focus on girls and women, just because they have been neglected for so long, but we cannot do that at the expense of focusing on men and the wider community,” she says. “I think the girl effect is small scale. … It’s only going to transform entire societies if it is being done in conjunction with other programs.”
“Half the Sky” argues that oppressing women holds developing societies down, but Coopamah points out that some women in these same societies are attaining positions of political power. It begs an essential question she wants her students to consider.
“If we are saying that women who are in politics tend to champion the issues of women, why is it in some countries where women are rising to power, countless millions of women are still suffering, are still oppressed and are still struggling just to survive?”
It is worthwhile to think about how to harness women’s social and economic value — and by extension their political clout — in a worldwide context.
“I really wanted us to think about the role of women in general and how do we bring women together to do what they are best equipped to do — i.e. their ability to bring to the table policy issues that have traditionally been overlooked, their holistic and long-term view of how to deal with specific issue areas, and their cooperative and consensual leadership style,” Coopamah says.
She also sees that while some students arrive at Sweet Briar eager to get into politics, most aren’t interested. Policy-making is too important not to engage in somehow, she says. She wants her students to understand there are many ways to wield influence — and that they have a specific role to play as women.
To which Susan Scanlan, Class of 1969, gives a hearty “holla, holla.” Scanlan is the co-founder of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues and president of its policy arm, the Women’s Research & Education Institute.
“Want to create a political activist?” she asks.
“Tell her the Supreme Court is one appointment away from banning birth control. Or that proposed cuts to Social Security mean her mother-in-law will have to come live in her basement.
“The suffragists did not go to prison so their great-granddaughters could be apathetic about civic engagement. If ever there was a time to renew the fight for equality, it’s now, when the gains of the last forty years are under siege.”
Scanlan also chairs the non-partisan National Council of Women’s Organizations, a coalition of diverse groups working for women’s equal participation in the economic, social and political life of the country and the world (and mentioned in “Half the Sky” for its advocacy for women worldwide).
She’s made it her life’s work to ensure women are “sitting at the table and not on the menu at the feast of democracy in Washington.” And, yes, she says, there are many ways to get there, even if they arrive late.
“Not just lawyers or political science majors, but [public health] and social workers and teachers who watch, firsthand, as lunatic laws and biased budgets passed by Congress have devastating impacts on their clients. Young women with ‘no interest in politics’ suddenly decide to swim upstream to figure out how bad policy gets made and to learn how to change it.”
Coopamah’s class covered the women’s suffrage movement, not least as an example of how the simple act of voting is a form of political power. She also assigned Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” because it provides insight both into the choices women make in professional life and how they are influenced by socioeconomic status.
“One thing that keeps coming up is that you really cannot dissociate the political from the social and the economic,” Coopamah says. “A lot of our discussions are about … the stigma of women taking on a very public role. There will never be more women in positions of political power until there is a society that is much more supportive of women’s activities outside the home.”
Sandberg’s book highlights the question of whether there are now, instead of legal barriers, social and personal barriers to women ascending to positions of power, and prompts an examination of how women respond to them.
Y:1 student Kieran Cook says she’d already pondered some of these questions, having at one point considered a career in politics, and is neither surprised nor daunted by the questions the class has raised.
“I have always had the mindset that I can do what I want, no matter my sex, and have never been told differently,” she says.
She is surprised by the lack of progress since women gained the right to vote, and her eyes have been opened in other ways, too.
“We have analyzed numerous things in society that stereotype men and women into specific gender roles that I never would have realized otherwise. I notice so many things now that I used to just overlook,” Cook says.
“It seems like we have made leaps and bounds, but we really haven’t. We have so much further to go before there is truly equality, and it will always depend on who is measuring that equality.”