Throughout History, Women Have Forged a New Type of Leadership
Today, for the first time in history, four women lead the House and Senate Appropriations Committees—one of the most powerful committees on the Hill. Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are the chairperson and ranking member in the Senate, respectively; in the House, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) serves as chair, and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) ranking member.
The time is ripe to recognize the ways women throughout U.S. have redefined effective leadership. I am reminded of Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, who stepped down from the role in November; the late Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation; Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers; and Miss Major Griffin Gracy, a trans leader in the LGBTQ movement. Ironically, though these four women are from the “Silent Generation” (born between 1928-1945), they exemplify a new type of leadership: Society attempted to silence them, but they were never silent. They’re strong, of course—but their unique leadership styles balanced strength with compassion, determination with collaboration, achieving a state of grace.
‘Grace’ is not the same as ‘graceful.’ As a professional dancer, I bristle at ‘graceful.’ It hits me as a back-handed compliment, a paternalistic pat on the head; a notion of suppleness—fluffy and inconsequential but not strong, gutsy and daring. Graceful describes the surface of grace, but not the grit it takes to achieve grace.
Grace as a noun, however carries some weight. Grace is a discipline—gnawed at daily with endurance and fortitude. Tied to purpose beyond self, grace integrates grit and intuition. Embodied grace is when actions, words and intentions are aligned. A tall order for any dancer or leader.
Pelosi will best be remembered for her tough-as-fingernails-style, but also for providing performative, iconic images—a glance, a wag, a sideways clap, a stride, a rip, a mask, a coat—all sending messages that resonated. Disgusted by the lies in the State of the Union speech in 2020, she stepped out of her carefully crafted public display of discipline with the infamous “rip.” In the biography Madam Speaker, Pelosi says she felt “liberated,” an apt description for when the body is in symbolic alignment with its values.
The body never lies, so the saying goes.
Research shows that traditional leadership has traditionally been defined by stereotypical masculine traits—strong, decisive, dominant, competitive. Of course, our preferences are not determined by biology alone: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was authoritative; President Biden cries easily. But it begs the question: What have women brought to leadership?
Women political leaders prior to Pelosi had to display strength of steel in order to be taken seriously. Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress, was known as “Fighting Shirley” and Thatcher, the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom, carried the nickname “Iron Lady.” But both understood what dancers know—strength is not just how much weight one can lift, but rather the ability to efficiently leverage the joints. Chisholm learned to leverage power, saying, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”