The Executives’ Club of Chicago Women’s Leadership Series on Tapping Women’s Potential In Political Leadership

On Thursday, September 10, as a part of their Women’s Leadership Series, the Executives’ Club of Chicago hosted a powerhouse panel of speakers in a conversation called “Running for Progress: Tapping Women’s Potential in Political Leadership.” The virtual panel was moderated by Tina Tchen, and featured Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, Mary Matalin, Melissa Bean and Erin Loos Cutraro. And all of them, with strong Midwest ties.

The virtual Executives’ Club panel.

With 2020 marking the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the panel focused on the importance of women’s political engagement – and leadership. Especially, from women who have not always considered a role in politics, but are leaders in their communities.

In her opening remarks, Tina Tchen, who is the president and CEO of Time’s Up Now and the former Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama, emphasized that women’s solidarity transcends parties or partisanship. She is also a part of a campaign called We Have Her Back, which advocates for fair coverage of women in the media – coverage that does not fall into the stereotypes and tropes so often attributed to women in positions of power.

The first speaker on the panel was Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman Senator in the US House of Representatives. Born in Chicago and a student at Chicago Public Schools, Ambassador Moseley Braun’s political career has spanned decades and included many firsts. She spoke on the intersection of race and gender, explaining that she is often asked if she aligns first with being a woman, or being Black.

“If you’re being oppressed, it doesn’t matter why they have their foot on your neck,” she explained. “Anna Julia Cooper said ‘Only the Black woman can say: when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’”

Ambassador Moseley Braun explained that when it comes to the interests and aspirations of women and Black folks – racism, sexism and misogyny so often spring from the same set of motivations. That is why, to her, this year’s election is so important – especially for women of color, who were originally left out of our nation’s democracy by both race and gender.

“Politics follows culture,” Moseley Braun said. “Not the other way around. It takes popular will to make things happen.”

Another political pioneer, Mary Matalin was next to speak. Matalin, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, recalled working at a beauty parlor and at US Steel when one of her professors asked her to help with Lt. Gov. Dave O’Neal’s bid for US Senate in 1980. After that, she was all in. She explained that for her, at first, it was much less about an interest in politics and more about making money and getting the job done. Matalin operated under the motto, “Know yourself, so you don’t lose yourself.” She said, “someone is always trying to tell you who you are or what you should be doing in politics.”

It wasn’t even until the mid-90s that women were allowed to wear pants in the White House, Matalin recalled.

“I had one giant dress, a polka dot dress, on the back of my door,” Matalin said to hearty laughs from the panel. “And President Bush took me aside and he said ‘Do you need a raise? Do you need some help or something? You only have this one dress, it’s just sort of sad.’”

Despite the humor in her story today, at the time it was a big deal. Women were able to have autonomy around how they dressed, and how they felt they could be the most effective.

And just as women are free to dress how they please, they are also free to make political decisions separate from their identities.

“People will tell you that you have to vote Hillary because you’re a woman, or that you have to be for Obama because you’re Black – no, we can be for whoever we want to be for,” Matalin said.

Melissa Bean, a former CEO of Executives’ Club of Chicago, as well as a former member of the US House of Representatives in the state of Illinois, built on Matalin’s sentiments. “Democracy only works with an informed and engaged electorate,” she said. “You need to know that and stay involved, which is hard when there’s so much information.”

Bean, who lost her seat after three terms, explained the importance of not relying on the polls and always casting your vote regardless if you live in a Red or Blue state.

All of these women’s ideas are at the base of Erin Loos Cutraro’s organization, She Should Run, a non-partisan effort to find women who were not already thinking about running for office or are leaders in their communities, and giving them the necessary resources and support to enter into the politics. It was born from Cutraro’s frustration with how much money was flowing into political campaigns – but it was not going towards getting women elected, especially women of color who lacked the institutional support that many established white men had.

“The non-partisan space is a great gift,” Cutraro explained. “It’s a common ground between women, in a time when we need all the best women we can find in this country.”

She and Matalin found common ground over their Midwestern, “get stuff done” attitude, as they coined it. “Part of the reason women don’t run, is because they actually like to get stuff done,” Matalin explained. “More women would run if they didn’t have to run like men. Work the way you live, the way you talk to your daughters… stop putting women in boxes.”

Cutraro agreed, “There are more and more examples of women who are starting to do that. We need the women who are closest to the pain in this country to come from that place. It’s going to be imperfect, but that is what we need.”

“People want authenticity. Look how far we’ve come from FDR hiding the fact that he was in a wheelchair, to Joe Biden openly embracing his stutter in his campaign,” Bean added. “Women do that very well.”

In closing, Tchen asked why, now, in the countdown to the November election is it important to vote?

“Everything is going to change because of Covid-19,” Moseley Braun said. “If you care and you want things to get better, you need to have your two cents heard.”

“It’s a unique and almost spiritual experience to cast that vote an assume there’s a sanctity to the process,” Matalin said. “My whole family is driving to New Orleans so that we can vote as a family, it makes you feel good people.”

“If you believe this election is critical, as I do, you need to do more than vote,” Bean said. “You need to get your family and friends to vote. This is a time when we have to recognize that the challenges and opportunities we face as a species are global.”

“Our country cannot thrive unless we build for a future that is a representative democracy,” Cutraro said. “It’s a responsibility and a privilege.”

Tchen added that this year, because of Covid-19 restrictions, it is important to make a plan. Find out when and where you have to go if you are voting in-person, or when and where you need to send you ballot if you are planning to vote-by-mail.

You can register to vote here and watch the full virtual event recording below:

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Madison Muller is the Assistant Digital Editor at Better. A recent graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, she approaches our contemporary media environment with compassion and candor. She is interested in writing about the intersectionality of social justice issues in marginalized communities and environmentalism. Madison proudly supports Action Now, a community organization that empowers and uplifts residents on Chicago’s West Side.

She also encourages reading and supporting The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. 

You can keep up with her reporting on Twitter and Instagram

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