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A Tribute to the Council of Penn Women

by Judith Rodin

What a treat for me to be addressing you today, although following Hillary Clinton and Rebecca Rimel is not for the faint of heart.

But I am here as a member of the family. And like every family, Penn has its stories-success stories of discovery and innovation, inspiring stories of ideas put to use for the good of society, personal stories of the difference that a Penn education has made in so many lives, stories of a changing world and a changing campus.

These stories need to be told from one generation to the other because they tell us who we are, what we do, and where we are going.

These three days we are celebrating a story still in the making. A story which began in 1987 when Penn women planted a seed. Some Trustees said, "Nothing is going to happen." Some people in College Hall said, "Nothing is going to happen." Even some of their peers and classmates said, "Nothing is going to happen."

But the women didn't listen. They pulled up the weeds and watered the ground, and kept on working very hard.

At first nothing seemed to happen; and some people said, "See? We knew nothing would happen." Then one day, a big glorious flower came up just as the women had known it would.

This is a story about the founding members of the Trustees Council of Penn Women. Despite the odds, despite the cautionary wisdom of others, Council Chairs-Carol Einiger, Judith Roth Berkowitz, Pamela Petre Reis, Elsie Sterling Howard, and Terri N. Gelberg-and Council members knew that flower would bloom.

And what a rich harvest Penn has gleaned from the determination and dedication of these visionaries. You've heard in the last two days about some of their accomplishments but let me reiterate briefly. In ten short years, they have raised more than $13 million for Penn programs and initiatives-a marvelous example of women helping women in their own right and in their own name.

Through their job-shadowing program, they have given students the opportunity to learn first-hand what successful career women do-and how they do it. The enormous respect they have earned through their leadership has led to a significant increase in the number of women on all University boards. I am especially pleased that several Council members now sit on the University's Board of Trustees, and on the Executive Committees of the University Trustees and Health System Trustees.

They have helped attract and hold outstanding women professors by establishing a Term Chair in Women's Studies and the Davies Term Chair.

Dr. Phoebe Leboy, professor of biochemistry, whom we honored this afternoon, currently holds the Davies Chair.

They have invited internationally-known women to speak on our campus.They have purchased equipment and provided support for women's teams. And they have made it possible for many students to continue their Penn education by awarding emergency grants. I recently received a letter from parents of a student who had been given one of these grants. They said the Council had changed their daughter's life. I hope you recognize the significance of that one story: The members of the Council are changing lives. That's why I say this is a story still being written-and there are many more volumes yet to come.

The First Volume

The volume we are celebrating today can be titled "The Decade of the Woman at Penn."

I have told you how the story began, how despite the pressures, our leaders believed. Well, that flower had barely bloomed when word got out that something very important was happening on the Penn campus. Women alumni everywhere were demanding to have a voice, insisting on being heard.

I think it was in 1989 when The New York Times confirmed the news by running a story about the Council. Women from other schools across the country read the article and soon, phones at Penn were ringing off the hook. The message was always the same: "The Trustees Council of Penn Women is a great idea. We desperately need something like this at our school. Please tell us how you did it." Penn did tell them their story, and ever since, similar councils have been springing up in colleges and universities across the nation.

The founding mothers of the Council and those who have served over the past ten years knew that it would. And there are many chapters still to be written, both for women here at Penn and across the nation.

What Chapter Are We on in 1997?

From politics to the medical establishment, from corporate boardrooms to professional sports, the women of the 1990s are challenging and overturning the status quo. Here are a few important statistics:

  • 53% of the nation's postsecondary students are now women.
  • A record number of women are successfully seeking political office. The Arizona state legislature, for example, is 35% female.
  • Businesses owned by women employ as many people as all the Fortune 500 companies put together.
  • Women make up one-third of all NCAA athletes.

But there is still much more progress to be made. Take, for example, the "hard sciences." A recent national survey has shown that almost 70% of students who major in physics, chemistry, and computer science are male. For engineering, the figure is 85%. Men also receive 75% of all doctoral degrees in business and 91% of those in engineering.

The shift to an information society and global economy is changing the workplace as never before. Women cannot and must not be left behind. We must continue to encourage our students to venture into fields that will be shaping the ideas, technologies, and directions of the coming century.

However, we must also double our efforts to assure that "traditional" women's work such as teaching and nursing is truly valued and respected.

As Dr. Ellen Baer, of our School of Nursing, has said: "Feminism will have succeeded not only when women have access to all fields, but when traditionally female professions like nursing gain the high value and solid social respect they deserve."

Another disturbing statistic was recently featured in the N.Y. Times:

  • Only 10% to 13% of Ivy League professors are women.
  • Nationally, 68% of male professors are tenured professors, compared with 45% of female professors.

Here at Penn, 17% of our faculty are women. We have a woman president, three of the deans of our 12 schools are women, and we have three women vice presidents. That's better than all the other Ivies, but still not as good as we would like.

As an academic on the move in the 1970s, I remember thinking my generation had it made. We would change the world, have careers, build strong marriages, raise wonderful children, and be a force in our community. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Well it wasn't.

And some 20 years later, educated women are still contending with ambivalent public attitudes and policies about our "place," about our choices, and about our futures.

It doesn't matter whether we live in the White House or Hill House.

I think Hillary Clinton spoke for all of us when she told us: "We need to empower women and men because we need to provide everyone with choices and opportunities. In too many countries, including our own, too many rights are denied and too many doors of opportunity still remain tightly closed."

Opening doors isn't easy. It never has been. Society keeps telling us to do things the way things have always been done-to stay in step and stay in place, and preferably do it quietly.

But some women don't and won't listen. They are the ones who aim high and want it all-women like those in the 19th century who broke the men-only rule as doctors, lawyers, professors, and scientists; women like those in the 20th century who run corporations, sit on the bench of the Supreme Court, govern states, and explore the universe as astronauts; women like those you will find represented on the Trustees Council-women who are willing to work towards a goal, towards a vision, even if others don't share it or believe in it.

It is women like these who have made things happen. Their names are in the history books, in the news, on people's lips. Yet, I hope that we, the women of the '90s, will never forget the unsung, unnoticed women who, long before the words "Woman's Lib" were ever heard, labored in their own way to give women a voice-the mothers who encouraged daughters to excel; the teachers who persuaded young girls to try their wings; the community activists who championed women's issues long before they were fashionable; the women in the workplace who had to work doubly hard to prove they could do "a man's job." As Ginger Rogers once said, "I had to do everything Fred Astaire did. Only I had to do it backwards and in high heels."

The Ongoing Story

All of these too must be remembered, for they have helped shape the story we all share as women.

Now, I wish to speak directly to the future leaders who are here today: our wonderful women students. You are extremely fortunate to have as mentors and role models the women of this Council. The membership list reads like a Who's Who of American Women: CEOs, national media figures, investment bankers, entrepreneurs, judges, lawyers, professors, healthcare leaders, community leaders-and the list goes on.

These are influential women, all leaders in their chosen fields-visionary women who give of their time and resources to empower other women, prominent women who believe that Penn women should have greater influence in-and on-the University and who work to that end. Utilitarians, of course, will tell us that we owe nothing at all beyond the price we pay. These Penn women see it differently. For them, the Council is a way of showing their gratitude for what Penn has given them-a way to serve, and a way to continue the story of Penn.

And all of you, from the Class of 1998 to the Class of 2001, are part of this ongoing story. How the story turns out is going to depend on you. The Council stands ready to help you open doors, but you are going to have to do your part, every one of you.

Let me explain what I mean.

Leadership is not for the faint of heart. You are going to need many of the skills necessary for a successful entrepreneur-commitment, vision, and energy; a talent for communicating; the willingness to take risks, to be accountable and to take responsibility. And most of all, the faith to believe in one's self and one's dreams despite what others may say.

How do you do it?

The same way that most of the women on the Council, including myself, did when we were students. We got involved. We served on committees. We organized student activities. We ran for office. We edited newspapers.

And at times, we made waves. As Abba Eban, former foreign minister of Israel, once said: "You can't achieve anything without getting in someone's way. You can't be detached and effective."

Get in someone's way. Don't whisper your story. Shout it. And be willing to stand your ground. In my senior year when I was president of the women's student government here at Penn, I helped merge the women's and men's students governments into one organization. Short term, there were many who were resistant to this change. Long term, there's no question that this is what was needed to strengthen Penn's student body. We didn't do it to win popularity votes; we did it because we were willing to take a stand.

No one learns to be a leader by sitting on the sidelines. And no one gets asked to sit at the table until she or he has learned how to lead. It isn't a character trait-it's a learned skill.

So, I urge each of you to take advantage of the opportunities for leadership that we offer here at Penn. Take the leadership reins connected to your own life. Get involved. Meet the competition. Learn to lead.

As you do so you will increase your self-confidence. None of us started as confident as we may look today.

You will learn how to identify problems, determine what needs to be done, and take responsibility for your decisions. And once you have seen the difference you can make, stay involved. You are the next generation of Council members, and tomorrow's students will be counting on you.

And that's our story. Just as Carol, Judy, Pam, Elsie, and Terri knew the seed would grow, I know the Council is going to continue to flourish. I know I will continue to hear about the work of Penn's women-here on campus, across the nation, and around the world. I am one of the Penn women and I am deeply grateful for your encouragement and support as we move this extraordinary University forward into the next century.

And years from now, when Penn is celebrating the Council's 50th anniversary-when they are telling the stories that were possible because of Penn's women and of the lives that were changed-you students who are here today, please tell them that we here today knew it would happen.

Generations of Academic Excellence

During the recent tenth anniversary celebration of the Trustees Council of Penn Women, one meeting of the 140-member Council celebrated the achievements of women faculty at Penn by honoring four whose achievements have brought change in the academy and the University.

From left to right, the honorees are Dr. Phoebe Leboy, professor of biochemistry/Dental School; Dr. Helen Davies, professor of microbiology, Medicine; Dr. Farrah Griffin, assistant professor of English; and Dr. Janice Madden, Vice Povost for Graduate Education and professor of regional sciences/sociology.




Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, November 4, 1997, Volume 44, No. 11