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June 2006: 100 Most Powerful Women
Washington is home to some of the world’s most formidable and talented women: senators, leading lights in business, medicine, the arts, the law. But their accomplishments haven’t translated to progress for women across the board. Here are the area’s 100 m By Leslie Milk
Comments () | Published June 1, 2006
Some of the area's best and brightest women, like public-interest advocate Nan Aron, university president Patricia McGuire, and media executive Judith McHale, are using their hard-earned influence to make life better for other women. Photograph by Matthew Worden

To get a sense of how women are doing in Washington, look at the White House.

President Bush has had two women, besides his wife, as trusted advisers: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, one of the world’s most powerful women, and Karen Hughes, the former White House counselor now at the State Department. Both have a long history in Bush’s inner circle.

At the same time, Bush lags behind his predecessor in the number of women appointed to key positions in his administration, according to an analysis by Newsday. Women have won 36 percent of the plum jobs in this administration; 44 percent of Clinton’s top appointees were female.

The White House is emblematic of the paradox Washington women face. Individual women—like Rice, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi—have achieved lots of success here. But a giant leap for one woman hasn’t translated into steady steps upward for womankind.

“Organizations and institutions promote a few smart high achievers, and then the gate closes,” says Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University and one of only two female university presidents in the Washington area. (Charlene Drew Jarvis is president of DC’s Southeastern University.)

Where are women doing well? As career civil servants and appointees in government. Across the board, the federal government has become such an exemplary employer of women that we could fill our entire list of 100 powerful women with those in high-level positions.

Women have flourished, too, in broadcasting, medicine, and the arts.

Three of the four major network bureau chiefs here are female, and women dominate cable and public broadcasting.

Where women used to be relegated to handmaiden status in medicine, they now head four of the institutes at the National Institutes of Health.

At one time, works by female artists were so scarce in Washington museums that local collector Wilhelmina Holladay founded a museum dedicated to women in the arts. Today, women head three of the Smithsonian museums.

But these successes make the absence of women at the top in other fields all the more striking. Where are the female newspaper editors, bank presidents, school superintendents, corporate CEOs, and elected officials?

Women fill two of DC’s top elected offices: Linda Cropp chairs the DC Council, and Eleanor Holmes Norton is DC’s congressional delegate. But suburban jurisdictions have few female county executives, mayors, chairs of county councils, city administrators, or heads of local school boards.

On the business front, only one of the area’s top 100 publicly traded companies is run by a woman. Dr. Martine Rothblatt heads the company she founded, United Therapeutics. Rothblatt is a transsexual who got her start as a male telecommunications lawyer.

“Women aren’t getting the assignments that allow them to cut their teeth as executives,” says Ericka Miller, director of Isaacson, Miller, an executive recruiter for universities and nonprofits. She says women need more mentors and better networks. Miller, who credits former DC school superintendent Floretta McKenzie with being her mentor, finds hope in the increasing number of women coming up in engineering and other male-dominated fields.

Corporate consultant Rebecca Shambaugh specializes in helping women reach the “C suite,” where CEOs, COOs, and CFOs dwell. Shambaugh says women often defeat themselves in the competitive corporate environment. She counsels not to expect recognition and promotion just for a job well done. “You have to develop strategic relationships with the right people,” she says. “Spend 20 percent of your time getting out, taking people to lunch, making contacts.”

Many women tend to focus on their individual assignment rather than the company as a whole, says Shambaugh. And pursuing perfection—even if it means doing everything yourself—leads many women to burn out before they get to the executive suite.

Some women have opted out because they can’t see combining motherhood with the 60-hour workweeks required by many top jobs. “There are all these former Supreme Court clerks who are now working on the auction at my daughter’s nursery school,” says one Washington mother.

Other highly educated young women, not wanting to bow to the demands of corporations and other large organizations, are choosing less traditional career paths. Georgetown law graduate Julia Lichtman Kepniss and Yale MBA Carin Rosenberg Levine decided to skip the law and corporate route and recently opened Hitched, a bridal boutique in Georgetown.

On the plus side, some of Washington’s best and brightest women are using their power positions to promote other women. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief of staff, legislative director, and communications director are women. Half of the senior officials serving under Secretary Rice are women. At Discovery Communications, 45 percent of the executives working with company president Judith McHale are female.

But they are the exceptions.

“Women haven’t lifted as they climbed,” says Patricia McGuire. Shambaugh also sees the need for stronger women’s networks. “Women need to advocate for one another,” she says. “We need to be looking at all levels for women we can pull up.”

What difference does it make if people in power are men or women? The actions of decision-makers are often based on their own life experience, women leaders say. Phyllis Greenberger, president of the Society for Women’s Health Research, recalls that women weren’t included in federally funded medical research and were kept out of clinical trials until women fought for leadership roles in health agencies and began serving on the peer-review committees that consider research proposals. As a result, almost all medical research was based on the false assumption that the only difference between the sexes was in their reproductive systems.

“We’re still playing catch-up,” Greenberger says. Recent studies have highlighted different symptoms and treatment outcomes for women with heart disease and the fact that women face greater risk from lung cancer than men do.

The good news: Nearly half of the 2005 medical graduates were women. Women are gaining more positions on medical-school faculties. And women’s-health advocates have found powerful friends in the growing women’s caucus in Congress.

What does it take for a woman to succeed and lead? Here are eight whose achievements inspire young women to aim for the top. They have done more than break glass ceilings—they’ve defied the stereotype that women have to give up marriage and family to achieve professional success. Seven of the eight are married.

NAN ARON

The court’s counterpuncher

Conservatives call it “Aron’s Army.” Nan Aron, 58, is the founder of the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of 75 public-interest and civil-rights groups that works on issues ranging from abortion to the environment. But the alliance is best known for its advocacy on judicial appointments. Its most public victories were helping to defeat the nomination of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court and the successful appointment of Roger Gregory, the first African-American judge on the Fourth Circuit.

Aside from its Judicial Selection Project, Aron’s group is working to increase foundation support for nonprofit groups, offering technical assistance to advocacy organizations, and promoting youth leadership. In 2004, the Alliance started Coaches Against Gun Violence in eight DC high schools to get adults who are respected by kids to talk about preventing teen shootings.

Aron started the Alliance in 1979 with a small grant and support from 20 public-interest groups. She had been a trial attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a litigator representing prisoners for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Many conservatives were challenging the gains we’d made,” Aron says. “We needed a community of organizations to take on the right wing and big corporations.”

Organizing the opposition was second nature to the descendant of a long line of social activists in New York. “My grandmother went around the country raising money and lecturing about Israel, and many of my aunts were part of the civil-rights movement,” she says. “There was a lot of discussion around the dinner table about social causes.”

Aron met her husband, Bernard Arons, at Oberlin College: They were classmates, and seating was alphabetical. Arons is a psychiatrist who practices in New York and comes back to DC on weekends. They have three grown children—a son who’s a lawyer, a daughter getting a doctorate in psychology, and another daughter who works with people with HIV/AIDS in DC.

Case Western Reserve law school equipped Aron with the skills she needed to follow in the family footsteps. “It’s a catalytic profession. You can help improve policies that improve people’s lives,” she says. But while litigation is head-to-head combat, social advocacy requires the cultivation of allies. “You have to be a networker, work the phones, write letters, build an army.”

That coalition is even more important now, Aron believes. corporations feel more empowered in GOP-dominated Washington and law firms seem less eager to take on pro bono cases, she says: “The legal establishment has moved to the right.”

But not Nan Aron. Sean Rushton, who heads the conservative Committee for Justice, says, “Nan is viewed as an effective advocate for her side, someone willing to stage a debate anywhere, any time, as a vigorous proponent for her side’s point of view.”

When the Wall Street Journal called her the Madame DeFarge of liberal court watchers, Aron had only one complaint about the reference—she’s much too busy to take up knitting.

PATRICIA MCGUIRE

Helping a university make the grade

When Pat McGuire graduated from Northeast DC’s Trinity College in 1974, she never dreamed she’d come back 15 years later as the college’s president. If she were going to be an academic, she figured she’d teach at a law school.

McGuire, 53, had gone to Georgetown Law Center and become deeply involved in its DC Street Law Project. Law students were teaching DC high-school kids about the law and the legal system. The idea was that the more kids knew about the legal system, the less they’d want to run afoul of it.

After McGuire graduated, she stayed at Georgetown to run the street-law program. When federal funding for the program was cut, GU’s law dean told McGuire she’d have to raise the money to keep her program going. “I don’t do development,” McGuire said. But before long she proved so effective as a fundraiser that she was asked to become director of development for the entire law school.

The development job gave her the skills she needed when Trinity came calling, asking her, at age 36, to be its president. “I learned how to ask for money, how to cultivate prospects without appearing to have an agenda, and the social skills needed in business,” McGuire says.

In 1989, Trinity needed all of McGuire’s skills and more. The first Catholic liberal-arts college for women had been through six presidents in eight years, was no longer attracting the daughters of the upper-middle class that had been its mainstay, and had a campus and a reputation in need of repair.

“We didn’t know how to tell our story,” McGuire says. “I had to convince people inside Trinity as well as outsiders.”

First McGuire promised annual raises to the staff. Then she authorized $20,000 to paint the dome of the main building. “We needed a sense of pride,” she says.

Then McGuire did more than tell the Trinity story. She rewrote it. Today, Trinity serves mostly minority women who would otherwise not have access to higher education. The innovative weekend college and programs linked to the educational and business communities offer opportunities to students with limited time and money.

“As a university president, you have to be an entrepreneur,” McGuire says. The new $20-million Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports provides NCAA athletic opportunities for students and partnerships with groups like the Girl Scouts and Washington Hospital Center’s cardiac-rehab program. It also generates income from the community through its fitness center.

That humility comes with a down-to-earth manner. While other college presidents get mansions, drivers, and entertainment allowances, McGuire, who is single, lives modestly, drives herself, and doesn’t even have a president sign in the parking lot. For Christmas last year, the faculty gave her something she really wanted—a new orange traffic cone to reserve a space for her in front of the main building.

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