Most Powerful Women

117 of the area's most influential women in government, business, health, media, law, education, nonprofits, and the arts—including 53 newcomers to our list.

In 1982, when we published our first list of the most powerful women, only one woman—Sandra Day O’Connor—was on the Supreme Court

Thirty-one years ago, when Washingtonian published its first list of the area’s most powerful women, there were two females in the Senate, 19 in the House of Representatives, and one on the Supreme Court. The congresswomen’s caucus was so small that it admitted 66 men who supported women’s issues. The idea of a woman in the Oval Office was a pipe dream.

In 2013, 20 women are in the Senate, 81 are in the House, and three are on the Supreme Court. Just this year, the Secret Service welcomed its first female head and the Pentagon removed its ban on women in ground combat. Perhaps most telling: Pollsters looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election measure hopefuls against Hillary Clinton.

American women aren’t alone in the changing landscape. When we published our initial list, there was only one female ambassador to the United States—Cecilia Mildred Nana Tau of Lesotho. Now there are 29, including two on our list, from India and Jordan.

In 1982, women were barred from membership in bastions of power including the Metropolitan Club and the Alfalfa Club. Today most of those barriers have been toppled, though a notable holdout, Bethesda’s Burning Tree golf club, has given up a major “open spaces” tax advantage rather than admit women as members or guests. Reportedly, even taxis driven by women are barred from Burning Tree’s grounds.

Still, even the bad news is comparatively good. Three decades ago, women earned, on average, 62 cents for every dollar made by men. Though equal pay is still a long way off, the figure in Washington is now 90 cents. No woman has yet made her way into the Oval Office or the seat of the chief justice, but women have headed 12 of the country’s 15 current Cabinet departments, and four of the seven other Cabinet-level positions—head of the Environmental Protection Agency and ambassador to the United Nations, for example—are currently filled by women.

Women have made great strides in the business world—among those on our list are the heads of three of the largest defense contractors in the US. Perhaps most important, powerful women are increasingly in the business of helping other women succeed. In a survey we sent to those on this year’s roster, every respondent claimed to have mentored another woman during her career. This collaboration in the lower ranks of government, law, business, and other fields may help explain the 53 new leaders, out of 117 powerful women, on the list.

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Local Public Powers

Muriel Bowser, DC Council member. Insiders predict that Ward 4’s Bowser, who already has a campaign war chest, could be the District’s next mayor.

Sharon Bulova, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Bulova successfully pushed for Metro’s Silver Line to Dulles and has kept the county on an even keel despite economic challenges.

Donna Edwards, US congresswoman. The Maryland Democrat has been a strong advocate for funding NASA to keep Goddard going and to protect federal workers.

Andrea Harrison, chair of the Prince George’s County Council. Now in her second term as chair, Harrison knows the county inside out—she holds the seat her father, James Fletcher Jr., once held.

Janet Howell, Democratic Virginia state senator. Howell is the first woman on the prestigious Senate Finance Committee and the first female and second non-attorney to serve on the Courts of Justice Committee.

Cathy Lanier, chief of police, Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia. Not only are crime rates down, but Lanier has managed to steer clear of messy DC politics to be one of the most popular officials in town.

Nancy Navarro, Montgomery County Council president. The former community activist and a member of the board of education represents the growing influence of the Hispanic community in the Maryland suburbs.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC delegate to Congress. By sheer force of personality, experience, long-term alliances, and brainpower, Norton has kept the District in the game on Capitol Hill.

National Powers

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director, Office of Management and Budget. Confirmed in April, Burwell took over OMB just in time to oversee sequestration.

Flora Darpino, judge advocate general, US Army. Confirmed in August, Lieutenant General Darpino is the first woman to head the Army’s legal team, at a time of increasing concern over sexual abuse and intelligence leaks.

Avril Haines, deputy director, CIA; Letitia Long, director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; Arati Prabhakar, director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; and Betty Sapp, director, National Reconnaissance Office. The intelligence community’s upper echelon has become female-heavy in the past three years with the appointment of these women to top jobs in their agencies.

Margaret Hamburg, commissioner, Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Hamburg balances budget cuts with the mission of keeping food and drug supplies safe.

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the President. An Obama-family insider since Chicago, Jarrett runs the White House offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and its Council on Women and Girls.

Alyssa Mastromonaco, White House deputy chief of staff. The person in charge of the President’s schedule, staffing, and appointments, Mastromonaco is sometimes called the White House gatekeeper.

Gina McCarthy, administrator, Environmental Protection Agency. Confirmed in July, McCarthy is reshaping the conversation about climate change, which she calls not just an environmental issue but a fundamental economic challenge.

Lisa Monaco, homeland-security and counterterrorism adviser to the President. Monaco became Obama’s lead counterterrorism adviser in March, just before the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

Michelle Obama, First Lady. With an approval rating that’s been above 60 percent for four years, Mrs. Obama—whose work encourages healthy eating, exercise, and public service, among other things—is the most popular Obama in the White House besides Bo.

Julia Pierson, director, Secret Service. Appointed in March, Pierson is the first woman to head the Secret Service, after spending five years as chief of staff.

Susan Rice, national-security adviser. After withdrawing her candidacy for Secretary of State, Rice took over as national-security adviser in June, amid fighting in Syria and elsewhere and just after the beginning of the Edward Snowden leak saga.

Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services Secretary. The former governor of Kansas, appointed to HHS in 2009, is in charge of implementing the Affordable Care Act—and explaining its provisions to the American public.

Mary Jo White, chair, Securities and Exchange Commission. Sworn in this past April, White recently announced she’ll be renewing the SEC’s focus on fraud in accounting, financial statements, and reporting.

Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Board of Governors, Federal Reserve System. In October, Yellen was nominated by President Obama to replace Ben Bernanke as the head of the Fed when his term ends in January.

On The Hill

Kelly Ayotte, US senator. The Republican junior senator from New Hampshire serves on the Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Budget committees, among others, and is heavily involved in the gun-control debate.

Elise J. Bean, staff director and chief counsel, Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Bean’s subcommittee, chaired by Carl Levin, investigates matters such as the 2008 financial crisis and offshore tax loopholes—including the one utilized by Apple to avoid paying an estimated $70 billion in taxes over the past few years.

Amber Cottle, Democratic staff director, Senate Committee on Finance. Named last December, Cottle manages the committee that oversees health care, energy, Social Security, and taxes.

Barbara Mikulski, US senator. The first woman and first Marylander to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Democrat also chairs the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, which is responsible for the FBI. Could her pull get the bureau’s headquarters moved to Prince George’s County?

Patty Murray, US senator. As chair of the Senate’s Budget Committee, the Democrat from Washington state is a key player in debates over raising the debt ceiling.

Nancy Pelosi, minority leader, House of Representatives. The former speaker, who grew up in Baltimore but now represents a California district, is back in the spotlight—pushing for immigration reform and a Hillary Clinton bid for the White House, grilling Republicans for refusing to compromise with the President, and catching flak from the Vatican for supporting unrestricted abortion rights.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, US congresswoman. As chair of the House Republican Conference, the Washington-state representative manages committee assignments, floor debates, and media strategy for GOP members.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, US congresswoman. The Florida representative and chair of the Democratic National Committee leads her party’s election efforts and provides public support on topics such as health-care reform, intervention in Syria, and gun control.

Elizabeth Warren, US senator. Last fall, the former Harvard Law professor won the Massachusetts Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy, and she has quietly increased her popularity since arriving in Washington. Warren’s September speech at an AFL-CIO convention—which touched on budget, immigration, and the minimum wage—renewed rumors that she’d make a viable presidential candidate in 2016.

International Powers

Sheikha Rima Al-Sabah, wife of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US. A fixture on the Washington philanthropy scene, Al-Sabah, with her husband, donated $1.5 million to Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies this year.

Jane Harman, president and CEO, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. After nine terms in Congress, Harman became, in 2011, the first woman to head the Wilson Center—which gathers leaders, policymakers, and others from all over the world for research and discussion.

Alia Hatoug Bouran, ambassador from Jordan, and Nirupama Rao, ambassador from India. Of the 30 female emissaries to the United States, these two embody some of the most important diplomatic relationships.

Christine Lagarde, managing director, International Monetary Fund. With much of the world economy struggling, Lagarde has had a busy year. Just in the past few weeks, the IMF has pushed for joint budgets within the Eurozone, assembled aid packages for struggling economies such as South Sudan, and supported government reform in many countries that could reduce the need for further austerity measures.

Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mathews has run the country’s oldest foreign-policy think tank since 1997. This year, much of its research focuses on political unrest in Syria, Egypt, and Iran.

Business, Labor, and Lobbying


Charlene Dukes, president, Prince George’s Community College. Overseeing 40,000 students and more than 200 academic and continuing-education programs, Dukes heads one of the 50 fastest-growing two-year public colleges in the country.

Karen Garza, superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools. The new superintendent is the first woman to head the school district. She hit the ground running, with plans to let high-schoolers sleep later, offer more support to needy students, and expand programs for gifted kids.

Kaya Henderson, chancellor, DC Public Schools. Henderson has moved from the shadow of her more flamboyant predecessor, Michelle Rhee, raising standardized-test scores and closing some schools to concentrate resources more effectively.

Patricia McGuire, president, Trinity Washington University. McGuire not only has rebuilt a small Catholic college into an innovative mecca for students of all ages and backgrounds; she now offers programs for DC’s underserved communities.

DeRionne Pollard, president, Montgomery College. Pollard continues to expand Maryland’s largest community college with a new bioscience education center in Germantown, more science and engineering labs in Rockville, and plans for a science-and-technology park in Germantown.


Lisa S. Blatt, partner, Arnold & Porter. Blatt, who heads the firm’s appellate and Supreme Court practices, has won 32 of her 33 arguments in front of the high court.

Janice Rogers Brown, Karen Lecraft Henderson, and Judith W. Rogers, judges, US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit. The only women among 14 jurists on the country’s most powerful appellate court have, among other rulings this year, regulated what TSA employees can make public on the internet and declared a set of recess appointments made by the President to be unconstitutional (a case that hits the Supreme Court this fall).

Alice S. Fisher, managing partner, Latham & Watkins. Fisher returned to Latham in 2008 and now runs the DC office, after three years heading the Justice Department’s criminal division.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, associate justices, US Supreme Court. In June, the female “Supremes” represented three of the five votes declaring parts of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional as well as three of the four dissenting opinions in a ruling that declared the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Coming up: arguments on campaign donations, religious liberty, and affirmative action.

Patricia Ann Millett, partner, Akin Gump. This spring, the President nominated Millett, co-head of Akin Gump’s national appellate practice, for a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

Virginia A. Seitz, assistant attorney general, Office of Legal Counsel. The first woman to head this Justice Department’s office, Seitz is senior legal adviser to the administration.

Advocacy and Nonprofits

Rosie Allen-Herring, president and CEO, United Way of the National Capital Area. In June, Allen-Herring took over an almost entirely female senior staff at the DC branch of the country’s largest charity. She now oversees millions in grants, most of which go to midsize-to-large charities.

Rose Ann Cleveland, executive director, Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. As head of the biggest private foundation focused on Washington, Cleveland doled out more than $18 million in grants last year to arts, education, health, and community organizations.

Terri Lee Freeman, president, Community Foundation for the National Capital Region. When local tragedies warrant relief funds—such as the September 11 attack on the Pentagon and this year’s shootings at the Navy Yard—the funds are administered by Freeman’s Community Foundation, which also manages many smaller, private foundations.

Nicky Goren, president and CEO, Washington Area Women’s Foundation. As head of the 15-year-old foundation, Goren oversees grant-giving and programming efforts that empower women and girls in the area.

Barbara Harman, president, Catalogue for Philanthropy, Greater Washington. Harman’s organization—initially created as a project within the Harman Family Foundation, which she runs—shapes public dialogue about which small Washington charities are best.

Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO and president, Voto Latino. Since founding this group in 2004, Kumar and her team of celebrities and employees have registered more than 225,000 Latinos to vote—beginning a mobilization effort that could drastically change voter demographics in coming decades.

Mee Moua, president and executive director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice. As head of a nonprofit dedicated to immigration, census, and voting rights for Asian Americans, Moua testified in Senate hearings on immigration reform this past spring.

Janet MurguÍa, president and CEO, National Council of La Raza. The leader of the nation’s largest advocacy organization for Hispanic civil rights, Murguía is involved in debates over labor, food stamps, immigration, and health-care reform.

Catherine Reynolds, chairman and CEO, Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation. An entrepreneur and CPA, Reynolds has donated substantial portions of her self-made fortune to local nonprofits. With gifts regularly larger than $1 million, she has also helped set an example of giving by the wealthy.

Julie Rogers, president, Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation. Next June will bring an end to Rogers’s 28-year tenure directing grant administration and management assistance on behalf of the Meyer Foundation, which funds mostly community and educational organizations.

Stephanie Schriock, president, Emily’s List. Schriock can swing a Democratic primary with a simple endorsement, but her organization also runs programs aimed at recruiting candidates and encouraging girls to pursue policy careers.

Neera Tanden, president, Center for American Progress. Promoted from chief operating officer to president in 2011, Tanden oversees the progressive advocacy group’s involvement in everything from women’s rights to energy and religious freedom.

Health and Medicine

M. Joy Drass, executive vice president of operations for MedStar Health for the Washington region. As MedStar’s dominance in the area grows, Drass oversees Washington Hospital Center, Georgetown University Hospital, National Rehabilitation Hospital, Montgomery Medical Center, and other facilities.

Alissa Fox, senior vice president of the Office of Policy and Representation, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. The top lobbyist for BCBSA, Fox spent years at the Department of Health and Human Services in charge of Medicare and Medicaid budgets.

Patricia Grady, Story Landis, and Nora Volkow, directors, National Institutes of Health. Grady (who heads the National Institute of Nursing Research), Landis (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke), and Volkow (National Institute on Drug Abuse) oversee major research on key medical issues including brain science, stem-cell policy, and how drug addiction “hijacks” the brain.

Kim Horn, president, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States. Since taking over last year, Horn has built the HMO’s membership and expanded its facilities.

Karen Ignagni, president and CEO, America’s Health Insurance Plans. Ignagni represents members that provide health, dental, and long-term care as well as disability benefits to more than 200 million Americans. Whenever health-care issues are on the table, she has a prominent seat.

Gail McGovern, president and CEO, American Red Cross. Since McGovern took over five years ago, she has restored confidence in the organization through her response to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, record-breaking tornadoes, and Hurricane Sandy.


Jackie Bradford, president and general manager, NBC4. The area’s highest-rated TV station, Channel 4 dominates the local news scene and has upped its emphasis on investigative reporting.

Susan Goldberg, executive editor of federal, state, and local news, Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Government. Goldberg succeeded Al Hunt to run the media company’s rapidly growing Washington bureau.

Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS. Kerger, who heads programming, lobbying, and the PBS Foundation, has created digital partnerships with such companies as iTunes, YouTube, Xbox, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Comcast’s On Demand.

Debra L. Lee, chairman and CEO of BET Networks. Lee has greatly increased programming aimed at a varied African-American audience.

Betsy Fischer Martin, managing editor, NBC News Political Programming. Martin is leading the news division’s political and information programming.

Gracia Martore, president and CEO, Gannett Corporation. Since taking the top job at Gannett in 2011, Martore has pushed multiplatform efforts, emphasizing broadcast and digital over print. The former banker’s focus on the bottom line has kept Gannett healthier than many media companies.

Diane Rehm, radio talk-show host, NPR. The Diane Rehm Show attracts A-list authors and opinion leaders, who flock to her studio because of her reputation for fairness and civility.

Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA. Thanks to the revamped PBS NewsHour and other Washington-based programming, WETA’s TV and radio stations remain key public-broadcasting hubs.

Robin Sproul, bureau chief, ABC News. The area’s longest-serving network bureau chief, Sproul has been actively involved in talks to protect journalists’ right to investigate stories involving sensitive government issues.

Susan Swain, co-chief executive officer, C-SPAN. Swain shares responsibility for day-to-day operations of the public-affairs cable network and is a regular moderator for its morning call-in/interview program.

Katharine Weymouth, publisher, the Washington Post. Weymouth helped facilitate the sale of the newspaper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and has promised to stay on as publisher.

Arts and Letters

Marin Alsop, musical director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Alsop is the maestra with the mostest at the Music Center at Strathmore, where the BSO plays a third of its concerts.

Jenny Bilfield, president and CEO, Washington Performing Arts Society. Bilfield is the area’s major performing-arts producer, bringing artists of all genres to audiences in many venues. The first woman to head the WPAS, she came from Stanford in January with expectations to bring more contemporary artists to local stages.

Elizabeth Broun, Johnnetta B. Cole, and Kim Sajet, directors, Smithsonian museums. Broun (American Art Museum), Cole (National Museum of African Art), and Sajet (National Portrait Gallery) run three of Washington’s major museums, including laboratories in each where visitors can observe the conservation of invaluable works of art.

Monica Jeffries Hazangeles,president, Strathmore. Hazangeles took over the arts center from Eliot Pfanstiehl (now CEO) in 2010, after serving as executive vice president and heading a $110-million campaign to raise funds for organizational development and a long-term endowment. Strathmore is bursting with artistic energy both in its education programs and on its stages.

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, founder and chairman, National Museum of Women in the Arts. The cultural visionary used her personal collection to create an institution that spotlights women’s long-ignored artistic endeavors.

Victoria Sant, president of the board, National Gallery of Art. A major philanthropic force in Washington, Sant has supported not only the National Gallery but also the Summit Foundation, the Smithsonian, and Vital Voices.

Sky Sitney, director, AFI Docs. The documentary-film festival has grown to include 53 works shown in venues in Silver Spring and downtown DC, attracting thousands and offering opportunities for filmmakers to meet with policymakers.

Molly Smith, artistic director, Arena Stage. The queen of DC’s theater scene helped shepherd One Night With Janis Joplin—which had successful runs at Arena both last fall and this summer—to Broadway, where the Randy Johnson-directed production opened in October.

Francesca Zambello, artistic director, Washington National Opera. Zambello took over from Plácido Domingo in 2012, cementing the WNO’s merger with the Kennedy Center. She’s also responsible for directing the Young Artist Program and commissioning new works. In her spare time, she directs one opera each season at the WNO and heads the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.


Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. The first female bishop in the 89-member diocese, which includes the most famous church in the area—Washington National Cathedral—Budde focuses on improving infrastructure and expanding membership.

Six Women to Watch

Virginia Arrisueño. The designer behind DeNada accessories is a grassroots organizer at heart. She launched DC MEETMarket in 2012 to gather local craftspeople in Logan Circle to sell their wares. The same year, she and her husband opened Ulysses Room, a Truxton Circle loft that they rent to emerging artists to use as a creative or pop-up-exhibit space. This year, Arrisueño and a friend founded Topaz and Arrow, which holds crafting seminars in Ulysses Room.

Jennifer Hing. The Republican operative runs communications for the House Committee on Appropriations—the committee responsible for allocating money to Defense, Homeland Security, Transportation, and other departments. She develops the committee’s conservative messaging, so when you read about Republican efforts to curb spending or the potential negative consequences of Democratic proposals, chances are she wrote them.

Svetlana Legetic. The former architect positioned herself at the intersection of social media and real-life socializing when she cofounded Brightest Young Things in 2006. The website and event-production company gathers Washingtonians—and, thanks to a recent expansion, New Yorkers—around art and cultural activities, many of which are inexpensive or free.

Marjorie Meek-Bradley. The chef left Graffiato in March to take on an executive role at Ripple in DC’s Cleveland Park, where she has already introduced new bar and brunch menus and expanded dinner options. With a background that includes stints working for José Andrés at Zaytinya and Thomas Keller at Bouchon and Per Se, it’s hard to expect anything but a continuing rise.

Laura Neuman. The Anne Arundel County Executive took over in February for John Leopold, who resigned following a scandal over his misuse of county staff. Neuman made sweeping personnel changes in her first few months and brought the government’s office—which had DOS computer systems and no internet when she arrived—into the 21st century.

Karla Smith. The UVA law-school grad, who grew up in Maryland, comes from a family of racial groundbreakers. Her father, John W. Smith, was chief of staff for Congressman Gus Hawkins, who was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Karla Smith has worked as a congressional staffer and an assistant state’s attorney in both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and last year she became the first African-American woman to be appointed a judge in Montgomery County District Court.

This article appears in the November 2013 issue of Washingtonian.