For decades, feminist Gloria Steinem spoke to students at universities across the country, championing women’s rights and promoting female leadership. Her effect on one college woman in the 1970s rippled all the way to the New Library auditorium last Wednesday.
At the time, this young woman had no idea what her future held. Becoming a successful lawyer, mother of two and New Jersey secretary of state was not on her radar.
But these are the achievements Nina Mitchell Wells, secretary of state to Gov. Jon S. Corzine, now claims, thanks to her feminist role model.
“Listening to Gloria Steinem, she just stirred something in me that I’ve never, ever forgotten,” Wells said, standing before a full house – nearly 100 students and professors, mostly female but with a scattering of men.
Proving the lifelong impact Steinem had on her, Wells was making her third and final stop on a statewide tour meant to inspire young women concerned about “having it all.” She and her office worked with Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL) to bring a panel of six New Jersey female executives to the College.
The goal was to show women that deciding between a career and family doesn’t have to be an either-or choice, Wells said. She stood behind the podium in a lime green outfit, splashing the room with a brightness that characterizes her outlook on the potential for boosting female leadership.
“Today really is about opportunities and options and choices, of which there are many,” she said.
Wells had a powerhouse of a panel alongside her: College President R. Barbara Gitenstein; State Sen. Ellen Karcher; executive producer of an NJN show called “Another View,” Linda Coles; executive director of the Monmouth County Arts Council, Mary Eileen Fouratt; and vice president and counsel at Merrill Lynch, Michele Meyer-Shipp.
Although these women are at the top of their fields, they are exceptions to the norm. Contrary to the rising number of female undergraduates – who make up more than 56 percent of the student body nationwide – the growth in the percentage of adult women working outside the home is slipping, according to The New York Times.
Since 2000, women’s labor participation has declined somewhat, leaving it below the 90 percent rate for men in the same age range, The New York Times reported.
Moderator of the panel, Ellen Friedman, director of women’s and gender studies, asked the professionals to describe the status of women in their fields.
Suggesting slight progress, Wells mentioned Corzine has appointed more women than any other governor. He has seven women in his 18-member cabinet.
Karcher said there are also seven female senators in the state, yet they take up less than 20 percent of the 40 available seats. New Jersey ranks 31st among the 50 states in terms of female representation in state legislature, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University found.
Citing the American College President Study, Gitenstein said only 21 percent of college presidents and 23 percent of full-time professors are women.
In television, Coles said, “there are not a lot of women in decision-making capacities.”
For the numbers to increase, the panelists spoke of a greater need for what has made all the difference in their lives: supportive husbands, flexible work hours and mentoring.
“I have the most extraordinary partner, my husband of 35 years,” Gitenstein said. “He does 50 percent of the housework, at least, and all the cooking.”
Four of the six panelists described their give-and-take relationships, which made a forum about empowering women relevant to the men in the audience.
“I just don’t want to forget the young men that are here, that they’re an important part of this as well,” Fouratt said. “We haven’t moved far enough in that direction (of sharing childcare and household responsibilities).”
For Meyer-Shipp, the opportunity to work on the go from her Blackberry has helped her manage her law career with raising three sons. She also learned to let go of perfectionism – to accept the floor won’t always be spotless and the laundry won’t always be folded.
Attesting to the purpose behind the panel, Wells added, “Mentors can be absolutely critical.”
Ashley Reichelmann, senior English and women’s and gender studies major and WILL vice president, embraced the message.
“We cannot change this world on our own, but with the help of those in support of us and standing beside us, we can make great strides for women,” she said after the event.
Reichelmann commented on how Wells not only brought the power and demand associated with a high-ranking government official to the floor, but also grace and compassion.
Wells sparked a connection with the audience. As she said in her opening remarks, “Thirty five years ago, I was sitting right where you’re all sitting today.”
If the domino effect is to continue, women in the crowd may one day say the same thing to a new generation of college coeds, them too recalling a speaker who showed them the potential for personal and professional success.