1992 was the “Year of the Woman.” America saw a record number of women elected to 106th U.S. Congress. One of those new members was Marjorie Margolies, the first woman elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania in her own right.
26 years later, women are center stage once again. More than 100 women were sworn into United States federal office at the beginning of January. And signed into law last week the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act (WEEE)— a bipartisan bill that will dramatically increase efforts to support women around the world in an attempt to lift themselves out of poverty.
I spoke with Congresswoman Margolies— who founded nonprofit Women’s Campaign International after serving in Washington— about the implications of this new era in women’s empowerment, not only for the United States, but for communities around the world.
You were the first woman from Pennsylvania elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in your own right. How did your time in Congress inform or elevate your passion for women’s rights?
Margolies: While in Congress, I realized it was our job as women to make sure the issues that had been marginalized because they were considered “women’s issues” were moved from the back burner to the front burner. It was a bit like pushing a rock up a hill— and truthfully— I think it still is. When you get to the House of Representatives, you realize that a lot of the things that didn’t seem terribly important before are actually very important, especially to families. I think we as women really understood that.
After your retirement from Congress, you founded Women’s Campaign International (WCI). What inspired you to create WCI and what have you learned in your role as Director over the last 20 years?
Margolies: After I left Congress, I was the Director of the U.S. delegation [at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995]. When we got back to the U.S., we decided that we wanted to get more women to the table and that’s how the idea was born. I went to the University of Pennsylvania and talked to the then-head of Annenberg [School of Communication], Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and Annenberg funded the first [WCI program]. At the same time, I started teaching a course at the university called Empowering Women in Emerging Democracies, and that’s how it all started.
A lot of the things WCI does around the world are quite amazing, from working with women who are interested in running for office, to our work with female farmers, who are often illiterate but brilliant. The bottom line for us is: if we can give them some kind of economic independence, that’s where we make a difference.
WCI has often partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). What does that partnership look like?
Margolies: We did a project with the State Department and USAID in the MENA region – Middle East Northern Africa – across 16 different countries. We worked with women, half of whom were interested in some kind of initiative that had to do with finance. These women understand that if they can figure out how to increase their income and better their families, everything changes. Everything.
When we were in Liberia, USAID gave us a series of grants that allowed us to work there for many, many years. Through this partnership, we trained and empowered about 100 thousand women to be financially independent. A lot of it was making sure they understood how much more effective they would be if they formed collectives. When Ebola struck, essential to stopping the spread of the disease was information, and our women were able to handle this. The women’s networks in Liberia were largely credited with stopping the spread of the disease. It was amazing.
I have story after story of how if you empower women, it makes all the difference in the world.
The President just signed the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act, bipartisan legislation that will address gender-related barriers to economic growth and support women-led enterprises. What will this mean for women around the world?
Margolies: This kind of legislation moves us in the right direction, and we have to be very vigilant in making it happen. We need to get into these communities around the world to teach them about the importance of educating young girls, and letting girls know how important it is for them to become leaders. The goodwill that we can cultivate through these programs, that’s where we are going to find what we should be looking for worldwide. Meeting of the minds, a kindness, a sharing. What we need to do is figure out how to connect with women all around the world and make it real.
I think this new class of Congresswomen will make a huge difference. When I got to Congress, family and medical leave had been on the back burner for seven years. We women said, “this has to pass”. I think that with this new class— and it’s really an exciting one—that’s what will happen with Women’s Economic Empowerment.
Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies is the founder and director of Women’s Campaign International (WCI), a Philadelphia-based not-for-profit 501(c)(3). WCI empowers individuals and communities with the skills and support to actively participate in civil society, political decision making, and economic development. Since its founding in 1998, WCI has worked in more than 45 countries to promote women’s leadership fostering peace building and the transformation of communities.