Women in the United States received the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. But in the 91 years since, they have made relatively small strides into entering public service.
This week, Gainesville State College aims to change that with its second Women’s Leadership in Public Service Institute in Eatonton.
“I had seen in my classes there were a lot of women with a lot of passion. But if you mention to these students about a career in the political arena, they couldn’t really see themselves doing something like that,” said Kathleen Woodward, an assistant professor and chair of the department of political science, criminal justice, philosophy and religion at Gainesville State who coordinated WLIPSI.
Woodward said WLIPSI was created to inspire women who want to enter the public arena. The institute is the only one in the state, coordinated between Gainesville State and Rutgers University, which piloted the program as part of its NEW Leadership initiative.
“There’s a need to be proactive and educate young women about going into public service,” said Beth Schapiro, president of Schapiro Group, Inc. “It’s important women develop an understanding of some of the issues that face the state and, more importantly, how they can act on these issues.”
The institute, which runs June 1-5, features a variety of keynote speakers, panels and interaction between the 46 student attendees and those experienced in politics.
Topics include the history of women’s leadership, conflict management and contemporary issues. Speakers have careers as diverse as state representatives and leaders of nonprofit organizations.
“The characteristics of a strong leader are still what we would describe as masculine, and our society discourages women from that,” Woodward said. “Just seeing these women (speakers), some of them are very beautiful feminine women in very powerful positions. Students really need to see these role models and interact with them.”
Woodward said the topics were chosen based on student interest and issues in the media.
“I think it’s important to get young people not only involved in the political process, but to make them informed individuals,” said Sharon Cooper, a Republican state representative from east Cobb County who will be on the health care issues panel.
Cooper said because women only make up 14 percent of the state House, it is important for WLIPSI to place a seed in attendees’ minds that running for office is something they might consider as a way to give back to their communities.
Judy Agerton, regional vice president of external affairs at AT&T Georgia, is on the corporate sector panel. She said she hopes students learn that political office is not the only way to be involved in public service.
“Most of these students are already studying public policy,” she said. “They want to be involved somehow, so giving them the corporate viewpoint will give them a well-rounded look. Everybody doesn’t have to be a house representative, senator, mayor or governor to make an impact.”
WLIPSI attendees are chosen based the passion they display during an application process.
“We don’t want only the student government presidents,” Woodward said. “We also want someone who’s not quite there yet, but wants to be.”
She said she hopes WLIPSI will continue in the future at least as a biannual, if not annual, event.
“I want women to leave here with inspiration more than anything,” Woodward said. “Inspiration that they can do whatever they want. They don’t have to be silent observers of the world — they can be active participants in whatever way they decide.”