01 Feb 2000
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Q & A: Laura Liswood and the Council of Women World Leaders

by Nancy O. Perry

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Laura A. Liswood (MBA '76) is cofounder and secretary-general of the Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL), an independent, international organization based at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Made up of many of the world's current and former female heads of state, the Council grew out of Liswood's own initiative - a 1993 journey around the world in which she documented, in video and book form, discussions with fifteen of these presidents and prime ministers. Her goal: to see a woman in the Oval Office.

What prompted your desire to meet with the world's women leaders?

In 1993 I came across a study about the differences between men and women legislators. I began thinking, what would it be like if a woman were president of the United States? One way to find out, my MBA training told me, was to seek out examples of the "best practices" of women as country leaders. Then I realized, of course, that I'd have to look abroad, since there were none here in America.

How did you prepare for such a far-reaching endeavor?

I called upon friends and friends of friends to put me in touch with people who could train me for the task, as well as to help me obtain those critical first few interviews. I consulted many experts, including a speech coach who worked with me to fine-tune my questions. Fortunately, I also learned a lot on the job. By the time I got to my last interview, with Lady Margaret Thatcher, I'd had a lot of practice.

Why did you save her for last?

She's shrewd. Originally she said that I could interview her only after I'd met with all the other living women presidents. I don't think she believed I could do it! As it turned out, we talked for an hour beyond the allotted time.

What did you take away from these interviews?

I learned how small the world is and how interdependent we all are. Women must play an integral role in all the world's issues or else humanity's challenges will never be solved. I came to realize that our potential is learned; what we hear and see forms what we think is possible. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, when she had been president of Iceland for eight years, said that there were children in Iceland under eight years of age who believed that only a woman could be president. Just imagine the possibilities!

What led to the formation of the CWWL?

As I interviewed these extraordinary women, I kept hearing the same themes. For example, many of them felt that their personal lives were scrutinized more than they should have been and that their mistakes were less tolerated than those of male leaders. They also felt that as women their leadership styles were somewhat different than men's, although Lady Thatcher didn't ascribe to that view.

As I shared the information from earlier interviews with subsequent interview- ees, they seemed relieved to learn that they were not alone. I started asking them if they would like to meet each other, and they were enthusiastic. Under the auspices of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, we brought them together for the first time in 1996, in Stockholm. Following that event, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir and I founded the Council.

Describe the Council's first summit, in 1998.

We organized a number of panel discussions that addressed women's leadership from a variety of perspectives, including ascendancy to power, access to campaign financing, the balance of work and family, differences in style between male and female leaders, and whether leaders are "born" or "made." We had a wonderful forum at the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics in which there were eight of these leaders on the dais, with Judy Woodruff moderating. It was incredible to see them together, talking about the challenges of leadership.

Would the CWWL members tend to agree on a definition of good leadership?

Probably not! They might articulate the kinds of things we all put in our symbolic stocking: things such as character, trust, and vision. Many of them have said, however, that as leaders they were so often put in difficult situations because they were women that they really had to have a passion for whatever they were doing.

Tell us about your efforts to hasten a woman's election to the American presidency.

In 1997 I cofounded the White House Project - with Barbara Lee, a civic activist working out of Brookline, Massachusetts, and Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation. We ran a ballot in Parade magazine, asking people to vote for twenty potential women candidates. With about one hundred thousand people responding, the top five votegetters were Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, Christine Todd Whitman, Dianne Feinstein, and General Claudia Kennedy [the highest ranking woman in the military]. We've also done research on gender bias in the media, and we're trying to get youth more involved through the Internet.

What can women aspiring to be the first U.S. president learn from the Council's members?

They can learn, first, that it's doable; second, that it's going to be hard; and, third, that it's probably worth it!

Why do you think Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the race?

It was partly a campaign finance issue. Whether you agreed with her policy ideas or not, her departure from the campaign was regrettable, as is the fact that women have not yet broken through the ranks of either major political party.

What are the major barriers to a woman becoming president?

First and foremost, we don't have a parliamentary system. Our two-party, "winner-take-all" system is unfriendly to out-of-power groups, including women. Ours is also the only system that requires an enormous amount of cash to finance an election - another obstacle to those outside the power structure. I'd like to see a few self-indulgent female millionaires run for office!

Is the United States ready for a woman in the White House?

Currently, about 75 percent of the population is willing to have a woman as president, but there is still a bedrock of people who are uncomfortable with that notion. One first step would be to have a woman vice president. Gerald Ford is reputed to have said that America will have a woman president after a woman becomes vice president and succeeds a male president who dies in office. After that, Ford said, we'll never have another male president again! It's an interesting thought.

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