Rep. Nita Melnikoff Lowey addressed the 50 delegates on Sunday, May 25, the first day of the two-week Women in Public Service Project Institute. The congresswoman, who has served a quarter-century in Congress, offered personal reflections that started at a time when “Washington was very much still a man’s world.”
It’s a situation that likely felt familiar to many of the delegates, citizen-activists from more than 20 countries. Like Lowey then, many delegates today must confront blatant sexism as well as other roadblocks as they try to repair their violence-ravaged societies.
Education is key to meeting challenges worldwide, especially for girls and women, said Lowey. “We believe that the essence of higher learning is a largeness of purpose that measures success and character through contributions to the greater good,” she said. “And we believe fervently that women must be given the tools to achieve a better life in every society.” The 1959 Mount Holyoke College graduate—who also celebrated her reunion this weekend—said her College experience inspired her to “help women from all walks of life, in all regions of the world” in her congressional career.
Efforts by Lowey and likeminded congressional colleagues have brought progress. When she was first elected, there were only 29 female representatives and two female senators; now there are 82 in the House and 20 in the Senate, with women filling top slots in all branches of government. Domestic-violence legislation, Title IX, the Family and Medical Leave Act … all are now law in the United States.
“None of this landmark legislation could have become law without the leadership of women, linking their talents and experiences to the great goal of social progress,” she said. “I can tell you that this phenomenon is nearly universal: when women join together, great things happen.”
“When women are given opportunities to participate fully in an economy, their children go to school and their families thrive. When women have a chance to run a business, they gain confidence and a meaningful voice in civic decisions. When women assume governmental posts, they become champions of free institutions and equal opportunity.”
Lowey herself authored language requiring the State Department and USAID to integrate gender considerations in many foreign aid, health, and development programs. “I have also worked to convince my colleagues that the US government can make an indelible difference in the lives of women and girls through basic education,” she said. “It’s no wonder that terrorist groups like Boko Haram have made it their mission to prevent access to education, particularly for girls, because they know that educated and productive young adults better protect themselves from poverty, disease, and hunger, and are much more likely to turn away from extremism. That is why education is now recognized as a critical security priority, in addition to being a moral imperative.”
She vowed to keep fighting for education and gender equity, confident that the delegates would do likewise. “It is going to take all of us working together, committed to making a difference, to build the world we want for ourselves and for future generations,” she said in closing.
The Women in Public Service Project Institute continues through June 6 at Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and Simmons College.
—By Emily Harrison Weir