Women leaders convene at MHC.

Vicky Schuck

By Keely Savoie

Some changes come in the form of slow shifts that happen imperceptibly over time. Others come with a jolt. Still others are brought about by dedicated proponents who work together in the present to realize a vision for the future.

The Women Leading in Public Service Summit at Mount Holyoke College, slated for November 5–7, is both a manifestation and a demonstration of the power of collaborative work toward a common goal.

Alumnae with prominent positions in public service—including Congresswoman Nita Lowey ’59; Ashley O’Connor ’95, strategic advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign; and Anne O’Leary ’93, senior policy advisor in Hillary Clinton's 2016 Presidential Campaign—will come to campus for three days of discussions and networking events with faculty and students. The goal? Advancing women in public service.

“We are proud to be part of this summit,” said Becky Wai-Ling Packard, director of the Weissman Center for Leadership and professor of psychology and education. “Through initiatives like Leadership and Public Service (LAPS) program and its participation in the Women in Public Service Project, Mount Holyoke engages students—through internships, seminars, and coursework—with the goal of advancing women’s representation in leadership positions.”

In addition to informational sessions and networking events, the summit will feature four panel discussions addressing different facets of female leadership: political parity; international politics and American hegemony; nonprofits and civil rights; and the future of women in politics.

“It’s an opportunity for our students to meet face-to-face with some of our most accomplished alumnae who not only have the jobs that our students aspire to, but have the advice, power, and connections to help them get there,” said Elizabeth Markovits, chair of the department of politics, who will moderate a panel discussion about the 2016 presidential election.

Mount Holyoke and other women’s colleges have long been agents of change by setting women on powerful career trajectories and preparing them with the skills and experience they need to succeed in the public realm. Still, while women have seemingly made great gains, there remains a huge gulf between the number of women in positions of power and the number of men. Just 18.5 percent of US representatives and 20 percent of senators are women, according to a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress.

Outside of government, the proportion of women to men remains stubbornly low: women make up only 4.4 percent of CEOs at S&P 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit research group dedicated to expanding women’s roles in business. According to a survey from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, while women comprise 66 percent of staff members, 71 percent of responding nonprofit organizations had male leadership.

All-women’s colleges play a critical role in changing these statistics. According to Inside Higher Ed, of the top 100 institutions ranked in 2014 by U.S. News and World Report, only about one-third had female student body presidents or other top executives. At women’s colleges, all of those student leadership positions are held by women.

“We want to lead the way in advancing parity for women in public service,” said Diane Freedland, project director of the summit. “At Mount Holyoke we have a long history of preparing women for these challenging fields. We want to continue to foster and build on that legacy.”

Mount Holyoke’s Victoria Schuck, a professor in the political science department from 1940 to 1976, understood the importance of imbuing women with political power and experience. She initiated an internship program to provide Mount Holyoke students with an opportunity to work in Washington, DC, as summer assistants to members of Congress, senators, and administrators of federal agencies.

Alumna Sally Donner ’63, who completed a Schuck internship, played a key role in bringing Mount Holyoke’s political powerhouses back to campus for the summit. Many of the speakers are fellow Schuck interns.

“I want MHC’s current faculty and students to know the impact that former Vicky Schuck interns have had in public service, and that it is upon this foundation that Mount Holyoke’s leadership in public service is built,” she said.

US Representative Nita Lowey ’59, who will deliver the keynote address at the summit, credits Schuck with helping launch her into the field of politics.

“Professor Schuck taught us more than history and facts about politics, government, and civics. She taught us to exercise courage, giving us the skills and encouragement to pioneer a new sector for service for women of my generation—government,” said Lowey. “This tradition continues as Mount Holyoke teaches, encourages, and empowers young women today who will undoubtedly be the leaders of tomorrow across every professional sector.”

President Lynn Pasquerella noted that the summit is another step in a long tradition at Mount Holyoke of women helping one another to attain positions of power.

“When Mount Holyoke alumna Frances Perkins became the first female member of the cabinet, she stated, 'The door might not be opened to a woman for a long time, and I had the kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others hence long and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats,’ ” said Pasquerella. “Each of the alumnae leaders at this conference is following in Perkins's footsteps by opening doors to women for leadership in public service. We are excited to have them on campus and proud of their many accomplishments.”

Other featured speakers and panelists include Mount Holyoke alumnae from the classes of 1948 to 2017, representing a range of professions and political outlooks. They include:

  • Naomi Barry-Pérez ’96, director of civil rights for the US Department of Labor;
  • Kat Calvin’05, founder of DC Young Entrepreneurs, Michelle in Training, and Uplift/BlerdLabs;
  • Nita Lowey ’59, US representative (D-NY);
  • Lourdes Melgar ’85, Mexico’s deputy secretary of energy for hydrocarbons;
  • Ashley O’Connor ’95, communications strategist, strategic advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and political media strategist;
  • Kathleen O’Connor Ives ’99, Massachusetts state senator; and
  • Ann O’Leary ’93, senior policy advisor for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Find the schedule and more details here.

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