In just a few days, I will deliver my final lecture of the semester in my “Women in American Politics” class here at Georgetown. Of all the lectures I give annually on campuses across the country, this is one of the most important. The words I share with my students at the end of the semester have a special meaning for me.
Twelve years ago, I received a call from the director of the Women and Gender Studies Program. Suzanne Walters, a gifted scholar, wanted to talk to me about transferring to Georgetown from the University of Maryland at College Park, where I had taught “Blacks in American Politics.” She offered me an opportunity to teach a course here on the unique struggles women in America have faced when running for public office.
I thought, “What a perfect opportunity to transfer to a campus that I had long admired.” A campus that nurtured the mind of former President Bill Clinton (SFS ’68) as an undergraduate and where my former boss, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), was among its Law Center faculty. And it helped that a former Hill colleague, Scott Fleming (SFS ’72), was already on campus working in the Office of the President. I knew this was the place to be. And I made a wise decision.
In addition to my weekly lectures, I have an opportunity to work with students on campus, sharing the energy and enthusiasm they bring to their endeavors. It’s the highlight of my week — as I spend time trying to keep pace with the dynamic new women in American politics like Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez or potential presidential candidates like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
My students come from all walks of life: all different political backgrounds, religions and races. Men as well as women attend my class, and lately, I’ve had students from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Latin America, Australia and Canada. Thus, our class discussions are lively, informative and substantive because I encourage them to come to class with political updates from their hometowns or regions. And I get the most terrific teaching assistants, who help me gather and identify new trends in gender studies.
So, the last lecture is the hardest. It is the one that’s most time consuming to prepare, to develop the broad themes on the future of American women in politics. How do we reach parity? What will it take to get more women to run for office? What obstacles remain? How do we get more men invested in helping women win office? And why should women start to focus now and not decades into their careers?
Now comes the hard part. I must prepare myself to let go and help push my students forward to lead, to serve and to pay it forward. So here I go:
“Why you? Why now?
“Why you? Because there is no one better to help lead our country or to go back home and lead your community. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) once said, ‘Service is the rent we pay for living on this planet.’ So, it’s time to pay the rent. It’s your turn to lead the way.
“Why now? Tomorrow is not soon enough. It’s time we hurry history. This is what Susan B. Anthony envisioned, what Lucretia Mott worked for and what Sojourner Truth understood.
“This is what Eleanor Roosevelt sought, Alice Paul struggled for and what Margaret Chase Smith believed in. We have a right to sit at the table. We cannot turn our backs to those whose steely shoulders we stand upon. We owe it to them to keep the long journey toward equality alive.
“And what better generation to help lead the change forward than the one that has brought about so much change? Remember, you will go down in history for helping to elect the first black president of the United States of America.
“What if the next President is a woman? Yes, a woman.
“It’s your turn to run for office, to help lead the way forward and become the change you want to see in your own lifetimes.
“I started my career early because I was inspired by women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm and so many more. Men like Martin Luther King Jr., who marched so we could stand in line to vote.
“So, use your power to help hurry history. I have come to know you and now I am going to be the first to say I will believe in you.
“Believe in yourselves.
“God bless you. Now go out and hurry history, Georgetown!”
DONNA BRAZILE is an adjunct assistant professor in the Women’s Studies Program. She is vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and a political commentator for CNN and ABC News.