Throughout History, Women Have Forged a New Type of Leadership

Today, for the first time in history, four women lead the House and Senate Appropriations Committees—one of the most powerful committees on the Hill. Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are the chairperson and ranking member in the Senate, respectively; in the House, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) serves as chair, and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) ranking member.

The time is ripe to recognize the ways women throughout U.S. have redefined effective leadership. I am reminded of Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, who stepped down from the role in November; the late Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation; Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers; and Miss Major Griffin Gracy, a trans leader in the LGBTQ movement. Ironically, though these four women are from the “Silent Generation” (born between 1928-1945), they exemplify a new type of leadership: Society attempted to silence them, but they were never silent. They’re strong, of course—but their unique leadership styles balanced strength with compassion, determination with collaboration, achieving a state of grace. 

Labor activist Dolores Huerta (left) and the late Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. (Amanda Edwards and Peter Turnley / Getty Images)

‘Grace’ is not the same as ‘graceful.’ As a professional dancer, I bristle at ‘graceful.’ It hits me as a back-handed compliment, a paternalistic pat on the head; a notion of suppleness—fluffy and inconsequential but not strong, gutsy and daring. Graceful describes the surface of grace, but not the grit it takes to achieve grace.

Grace as a noun, however carries some weight. Grace is a discipline—gnawed at daily with endurance and fortitude. Tied to purpose beyond self, grace integrates grit and intuition. Embodied grace is when actions, words and intentions are aligned. A tall order for any dancer or leader.

Pelosi will best be remembered for her tough-as-fingernails-style, but also for providing performative, iconic images—a glance, a wag, a sideways clap, a stride, a rip, a mask, a coat—all sending messages that resonated. Disgusted by the lies in the State of the Union speech in 2020, she stepped out of her carefully crafted public display of discipline with the infamous “rip.” In the biography Madam Speaker, Pelosi says she felt “liberated,” an apt description for when the body is in symbolic alignment with its values.

The body never lies, so the saying goes. 

Then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on Oct. 16, 2019. (Donald Trump / Twitter)

Research shows that traditional leadership has traditionally been defined by stereotypical masculine traits—strong, decisive, dominant, competitive. Of course, our preferences are not determined by biology alone: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was authoritative; President Biden cries easily. But it begs the question: What have women brought to leadership?

Women political leaders prior to Pelosi had to display strength of steel in order to be taken seriously. Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress, was known as “Fighting Shirley” and Thatcher, the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom, carried the nickname “Iron Lady.” But both understood what dancers know—strength is not just how much weight one can lift, but rather the ability to efficiently leverage the joints. Chisholm learned to leverage power, saying, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

Pelosi strategically used her considerable strength when the time was right. This was personified in the classic photo of Pelosi standing in the Cabinet Room in October 2019 across from Trump, wagging her finger in defiance. She alone was standing up to the bully while most of the men sitting at the table diverted their gaze. She made strength look easy, though it never was.

But public perception bends both ways. Known as the double bind, research shows that strong displays of agency by women attract backlash. According to a new national database from Princeton, women political leaders are three times more likely than male counterparts to be targeted for violence.

Pelosi was vilified and her husband was viciously attacked. Huerta, known for the force of her determination, was brutally beaten by police in a non-violent demonstration in San Francisco. Mankiller, a fierce advocate for her people, experienced what she called her “own little trail of tears,” when her family moved off their land, Mankiller Flats, as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation policy. Violence impacted their bodies and their families.

These traumatic events only served to fuel a deepening of their grace.Grace does not negate the pain and struggles of the process, but rather marks the arrival of everything learned on the way.

Known for their ability to “work within the system,” this generation was tagged “the Silent Generation” because they endured the hardships of the Depression and came of age during McCarthyism. Ironically, silence provides space to cultivate grace. Dancers need space far from the spotlight in order to integrate their considerable physical skills with the integrity their aesthetic soul. Grace is achieved when both are in service to the dance, not the ego.

Each of these women spent their early years raising children out of the public limelight—during which time, they developed considerable organizing skills. They then utilized these skills when assuming power. Huerta countered the frustration and pain of laborers with the slogan Sí se puede (“Yes, We Can”). Through collaborative projects, “[Mankiller] gained support by exemplifying gadugi, a Cherokee word that means working together collectively for the benefit of the whole community,” historian Julia Reed wrote.

The documentary Pelosi in the House goes behind the scenes during Jan. 6. It shows the speaker clearly in charge, collaborating with multiple leaders to reconvene the Congress and finish certifying the election. Chomping on beef jerky, she shows genuine concern for the vice president—strength, purpose, compassion and collaborative action, all in service to the country.    

Research shows the public growing more accepting of “androgynous” styles of leadership. Trans activist Griffin-Gracy—an original leader in the 1960’s Stonewall Riots—paved the way. Today, many in the queer, gender non-conforming and Two-Spirit communities have continued her work by rejecting the notion of identifying as either/or, woman/man. Looking at the world through a non-binary perspective allows us to consider new ways of being in every aspect of our lives. Leadership needs to do the same.

It is time to embrace the lessons learned from the “silenced but not silent” generation, who forged a new perspective on leadership in which strength is bolstered by vulnerability, grit and intuition are partners, collaboration fuels action and authority springs from integrity of purpose.

When I take a leap to escape the pull of gravity, the muscles of my legs forcefully push the earth to propel me off the ground, but simultaneously, the muscles of my lips gently draw back to form a smile. Grace.

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Jan Erkert is professor emerita and former head of the department of dance at the University of Illinois. She is the author of Harnessing the Wind, and is currently writing Every Body Has a Body Full of Wisdom: Stories of Leadership and Life. She is a Fulbright scholar, a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project and director of the University of Illinois’ Alumni OpEd Project.