Written by Joan Michelson

As former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Well-behaved women rarely make history” and we’ve had a lot of those this year. Here are seven lessons we can take from a few key women who made history in 2020:

  1. Partner with someone who makes you think differently: When Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his  Vice Presidential running mate, he made history by choosing a woman, and a woman of color, and we applaud him for doing so, That in itself is a huge leap forward for women as she is now Vice President-Elect. But the career and leadership lesson in that lies in the fact that Harris had the courage of her convictions to challenge him openly – on the debate stage – about one of his most important past legislative decisions, one that affected her directly (busing). He chose her anyway, or maybe even because she proved she would tell him what he needed to hear.
  2. Articulate your case with intelligence, data, and precision:  The legendary Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who we, unfortunately, lost this year inspired us in so very many ways with her persistence, tenacity, wit, and intelligence. Her “secret weapon,” however, was the way she built her case, brick by brick and without anger. She mined the data and case law, even finding long-forgotten obscure laws. She brought the judges and justices along on her legal thinking, including reminding them that, “They have never been a 13-year old girl.” She challenged established norms, and brought cases from the side these all-male judges could relate to a man’s. She used the force of her intellect to find a way to make her case attuned to the audience in front of her, as well as her goal. 
  3. Pick your battles: Jill Wine-Banks, the only female Watergate prosecutor and author of the 2020 best-seller, “The Watergate Girl,” reminds us to carefully choose which affronts we’re going to address directly and how to do so. “You can’t take offense at everything,” she told me, “if you do, you aren’t going to get along, and getting along is important. But you have to stand up for your rights. You have to have a seat at the table, You have to speak up.”
  4. Focus on your #1 goal: We commemorated the centennial of the 19th Amendment this year, which ratified women’s right to vote in 1920 – an 80+year battle that cost lives and livelihoods. There was infighting within the suffrage movement too, as strained partnerships both increased their impact and frayed messages and nerves. But the suffragists never lost focus on their #1 goal: getting women the right to vote, even when it meant not pushing overtly for Black women’s rights as well.  (My great-great-aunt, Miriam Michelson, was a reporter who used her platforms to help motivate women and gave them vital information on where to mobilize and convene.)  
  5. Use both the front door and the backdoor:  As Dr. Marcia Chatelain, Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University told me, Black suffragists like the National Association of Colored Women were strategic in their fight for the right to vote. While Black women like Ida B Wells took loud public stands, overtly pushing to be included in the White suffrage movement, others remained “very much engaged in civil society activities…(as they had) for a very long time” influencing the process through quiet power. “They just understood what it would take for them to actually be able to enjoy the right that had just been secured,” Dr. Chatelain said.
  6. Evaluate pay parity from different angles: The racial justice movement reignited by the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breona Taylor this summer at the hands of police forced a historic reckoning and shined a light on the gulf in pay between Blacks and Whites, too. The median salary for black women is 62% of what a white, non-Hispanic male earns, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. Heather Long, the preeminent economics reporter for The Washington Post, told me in May that while unemployment for White men is 13.5%, it’s 16.2% for women, 16.7% for blacks, and 18.9% for Latinx. So, we have to look deeper to bring pay equity to reality, paying people – and asking for – what the talent is worth.
  7. Follow the women: The leadership style historically attributed to women proved the most effective, whether used by men or by women. Collaboration, communication, empathy, accountability, facts, transparency, being able to connect different dots and connect them differently, resourcefulness, and sheer management ability have all been the most successful in this crisis. Think New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ahern (a country now back to normal) or New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. 
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Are you ready to take the coronavirus vaccine? “This vaccine that you’re going to be taking was developed by an African American woman. And that is just a fact,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said. Her name is Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, and she is the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Vaccine Research Center (VRC), run by Dr. Fauci.

The basis of that vaccine, Messenger RNA (MRNA), was developed by another woman, Dr. Katalin Kariko, the Senior Vice President of BioNTech, the company that partnered with Pfizer on the first covid vaccine.  CNN described her as, “She was demoted, doubted and rejected. Now, her work is the basis of the Covid-19 vaccine.”

So, perhaps the overall lesson we can take from 2020’s historic moments is to open our minds and our hearts to new ideas, new solutions, new careers, new ways of solving challenges, and new people.


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