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Women and power

Barry McNamara
(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part story on issues related to Women’s History Month at Monmouth College.)

What does Mother Teresa have in common with Madonna? According to Time magazine, they were both among the top 25 most powerful women of the 20th century.

Time’s list included some of the usual suspects, such as Indira Ghandi, Golda Meir, Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher, but it went beyond the realm of politicians to include women such as Coco Chanel, Julia Child, Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.

In the midst of Women’s History Month, Monmouth College history professor Stacy Cordery, former coordinator of MC’s women’s studies program, was asked her thoughts on the list.

“Everything depends on how you define ‘most powerful,’” said Cordery, who is currently serving as a visiting fellow at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in Dickinson, N.D. Until she returns to Monmouth in July, she is providing behind-the-scenes assistance and expertise to the center’s “massive and audacious undertaking” of digitizing every document related to Roosevelt, a man who was not only a U.S. president but also “wrote more than 150,000 letters and 35 books.”

Cordery said, “If power is defined as the ability to influence millions of people, certainly Oprah Winfrey is powerful. If it’s defined as the ability to move people, certainly Madonna did that. Millions of people either loved her or hated her. People in Uzbekistan know who Madonna is. If it’s defined as touching women’s lives in very mundane ways, Coco Chanel did that” by influencing women’s fashion in the 20th century.

Cordery is a recognized authority on Theodore Roosevelt as well as First Ladies, as she serves as the bibliographer of the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio. But she might be considered “the” foremost authority on two women – Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and Girls Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low. Cordery’s biography of Longworth was published in 2007, and her nearly completed biography of Low will be available prior to the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts in March 2012. Neither woman made Time’s list, and Cordery said one of the omissions was a notable oversight.

“To a large degree, Alice had a hidden power,” said Cordery. “From reading her papers, I know that she had ideas for bills, but she wasn’t in a position to bring them forward, and no male who received the idea from Alice would have acknowledged that publicly.”

So the omission, said Cordery, was Low, who founded “the most important organization for girls and women. Fifty million lives and counting have been touched by the Girl Scouts.”

Low fits the model of women who began to make a notable impact on society in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Another was Mother Jones, the subject of a biography by Cordery’s husband, MC associate professor of history Simon Cordery. Their common denominator – shared by such other leading figures as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Jane Addams – was that they did not have responsibilities for young children at the time they rose to prominence.

“For about the first 150 years of our nation’s history, the goal for women was to be a mother,” said Cordery. “Young girls dreamed of getting married and having children. … There’s the saying, ‘The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.’ The idea was to have fabulous children and let them save the world. It wasn’t until very recently that women began to have the goal of having fabulous children AND saving the world themselves. Hillary Clinton (who is on Time’s list) had a young child at the time she became First Lady. Eleanor Roosevelt couldn’t have done all she did if her children had been as young as Chelsea Clinton.”

As an example of how society’s views have changed toward women and their role as mother, Cordery referred to prominent sociologist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In the late 1880s, Gilman left her child’s care to her ex-husband, who had remarried, to “do her thing, and society ripped her apart. But she actually put her child in a much better situation. If that happened in 2011, we wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. … It all depends on society’s ability to divorce ‘woman’ from ‘mother.’”

Cordery touched on a related item when she noted that only one woman on Time’s list – Gloria Steinem – “identified herself as a feminist.” As part of the women’s studies coursework, MC’s students learn about “all of the great feminist thinkers,” said Cordery. “We spend a lot of time on the evolution of feminism.”

Stay tuned for Part II of this story next week, as women’s studies coordinator Trudi Peterson will discuss the program in greater detail and highlight what the college is doing to observe Women’s History Month.