Recently, there have been many books, articles, stories on television, etc. on, about and by women who have struggled to the “top.” I have my own group of women that I have admired over the years that I have known and worked with and I can tell you what I learned from them, because I have had to overcome a few obstacles in my own professional life.
Over the years I have worked closely with several well-known women in Washington. Going way back I will begin with one that I knew the least but admired so much I had the privilege of knowing Mary Lasker and what she accomplished in the field of medical research. How did she do it? This tiny little very feminine woman who had exquisite taste in her home and her life….What did I learn from her?
First, that she was smart enough to learn how she could use the system; where could she make a difference? And where could she make the most difference? And how could she use the resources that she had including her husband’s expertise in the advertising business. She created a legacy of pulling various groups together to make a huge impact in the medical research world. She also had enormous support, advice and expertise from her husband.
Next, I want to mention Katherine Shouse. I was privileged to serve on the Wolf Trap Board for several years. We met in her dining room on F Street once a week where all the decisions were made and I loved it. It was a wonderful time because this was a first in the Washington area. She had to make some very difficult decisions and she didn’t hesitate. At one point, there was a fire that destroyed much of the building going up and there were questions as to whether she would continue but I watched her decide with the courage of her convictions. She was tough which I admired because she cared so much about the project; she believed in it completely.
Another woman I admired and worked with even more intimately is Pamela Harriman. I was the only other woman on the Democrats for the Eighties committee. I did not know her before I came onto the new committee. She was new to Washington but not too many people who knew her personal history in Europe but it was new to me. When we both decided to create this committee at a party at her home, I was just getting to know her. It was exciting for both of us and we did it! What I did see was someone who had real difficulty in giving a speech at the Woman’s National Democratic Club (she was so scared) to moving the party forward from an unbelievably difficult position. I admired her courage! Seeing her shake with fear while she was speaking but not backing off, taught me that if necessary, I would do the same thing someday. She also had tremendous support from her husband which was something that I also took notice of.
Another woman who I also had the privilege to view first hand was Hillary Clinton. Because of my involvement with the Democratic Party, I watched her work as hard as anyone to make her mark. And it was not easy! I watched her getting hurt many times and taking it on the chin with her head up! This is all besides the fact of her brilliance and perseverance. She also worked alongside her husband sharing and pulling together to gain the White House and more! She took the bumps and moved on.
And one more woman who is not well-known to the world but had the same qualities as the women I mentioned above; my mother!
When I began thinking about who in my life helped me to take on big challenges I was reminded of my own mother, Goldie Kerchek. She was smart, talented, hardworking and not afraid to do what she needed to do. When I was ten years old, she and my father, Herman, recognized that the only way they could improve their financial situation, was to buy a small store. It had to be small because that was all they could afford at the time but it also required that she run the store alone until my father could leave his job and come to work with her. It meant that at age 34, and very pretty, she would have to leave our house in the darkness of four in the morning to open the store. It required that she stuff some cash in her bra and travel on the street car to an almost rural neighborhood in the dark. And this she did until my father came later and then when he could come full-time. I never heard her complain about how hard it was; in fact, she once told me that she loved getting out of the house and working! This was a woman who was an incredible cook, gardener, seamstress, etc., etc. By the way, my father was nothing but respectful of her ability.
So what did I learn from all of these women?
Desire, courage, fearlessness, and loving challenge! I think all of them shared these qualities. For their era, they loved being out in the world; doing their thing and doing it well. Not holding back and at the same time, with the respect and support of their husbands, as was possible.
I was lucky to have had similar experiences and with the wonderful support of my husband, Abe. Many times when I would tell him of someone who was giving me a hard time, he would say, “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
An experience that I had where I was discriminated against because I was a woman might be interesting because of the gentleman that did it….and he did so, I’m convinced, completely unintentionally. But it was a sign of the times and the evolution that we continue to go through regarding women in the workplace.
David Kreeger, the former CEO of Geico, was a close buddy of mine on the American University Board of Directors. He was absolutely a remarkable man who we all loved and he did incredible work for this city. I served on that board for eleven years and created their development office. For six years I was on the Executive Committee with David and several other very prominent Washington executives. At one point, when we were deciding who we would choose as our next board chairperson, (we were only four people sitting in the room), Dave turned to me and said, “Irene, you should be the next chairperson. You have worked so hard over the years but you are too pretty!”
I never said a word; I respected him too much. We chose an Episcopal minister.
Truthfully? I was more shocked than disappointed. I really didn’t want that position so much; I wasn’t angling for it so I was fine with the decision. But, I wasn’t fine with the reason for the decision. I have never forgotten it, obviously.
What was the problem? I still don’t know.