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Women in Politics: Must-Read Memoirs

Given our theme this week of exploring women in leadership, I asked Kathy Kretman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership and one of our On Leadership panelists, how books about women leaders influenced her own life.

"When I was growing up, I read everything I could get my hands on about women who challenged conventional wisdom and beat the odds," she told me in an e-mail.

When she teaches public leadership at Georgetown today, she requires students to interview two leaders who "intrigue" them -- and one has to be a woman. "One common piece of advice from the more than 250 leaders interviewed to date as been: read, read, read."

Here, then, is a run-down of memoirs and biographies about some of today's most influential women political leaders:

1. Living History by Hillary Clinton

As Glenn Kessler reported in February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's audience at Ewha Womans University in South Korea, where Living History was a bestseller, eagerly peppered her with questions about her life as a woman. Johee Cho told Kessler that because the memoir was so personal, there was an expectation in Koreans that Clinton would be willing to answer questions about her private life. Being fluent in Korean, I trolled through the South Korean blogosphere and found many who wrote about the impact of Clinton's personal stories on them. One blogger, "hazelwoo," wrote that she watched Clinton speak from the second floor of the school's auditorium. "Hillary always has work. It's not because she cries to people in power, or flirts with men. It's not because she goes to the same church as powerful people. It's because she is a smart woman," she blogged. "Because of this, I want to believe that there is still hope."

2. Why Women Should Rule the World by Dee Dee Myers

What would happen if women ruled the world? "If we were in charge, things might actually change," writes Dee Dee Myers, the first female White House press secretary, in the book's introduction. "Instead of gridlock, we'd have progress. Instead of a shouting match, we'd have a conversation." When Myers became the first female White House press secretary in 1993, she saw the many more obstacles facing women in politics than their fellow men, many of which are discussed in Why Women Should Rule the World. Countering the argument that her book was merely a feminist diatribe, Myers said her goal is not to point her finger at men: "I'm not saying it's all men's fault," Myers writes. In fact, she told Time magazine: "I don't think women hold all answers... I don't think all or any of [the world's] problems get solved overnight."

3. Sarah Palin biographies

No female politician has been stirring up the American political scene quite like Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin. Since the end of the election frenzy, the former VP nominee seems more determined than ever to make a serious mark on U.S. politics, launching SarahPAC which has led many to speculate on a 2012 run for President. And in line with most American politicians who have tasted the glory of political spotlight, it is rumored that Palin plans to write a book. Until we get to read it in her own words, there are plenty of biographies of Sarah Palin (and I must admit, the cover of number six on the list, Terminatrix: The Sarah Palin Chronicles, immediately caught my attention). The most recent of the Palin biographies is Trailblazer: An Intimate Biography of Sarah Palin by Lorenzo Benet, who said in a recent online discussion of the book: "Sarah's participation in beauty pageants gave her a boost of confidence that served her well down the road."

4. Pearls, Politics, and Power by Madeleine M. Kunin

On Martin Luther King Day, the former three-term Vermont Governor spoke to a group of eight- and ninth-grade girls about getting involved in politics. Kunin encouraged the girls to expand their horizons, rather than contenting themselves with what's around them. "It's like the difference between eating a peanut butter sandwich every day, or going to a banquet, getting a taste of everything," she told them. This point (minus the peanut butter sandwich analogy) is what Pearls, Politics, and Power is all about. Published in 2008, the book draws on Kunin's political experiences as governor and U.S. ambassador to discuss the need for new leadership in American politics, and how she believes women are capable of stepping up to take up that challenge. The mother of four was first inspired by the 1970s women's movement to become politically active. Kunin said in a college campus talk last year: "If you always have decisions made by the same group of old white men, they don't think outside the box."

5. Condoleezza Rice: An American Life: A Biography by Elisabeth Bumiller

Weeks before President Obama was sworn into office, Condoleezza Rice made a final trip to Britain. And what did the former U.S. Secretary of State do at Buckingham Palace? She gave a piano recital for Queen Elizabeth II. Playing concert piano was just one of the many things Rice wanted to excel at as an ambitious child. In Condoleezza Rice: An American Life: A Biography, author Elisabeth Bumiller explains the role that the early years of Rice's upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama, played in shaping her career in politics.

What books by and about women leaders have influenced you?

By MJ Lee  |  March 9, 2009; 4:24 PM ET  | Category:  Books Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I'll agree with happie1004 that Mrs. Graham's PERSONAL HISTORY is the best book on leadership by women that I have ever read. (And not just because this is a WaPo website.) Of course it is packaged as a memoir and not as a leadership book -- it's much too long to be successful on that shelf of slender volumes -- but the lessons it gives on facing and overcoming obstacles, dealing with self-doubt, working with people, and remaining resolutely committed to core principles are as insightful and helpful to any leader as anything I've read.

Posted by: drrico | March 20, 2009 9:00 AM

I heartily agree with the commenter who does not see Sarah Palin as a leader worth emulating.

One woman leader worth studying is Golda Meir, not that she never made mistakes, but did lead her new nation during very difficult times.

Posted by: fltolson | March 19, 2009 8:48 AM

Really interesting - looking forward to seeing what else you have to write!

Posted by: hk7kat | March 17, 2009 3:02 PM

Well, I haven’t read many memoirs, let alone memoirs about women leaders, so this list is definitely one I’ll be referring to (as soon as I get TIME to read for pleasure)… but I can definitely cite a book that has made me think critically about women in leadership positions and what expectations we have of them.

The book is ‘The Gender Knot,’ by Allan Johnson, and it’s essentially a lengthy and often poorly-written critique of the patriarchal system. However, once you get past the tautological whining, he actually does bring up some very good points about how ingrained patriarchy is in Western culture and how, as a -system-, it is something that is manifest in and perpetuated by our actions, and yet, it is also something much larger and older than us, so that it isn’t something we should feel personally guilty for, since we never consciously created or maintain it. This is an important distinction because it differentiates between accepting patriarchy as a social reality and blaming men (or submissive women) for the problem, while also highlighting how insidiously pervasive patriarchy is—most of us (myself included) would initially assert that patriarchy is a thing of the past, and Johnson gives reason for us to at least rethink this claim.

One interesting point he brings up is what we value in leadership roles: to quote another review (I’m lazy), “for instance, control, strength, competitiveness, and rationality are positive qualities in the most valued endeavors of society (such as business, athletics, politics, law)-- and they are also ideal male qualities.” Female qualities, such as emotionality, intuitive decision-making (as opposed to rational, deductive reasoning), cooperativeness, etc, are often equivalent with weakness, especially in a professional environment. Now, despite being a woman myself, I react very negatively to the thought of having a leader being “ultra feminine” if that involved valuing “sharing is caring” platitudes and crying every time he/she gave a speech, but at the same time, I wonder about what sorts of things current women leaders have to give up in order to be respected as leaders: Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice… yes, they’re women, but they’re anomalies, and there is something that must be undoubtedly unfeminine about them for us to accept them as equals in the high-power political arena.

And then, on the other hand, you get asshats like Sarah Palin, who emphasize femininity in the WRONG way.

Posted by: elenavator | March 16, 2009 12:07 PM

I really want to read Why Women Should Rule the World. Mainly because you always have great book recommendations and this list seems awesome. Thank you!

Posted by: karinabhaiwala | March 15, 2009 4:16 PM

MJ- I always look forward to your posts! Considering that it's the WaPo, I would have to recommend Katherine Graham's Personal History.

Posted by: happie1004 | March 14, 2009 2:06 AM

fascinating about Palin's plan to write a biography. I am scarred but intrigued.
thanks for this info MJ!

Posted by: splashy-cat | March 14, 2009 12:15 AM

I have trouble seeing Sarah Palin as a leader. Completely unqualified, of inferior intellect, and plucked from obscurity purely because she IS a woman. She is an insult to all women trying to climb the ladder.

Posted by: bonghits4jesus | March 13, 2009 6:13 PM

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring. Rachel Carson was at the vangaurd of the environmentalist movement. Through careful investigation and analysis, she exposed important information about the nature of daily routine human activities on nature (specifically the use of the pesticide DDT on birds, etc.). She didn't just TALK about leadership and strategy, she actually just took the reins.

Posted by: leilaash | March 13, 2009 11:46 AM

The Madeleine Albright book Madam Secretary was very valuable and encouraging to me.

Posted by: pcc9116 | March 13, 2009 11:35 AM

"Sarah's participation in beauty pageants gave her a boost of confidence that served her well down the road." -- I just think that's really funny.

Thanks for another great article MJ, always looking forward to seeing more from you.

Posted by: alps18 | March 13, 2009 10:41 AM

An interesting list of some very powerful women. I am currently reading Malcom X's autobiography and I am intrigued by the similarities women and minorities have to face in climbing to the top of the political ladder. Thank you MJ for this thought provoking article. I hope to see more.

Posted by: siegecg | March 12, 2009 9:55 PM

An interesting list of some very powerful women. I am currently reading Malcom X's autobiography and I am intrigued by the similarities women and minorities have to face in climbing to the top of the political ladder. Thank you MJ for this thought provoking article. I hope to see more.

Posted by: siegecg | March 12, 2009 9:52 PM

A very interesting piece. Thanks for the list.

Posted by: akmo | March 12, 2009 7:03 PM

Very insightful and an interesting list to look into, whether you agree with all listed it not. Thanks mj!

Posted by: HelahRobinson | March 12, 2009 5:23 PM

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