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Lunch on Capitol Hill
What happens when nine of the most powerful women in government meet with 80 of the most powerful women in business? An outstanding event with a lot of shared stories, laughter, mutual respect and admiration.
Eighty members and guests of C200, a premier women’s business organization, traveled to the Capital in Washington D.C. on May 1st to hear from top women Senators from both parties. Speakers included Senators Amy Klobuchar, candidate for the 2020 Presidency, Tammy Duckworth (D IL), Joni Ernst (R IA), Maggie Hassan (D NH), Debbie Stabenow (D MI), Susan Collins (R ME), Catherine Cortez Masto (D NV), Jacky Rosen (D NV) and Martha McSally (R AZ).
Event Chair, Edie Fraser, recognized the tremendous accomplishments of the Senators. They are part of a class of Senators and Representatives that have set a record for the number of women elected to Congress. In 2019, 25 women (25%) serve in the Senate and 102 (23%) in the House of Representatives. While not yet at parity, a lot of progress has been made toward achieving balanced representation. The Senators acknowledged the similar challenges the business women in the room have had to overcome to become leaders of their companies and the challenges that remain to achieve gender and diversity parity.
For the first 130 years of its existence the Senate was male only. The first woman in the US Senate served for one day in 1922 and it wasn’t until 1978 that Nancy Kassebaum was elected to a full term on her own merit (her husband had not previously served). A women’s bathroom was not included on the Senate Floor until 1992 and women were first allowed to wear pants in 1993. Tammy Duckworth became the first woman to breastfeed an infant on the Senate floor in 2017. (Tammy’s story of fielding questions and concerns from her male colleagues about her breastfeeding drew knowing laughter from C200 members.)
The women of the Senate have worked across the aisle to tackle issues and solve disputes. They all noted the important role their monthly dinner together has played to build bonds and open communication between them. It exemplifies the theory that women leaders are more collaborative than their male counterparts, and while it has drawn some snide comments from the men, it has proven to be an effective strategy for finding common ground and getting work done.
Whether newly elected or seasoned Senators, these women are impressive leaders and passionate public servants. Three had reached the ranks of Colonel or Lieutenant Colonel in the armed services prior to being elected. Others had distinguished themselves in their fields of expertise, such as the law. Their presence in the Senate is changing the face and character of the Senate while their peers are doing the same in the House. C200 members showed them warm appreciation for taking the time to meet at the Capital. C200 organizers of the event also received thanks and recognition: Edie Fraser, Dawn Sweeney, Susan Neely, Margery Kraus, Candy Duncan, Mary Naylor, and of course, Judy Waak-Pearce. Special thanks also went out to sponsor PNC.
The meeting with leading women senators at the Capital was an outstanding start to our day in Washington, but it was only the beginning. The next stop, The National Press Club and then dinner at Embassies.
The National Press Club
The National Press Club is the world’s leading professional organization for journalists and is known as “The Place Where News Happens.” Founded in 1908 by newspapermen, its regular weekly luncheons began in 1932 with an appearance by President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1971 the National Press Club voted to admit women, and in 1972 the first woman speaker was journalist Gloria Steinem. In 1985 The National Press Club merged with the woman-founded Washington Press Club and today has more than 3,500 members. Forty-two percent of members are women, with seven percent owning their publications.
Another former male-only bastion of power, today the National Press Club is not only integrated, its President in 2008 was a woman, Donna Leinwand Leger, our hostess for the afternoon’s panel discussion. She was joined on the dias by Mary Jordan from The Washington Post, Heidi Przybyla from NBC News, and Rachel Smolkin from CNN Politics. Their panel discussed a variety of topics centered around the changes occurring in the news industry, the role of journalists in democracy and the role of women in the media.
The proliferation of channels or information sources and the difficulty to differentiate fact from fiction has had a huge impact on the news media. It has not only made their job more difficult, it has reinforced their sense of purpose. Heidi noted that, “The role of the journalist is to hold people to account. We are here to serve the governed, not the governors. In prior administrations there was always agreement about facts. We are constantly having to check the facts before we can get to the debate.” She added, “When you have a country of sheep, you get a government of wolves.”
Rachel and Mary agreed that there is a conflation of real news and fake news. The term has become weaponized. Mary felt that it has become a crisis with reporters getting death threats. “People start to hate you. You have to explain the difference between opinion writers and journalists.” She acknowledged that some fake news out there is harder to spot. “The trend is to trust pictures and videos, but they are being doctored. You need to find sources you trust.”
The media business model has changed dramatically and continues to change. The model that gave the news away for free (or paid for by advertising) is being re-examined. With the failure of small local papers, local news reported by people you know is being lost. That familiarity and trust of the reporter is something that is being encouraged by the larger news organizations.
They are encouraging their journalists to become recognized brands with their own followers. Rachel noted that “people look for connection with people they recognize.”
They are also placing more emphasis on “Facts First” and speed. It is not enough to call out a lie after an article was published. They are now breaking in real time with the correction. Mary stated, “It has to be in the same sentence.” Rachel agreed, “We have to be confident in our work and very careful to get it right. It has made us sharper.”
It was a sobering discussion but one that reinforced the importance of a free press. As Mary stated, it is the “fourth pillar” of our democracy. We are grateful to these journalists who assume the responsibility for the pursuit of truth and thankful for the time they spent sharing their challenges with us. We are glad they are working on our behalf.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Candy Duncan and Margery Kraus, C200 members had the privilege of enjoying dinner at one of four embassies (Hungary, Italy, Denmark, and Mexico). Not only a unique cultural experience, it provided an opportunity for candid conversation during Q&A sessions with embassy representatives.
At the Hungarian embassy, members enjoyed goulash soup and Hungarian wines while listening to the Ambassador’s representative answer frank questions about the Hungary/US relationship and trade issues. Each table continued the conversation with staff and left with a deep appreciation for our hosts’ openness and hospitality.
-Jan Muhleman, President, re:group, inc.