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"GIVE ME A BREAK!" Real Female Leadership in Action

by Jim Taggart September 24, 2012

I’m going to talk about politics. But don’t tune me out–at last not yet.

How many of you remember the 2007-08 Democratic Party’s leadership nomination process for President of the United States? It got a tad nasty, though nothing like the recent Republican Party spectacle. How many of you recall President Bill Clinton’s vindictive attack on then candidate Barack Obama, who was running against Hilary Clinton?

At one event in 2008, in a room full of Hilary supporters, Bill Clinton attacked Obama’s campaign platform by emphatically stating: “Give me a break! This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen. 23 million Americans struggling for work. A middle class falling further behind!”

Contrast Clinton’s remark against his recent love-filled endorsement of Barack Obama at the Democratic convention and you’ll get whip lash.

Well, being a political news junkie I’ve watched enough clips of speeches from the Republican and Democrat conventions to make one numb with disbelief. I was impressed with Ann Romney’s and Michelle Obama’s powerful speeches in September 2012–kind of odd for a Canadian, I suppose.

But then I thought about the supercharged hyperbole that increasingly powers American politics and reflected back to what I’ve read about that country’s history. And I thought about one incredible woman who didn’t just talk the talk but more importantly walked the walk. She did FAR more for her country than Michelle Obama or Ann Romney could ever hope to achieve.

So to whom am I referring?

Eleanor Roosevelt–America’s most amazing First Lady. In her first year as First Lady, she travelled an astonishing 40,000 miles to observe the devastating effects of the Great Depression and to connect with Americans.

While President Roosevelt–aka FDR–avoided talking about the rampant racism in America, Eleanor hit it head on. Read about her work to assist immigrants and in particular her efforts to combat racial injustice. She fought against the lynching of blacks, withdrew her membership from the Daughters of the American Revolution when black opera singer Marian Anderson was barred from performing at Constitution Hall, and supported the work of the NAACP.

While FDR brilliantly conceived the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s as a way to address potential social unrest among the many unemployed young men, Eleanor walked the walk by going out to construction camps to inspire the workers.

Indeed, she urged the Roosevelt administration to create what she called “She-She-She Camps” for unemployed women. Unfortunately, she was unable to get FDR’s cooperation. The above photo was taken at Bear Mountain in New Hampshire, where Eleanor Roosevelt spoke to women.

It’s about leadership. Take a moment to watch this video commemorating Eleanor Roosevelt’s 125th birthday.

Don’t mistake my opening comments about Michelle Obama or Ann Romney. Both women are very impressive, and as I’ve said to friends perhaps they should be running for office. My point in this post is to emphasize the importance of commitment and action to a cause. Eleanor Roosevelt, in my view, sets the benchmark for living one’s espoused leadership.

So before we get overly hyped up with the media-generated circus that’s now ingrained in political conventions, where the spouses of candidates are trotted out to talk about how human their husbands are (to date it’s about males), recounting bubbly and tear-jerky anecdotes, step back and take a deep breathe. Reflect on what real leadership resembles.

It’s one thing to espouse what you think or believe; it’s quite another to put your words into concrete action.

We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.
– Eleanor Roosevelt