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Lousiana Center for Women and Government, Thibodaux, Louisiana

Remarks of Governor Christine Todd Whitman
Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
at the
Louisiana Center for Women and Government
Nicholls State University
Thibodaux, Louisiana

March 28, 2003

Thank you Linda (Levy) for that introduction.

As we gather together this afternoon, I want to take just a moment to honor the men and women of our armed forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know you share my pride in their service and my prayers that they shall soon accomplish their mission and return safely home to their families and friends and to the thanks of a grateful nation.

I am pleased to be with you today to help honor the four outstanding women you are recognizing for their service to the people of Louisiana. Believe it or not, it was just 125 years ago that a judge in New Orleans invalidated a local citizen= s Last Will and Testament because it was witnessed by what he called A incapables, @ which he defined as A women, [the] insane, idiots, and felons. @ I can only imagine what his wife thought of that B and I = ll bet she told him, too.

The women you are honoring today B Judy Ewell Day, Roberta Madden, Darlene Pellegrin, and Margaret Pereboom B are examples of just how capable women are in any field of endeavor. Their remarkable records of accomplishment show that women not only belong in every field of endeavor, they can excel in every field as well, when given the chance.

Of course, it = s only recently that we = ve been given that chance. Fifty years ago, one of the leading newspapers in my home state of New Jersey picked my mother, who was very active in Republican political circles, as one of the women most likely to become New Jersey = s first female governor. They were only off by one generation and 40 years.

During my own time in public life, I haven = t had much time to really ponder and study what affect my gender has had on my career, though rarely a day goes by that I = m not reminded that it does make a difference. But since becoming administrator of the EPA, I have been struck by the similarities between the struggle for women= s equality and our struggle to fully protect the environment.

During the 1970's B when EPA was founded and women were fighting for full equality B there were glaring problems that needed to be fixed and no one was listening.

We had pipes discharging pollution directly into our streams and rivers, power plants churning out harmful emissions unchecked, and countless other environmental hazards right in our backyards.

Similarly, women were seeking affirmation in the workforce, where the median wage paid to women was 59 cents for every dollar paid to a man.

In government, the story was the same. In 1974, women held only 8% of state legislative seats and only 16 seats in Congress.

In the new millennium, however, we can look back at steady progress. We have raised the environmental consciousness of this country to a level far beyond where we were 30 years ago and improved B in real terms B the condition of America's environment.

The history of women over the past three decades shows similar successes. Women are breaking through the glass ceiling, in both pay and promotions. Today, there are now 73 women serving in the Congress, including your own senator, Mary Landrieu, and women hold one in every four statewide elective offices, including your Lieutenant Governor, Kathleen Blanco, and we make up more than 22 percent of state legislatures.

Despite this improvement, I have to say we = ve done a better job improving the environment than we have electing women to political office. But things are getting better.

Thankfully, it = s not as bad as it was when I first started in politics, serving on the Somerset County Board of Freeholders. Not being from New Jersey, you may not know that a freeholder is a parish-wide elected official. I was the only woman on the Board, and I must admit some people were a bit skeptical of my ability to do the job.

That was especially true when I was assigned the lead on the construction of our new county courthouse B a project that had been on the drawing board for years. There were those who thought the very idea of a woman overseeing a major construction job was laughable B especially some of the construction and trades union heads. But, when they realized I was the one signing the checks B and that I wasn = t about to let this project falter B they changed their tune.

At the end of the day, our new courthouse came in on time and under budget. Subsequently, I was elected by my colleagues to serve as Board chair, and I held that post until I was named by Governor Tom Kean to head the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.

The BPU was another one of those jobs where you dealt with lots of people who weren= t used to dealing with women B the heads of sewer agencies and garbage collection companies, to name just a few.

All of this work was good preparation for my statewide campaigns. It was a real training ground, not just in the workings of government, but in how to get government to work. I learned you can be tough without being obnoxious. You can be ambitious without being driven. You can be committed to your work without sacrificing the rest of your life.

Because I had grown up around politics, I had seen my parents find a healthy balance between their political activity and the rest of their lives. I knew that a life of public service didn = t have to be a life of public servitude. You can be a wife, a mother, and a politician. As more women come to see that these roles are not mutually exclusive, more women will become active and involved.

But until then, what else can we do now to increase the number of women B qualified women B in positions of political leadership? I believe there are three major ways to accomplish this goal: as mentors, as role models, and as leaders.

As mentors, women leaders need to be intentional about opening doors to capable women whenever possible.

As I have made my way in public office, I have worked to provide new opportunities to the talented women I know and who have come to my attention. I= m proud that as New Jersey = s governor, I appointed the first woman to serve as a governor = s chief of staff, the first to serve as attorney general, and the first to serve as chief justice of my state = s Supreme Court.

If you were to come to one of my daily senior staff meetings in Washington, you = d notice more women around the table than men. My deputy administrator, my deputy chief of staff, the head of my policy office, and my press secretary are all women B very talented women.

I should point out, there are a few men around the table too B I do believe in equal opportunity B but the majority are women and that = s not a coincidence. It = s important for those of us in jobs like mine to try to provide talented women with opportunities they might not otherwise have.

As role models, women leaders need to present themselves as examples, serving with integrity, strength, independence, and grace.

In order to convince women B especially young women B to enter an arena where everything from your intellect to your fashion sense to your hair style is analyzed you have to see what makes it all worthwhile B a vision that drives ambition, a purpose that warrants sacrifice, a career that makes a difference.

One area where I believe women can be particularly effective role models is in restoring the tenor of political debate in America. Over the past few years, we have witnessed a disturbing trend B political debate has been transformed into finger-pointing and shouting matches.

One of the strengths of our country is our freedom to speak freely. Engaging our opponents with our opinions and arguments, instead of mud slinging, will re-establish the quality of political discussion in this country. This is a cornerstone of our democracy and one that we have allowed to be undermined for too long.

Finally, as leaders, we need to recognize that we possess a unique set of experiences and perspectives that differentiate us from male leaders. Women tend to be more open in our decision-making process and more willing to reach across traditional boundaries to forge solutions. As a result, we must recognize that we have the opportunity to redefine the idea of leadership.

The ability to work across ideological and political lines to produce results, make decisions based on what = s right, not necessarily what = s popular, and a willingness to serve others, those are the marks of leadership toward which we should be striving.

We all need to encourage other women in our neighborhoods, our offices and our schools to get involved, so that our perspectives and ideas are a part of the policy shaped in America. Local offices are the training ground for state and national positions. The more women we can get involved locally, the more we = ll see in our statehouses and in Washington.

One of these days, enough women will have taken their rightful place in the political arena that we will have a hard time remembering what a hard time we had getting there. As Maureen Reagan once said, A I will feel equality has arrived when we can elect to office women who are as unqualified as some of the men who are already there. @

A few minutes ago, I mentioned that New Orleans judge who ruled from the bench that women were A incapable. @ This is another one of those cases where women had the last laugh.

His ruling so outraged one woman, Caroline Merrick, that she became one of the first suffragettes here in Louisiana. Due to efforts she helped set in motion, women not only got the chance to show they were fully capable, they also got the right to vote B and to help elect judges.

So thank you for the work you are doing to promote women in government. While we= ve come a long way, we still have a ways to go. But there = s no doubt in my mind that we are not only up to the struggle, we will succeed.

Thank you.