by Katie Kohler
Women make up nearly a quarter of Congress’s voting membership — the highest percentage in U.S. history. A record 102 women serve in the House of Representatives, and more than a third of them (35) won their seats during the 2018 midterms. The 2018 midterms also sent five new women to the Senate, upping the total to 25. For the first time in history, there are five women running for a single party’s presidential nomination.
The record number of women running for office and winning elections may have spurred the “Year of the Woman” event at Chestnut Hill College, but for many, it’s been a long time coming.
On March 21st, the College’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, as part of the Cultural Awareness Series, sponsored a panel discussion in celebration of Women's History Month. Women had to wait hundreds of years to reach many historical moments, such as being granted the right to vote. They also had to wait, albeit a few minutes, for the start of the event, which was delayed because of rain and traffic.
The discussion at the event revolved around women in the public service sector. Participants shared stories of their journey into leadership positions and the growing trend of women getting involved in public service and politics.
Farah Jimenez, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund, moderated the discussion, which consisted of panelists Cindy Bass, Philadelphia councilwoman; Rebeca Cruz-Esteves, the president of Philadelphia’s League of United Latin American Citizens; and Pearl Kim, a 2018 Pennsylvania congressional candidate and special victims prosecutor. (Ari Perelman, the executive director of Philadelphia 3.0 was scheduled to appear, but had the flu.)
At the event, Carol Jean Vale, SSJ, Ph.D., president of the College, gave the welcoming address, which included a challenge.
“One of the greatest puzzlements for me is that women are often women’s harshest critics,” Sister Carol said. “I wonder why it is that a woman does not want another woman to excel in her respective field. If we can determine why these attitudes persist, it will empower us to address them in effective and persuasive ways.”
Then, the panelists shared the respective paths they took to earn their leadership roles, the advice that shaped their perspectives, and their long-term view of the “Year of the Woman.”
“It’s serious business. It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Bass of a life in public service.
Through volunteering and being engaged in politics, Bass realized public service was an avenue to bring about change for communities. She was raised by a single mother in North Philadelphia and was unhappy with the living conditions.
“I wondered why my neighborhood looked and felt as it did and what I could do to make it different,” she said.
Bass took office in 2012 and has since fought for quality of life issues, including eliminating blight in neighborhoods, keeping schools open in underserved communities, and ensuring the city’s tax structure doesn’t tax people out of their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Cruz-Esteves’s upbringing in different socioeconomic neighborhoods proved to be her key influence.
“It made me see the disparity of the communities I grew up in. I couldn’t turn a blind eye to it. I wanted people to have an equal opportunity to obtain accomplishments,” Cruz-Esteves said.
Cruz-Esteves is the CEO and founding partner of Populouz, an organizational effectiveness consulting firm. She serves as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Pennsylvania National Guard and as the president of Philadelphia’s League of United Latin American Citizen. She previously led communications and professional networks at the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, one of the leading minority chambers in the city of Philadelphia.
“Someone has to take the lead, and sometimes it has to be you,” Cruz-Esteves said.
Kim’s path to public service was the result of her experience as a victim of campus sexual assault. She went through the criminal justice system as a victim and was displeased with her prosecutor and the system.
“I did not get the justice I was seeking and it changed the course of my life. I decided to become a special victim prosecutor,” Kim said.
Kim joined the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office in 2007, where she eventually led the Human Trafficking Unit in the Special Victims and Domestic Violence Division. In 2017, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro chose Kim to lead his campus security initiative. In 2018, Kim was the Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District; however, she lost the election to Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon.
On the campaign trail, Kim found it frustrating when she heard whispers questioning her toughness despite being a survivor of both sexual assault and cancer and securing the first human trafficking conviction in Pennsylvania.
“I spent a decade as a special victims prosecutor, prosecuting some very dangerous individuals,” Kim said. “Yes, I’m tough enough. It made me wonder, ‘Is it my gender? Is it because I’m an Asian-American female when there is that stereotype?’”
For the panelists, the “Year of the Woman” could be longer, and its impact is already going beyond any calendar year or election period.
“I think there is there is no going back. This is what you will continue to see in the future,” Bass said. “I encourage my daughter that she can do whatever she wants. The sky is the limit.”
Cruz-Esteves added: “I think we broke the political glass ceiling. The days are over of just one woman running for a seat. We are breaking barriers in a number of different ways, and I don’t see it stopping.”