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"Founding Mothers" book cover.

Cokie Robert's book Founding Mothers is the next selection of the Humphrey Institute's Women and Politics Reading Group, open to anyone interested in the subject.

Women and politics: a Humphrey Institute reading group

Bringing them together in a Humphrey Institute reading group

By Jamie Proulx

Published on August 20, 2004

In 1922, Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia was appointed to the United States Senate. She served for one day. Merely filling a short-term vacancy, Felton still became the first woman to serve in the senate. It took her 133 years to get there. Thirty-three women have since served, with 14 women currently in the club.

Women in politics are, to this day, considered especially ambitious and courageous. The current 108th congress boasts the largest number of women in history, and yet the female-to-male ratio is far from equal. Increasingly, more women such as Madeleine Albright and Condeleeza Rice are given the chance to lead in high profile government positions. Yet, there has yet to be a female president of the United States and a woman's commitments as a mother still play a larger role in the public's eye than a man's role as a father.

"The biographies also reveal one of women's chief worries about politics," says Kenney. "How will I balance work and family? What kind of a life will I have? These women all write about their painful personal lives--their divorces and their bumps along the way. It's inspiring to read about how they coped."

Tackling the issue of women in politics is Humphrey Institute professor Sally Kenney, director of the Center on Women and Public Policy. In 2003, she, along with Mary Rosenthal of the DFL Education Foundation, founded the Women and Politics Reading Group in an effort to bring the wider community into the discussion. The reading group meets every six weeks or so to discuss books on women and politics that are aimed at a general audience. The group is free and open to anyone.

A lively conversation at a Humphrey Institute lecture about Fire in My Soul, a biographical look at Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton's journey to Capitol Hill, led Kenney to believe there was an unmet need for a book club on popular political literature.

"Without some added incentive to read them, it's hard for me to find time for books that aren't really academic but are more directed towards a popular audience," Kenney says. "The other piece of [starting this club] is that I feel it serves the Humphrey's mission well of bridging the academic and community divide. People are not necessarily going to read tomes of political science, but this is a good activity geared toward a community-based audience."

The club's past selections have included Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's book Living History and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's book Madam Secretary. Both offer a very personal look at how difficult it can be for a woman to enter politics.

"A number of us have genuine ambivalence to the compromises women have to make. What are fair expectations? What expectations are too high?" Kenney says. "The biographies also reveal one of women's chief worries about politics. How will I balance work and family? What kind of a life will I have? These women all write about their painful personal lives-their divorces and their bumps along the way. It's inspiring to read about how they coped."

Is having the conversation about the challenges women face in the political arena important? Kenney says yes, and sees it as a way not only to involve the community but to also engage women.

"Progress [toward more women in politics] has been incremental, and we want to accelerate the pace of change," Kenney says. "And unfortunately we are sometimes our own worst critics. With someone like [former vice-presidential candidate] Geraldine Ferraro, women felt a real identification and connection. With other women of today that identification varies and unfortunately some women are lukewarm towards supporting women in political roles."

Kenney welcomes all those interested to join their reading group. Meetings take place on Wednesdays at 5:00 p.m. in room 205 of the Humphrey Institute (Freeman Commons) on the Twin Cities campus. Upcoming meetings include: Wednesday, September 1 with Cokie Robert's book Founding Mothers; Wednesday, October 20 with Donna Brazile's Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics; and Wednesday, December 1 with Eleanor Clift's Founding Sisters.

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