The following post is written by Megan Dunne, spring intern for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.
This is the second post in a series highlighting and celebrating female pioneers throughout history. Some of these women have been largely overlooked, others celebrated, but I feel that all of these inspiring women have made important contributions to the state of women today.
Okay, so that’s a bit of a misnomer; my first role model was my mom. But right around when I was eight or nine years old, Governor Christie Whitman came to my elementary school and talked to us. This was the first moment I was aware of politics, and it’s pretty awesome that my first association of politics was with a woman. I often think back to the impression Whitman had on me, especially now as I am on the precipice of completing my Master’s Degree in Political Science.
Why did I think she was the coolest? Well, she was. Christine Todd Whitman was elected New Jersey’s first female governor in 1993, also making her only the 13th female governor in US history. Not only did she win, but she beat an incumbent—a rare feat in politics. As governor, she appointed many women to important posts, including the first female Chief of Staff, the first female Attorney General, and the first female Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. A Republican, Whitman cut income taxes, business taxes, and reduced the size of government. She was moderate on social issues and championed environmental causes.
Whitman won reelection but ultimately resigned in 2001 to serve as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. Currently, Whitman sits on a variety of nonprofit and corporate boards, started the Whitman Strategy Group, and was part of the initiative to bring the Super Bowl to New Jersey this year. She also wrote It’s My Party Too, a book supporting her vision of a Republican party that is fiscally conservative but socially tolerant.
All Christie Whitman had to do to inspire child-me was to show up at my school, smile, speak confidently, and hold the title “Governor.” I was a kid, I didn’t need to know anything about her policies or politics. I didn’t know what “Democrat” or “Republican” meant; come to think of it, I think I knew who Christie Whitman was before I knew who the President was.
The effect Governor Whitman had on me demonstrates the effect of female leadership: being there empowers others to aspire to be there. What I mean by this is that Christie Whitman taught me at a very young age that a woman can be whatever she wants. This woman was in charge of the entire state when my entire world was encompassed by my one-square-mile town.
I now know that my former idol and I would disagree on certain things if we ever were to meet again. But that doesn’t matter to me. She worked hard to ascend to where she did, and she brought along more strong women with her, paving the way for more women behind them all.
When I was a kid, I idolized Mia Hamm, Nala from The Lion King, and the Olsen twins. But I didn’t become a soccer player, an actress, or a lion (though it was a sad day when I realized that wasn’t possible). I went into politics, and in my job experience and my undergraduate and graduate courses, I’ve been surrounded by a healthy mix of men and women. So thank you, Christie Whitman, for pushing at that glass ceiling. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for you.