Secrets of Powerful Women

Leading Change for a New Generation


By Andrea Wong

With Rosario Dawson

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“There is something special that happens when you get a group of powerful women in a room . . . and shut the door.” — Andrea Wong, President and CEO, Lifetime Networks “There’s such a reservoir of power among us when we pool our resources and uplift each other. We are limitless in our power when we understand that . . . To read this book is to know that change is possible.” — Rosario Dawson, Activist and Co-Founder, Voto Latino In the summer of 2008, sixteen teenage girls won exclusive access to dozens of the most politically powerful women in America. These congresswomen, journalists, and activists were supposed to talk to the young women about leadership skills and how to impact public policy, but they couldn’t help sharing much more. They told funny, sad, and inspiring personal tales of missteps and small braveries, as well as of great leaps; they also talked to the girls about power pitfalls, power surges, powerful beginnings, and power suits. Now those secrets are available to you. The wisdom imparted in this unforgettable collection of funny, thoughtful, and inspiring true stories will prove invaluable to women of all ages, aspirations, and lifestyles — in situations from the PTA to a power lunch, from the kitchen table to the corner office.


The essays contained in this book have common threads that run throughout, not the least of which is the impact that women can have on the next generation. To all women who are imparting their own secrets to power to their granddaughters, daughters, nieces, and the many other girls they encounter, we salute you, and this book is dedicated to you. To my own nieces, Erin, Anna, Alexa, and Elianna, this book is dedicated to you as well.

I’d also like to dedicate this book to The White House Project, a nonprofit organization that works tirelessly and smartly to advance women in leadership—in their communities, in business, in government, and, hopefully one day, all the way to the White House.

—Andrea Wong

This is dedicated to my two favorite women, my mom, Isabel Celeste, and my grandmother Isabel “Mima” II. It is your collective fierceness and perseverance that inspires me. Your love, support, sacrifice, guidance, humor, and larger-than-life spirit moves me. It is my life’s challenge and my aspiration to emulate and honor your greatness. I love you both dearly.

—Rosario Isabel Dawson

Andrea Wong, President and CEO of Lifetime Networks, speaking at the 2008 DNC Women’s Caucus in Denver, Colorado




Andrea Wong

There is something special that happens when you get a group of powerful women in a room…and shut the door.

If you’ve ever had that experience, you know what I am talking about. It’s not always easy to explain, but it’s a very real and palpable dynamic. There’s a sense of camaraderie that comes from the deep level of understanding of the opportunities and challenges women share. For example, we’ve all thought about the if and when of having children and how that decision will impact our careers. We’ve all had a woman—a teacher, a boss, a mother—positively affect our lives and help us get to where we are today. But, to varying degrees, we’ve also all felt or witnessed the effects, directly or indirectly, of a legacy of women’s inequality, whether on the playing field, in our schools and homes, or at our workplaces.

Some people dismiss this kind of gathering as a “sorority.” But it’s not frivolous, superficial, or even corny. And it’s not a forum for male-bashing. It’s simply a safe, comfortable environment in which profound truth-telling is possible. It’s an atmosphere where secrets can be shared and honored.

That is exactly what happened during the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions at Lifetime’s Future Frontrunners Summit. In both Denver and St. Paul, the sites of the two conventions, Lifetime and its partners CosmoGirl! and the nonprofit Declare Yourself gathered a diverse roster of leading politicians, journalists, and advocates to speak to the sixteen high school and college students who were winners of our Future Frontrunners essay contest. The initiative was part of Lifetime’s award-winning Every Woman Counts campaign to empower and inspire women and girls to make their voices heard in every hall of power.

Behind the closed doors of the two Future Frontrunners Summits, the most seasoned politicians of both parties let down their guards and shared intimate details of their professional and personal experiences with great candor, humor, and grace.

The Future Frontrunners Summit speakers—and now the contributors to this book—come from big cities and small towns, representing nearly twenty states across the country. They are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents; white, African-American, Latina, and Asian-American; Christian, Jewish, and Muslim; single, married, and divorced. Yet their life lessons and advice for leadership have much in common, including the importance of passion, mentors, organizing a community, and simply being your authentic self. And their secrets about power are…well, powerful.


Smile more: Martha Burk, the former head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations and leader of the fight to allow women to join the Augusta National Golf Club, reveals, “If we’re too assertive, we’re characterized as ‘bitchy’ and ‘castrating.’ This doesn’t mean we can’t be assertive and push hard. We just have to smile more while we’re doing it.”


The power of the petition: As a third-grader in Ohio, Lisa Maatz of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) had her first lobbying experience fighting for doors on the stalls of the girls’ bathroom. As she writes, “I had first asked [the principal] for doors all by myself and got nothing. In fact, I got worse than nothing—I got dismissed, even disrespected. But when I gave Mr. Ginke a petition signed by two hundred of my classmates, I had doors in a week.”


We may not be brilliant at more than one thing at once: “I was a single parent who owned a business and served in public office. Some days I was a great mother. Some days I was a very savvy businesswoman, and some days I was a brilliant mayor. I can’t remember a single day when I was all three at the same time,” confesses Representative Kay Granger (R-TX), “[but] my sons can iron and cook. My daughter can fix anything.”


Spice Girls, don’t let the system change you: Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) recounts, “When I first ran for the Congress, my husband and I had dinner with some consultants to discuss strategy. One topic I remember vividly was my image. They wanted to frump me up! Some people think I’m too sexy, too spicy, too open, and too direct. But that works for me. I say, choose to be who you are!”


Stay put: Carol Jenkins, longtime reporter and anchor and now head of the Women’s Media Center, shares a letter from her very first news director: “‘It has come to our attention that you are attempting to organize the women in the newsroom. Please feel free to leave at any time.’ Well, I stayed in the newsroom for over thirty years.”


Yikes, the path to politics can be unconventional: After surviving uterine cancer and becoming an advocate for women’s health, actress Fran Drescher found herself meeting with First Lady Laura Bush’s staff. “I said, ‘Lame duck, schmame duck—I need to share my message with women around the world!’ Before I knew it I had been appointed a Public Diplomacy Envoy by the U.S. State Department.”


How to get things done: Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) shares her favorite quote from Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”


Where we’re heading if we don’t support each other: Citing a quip from Madeleine Albright, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) says, “There is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women.”


The most important secrets to success that I have learned over the course of my career in the entertainment industry are easy for any woman to remember, whether she is still in college or she is a senior executive.


Listen: All perspectives and opinions should be valued and respected, no matter who they come from. A good leader listens to diverse points of view before making a decision.


Be kind: Treat all people, no matter who they are or what their title is, with respect and kindness, just the way you would want to be treated.


Build relationships: In addition to hard work and good performance, women should never underestimate the power of relationships when it comes to career advancement and personal fulfillment at work.


While it has taken the greater part of our careers for many of us to learn some of our most important lessons, we don’t want it to take the next generation so long. The Summit was created to unlock these secrets and enable the young Future Frontrunners contest winners to achieve even greater success by building on the momentum created by some of the foremost women leaders in the country.

It was beyond inspiring to see the awe and excitement of these young women when they got to visit the convention floor. There was also a sense of urgency at the Summit to quickly cultivate these young women for leadership. Today, women hold only 17 percent of the seats in Congress, 7 out of 50 governorships, 24.3 percent of state legislatures, and are ranked 71st internationally in women’s political representation, behind even Iraq and Afghanistan. Fifteen Fortune 500 companies, or 3 percent, are run by women, and women hold only 3 percent of top positions in mainstream media.

Several of our Future Frontrunners and speakers mentioned the “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” that Hillary Clinton so famously touted as a symbol of how close a woman had come to holding the highest office in the land (regardless of whether or not they supported her presidential candidacy). But many also lamented that despite this and other examples of progress, there is indeed still a ceiling barring us from changing these statistics.

So when we returned home from the convention, and when the glaring spotlight was removed from the historic candidacies of now secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former governor Sarah Palin, Lifetime and our friends at Voice realized that if we are ever going to crash through that ceiling altogether, it’s not enough to let only a handful of women at a time in on the secrets. We wanted to share them far and wide so that women and girls everywhere could benefit and so we could reach a critical mass. Because, as Marie Wilson, the founder and president of The White House Project, writes, “If we keep running one at a time…we will continue to be viewed through the lens of gender, not seen and valued for our agendas.” That is why Lifetime is proud to be donating the proceeds from this book to The White House Project to expand their “Go Run” trainings, equipping future women candidates with the skills to run…and win.

We are extremely grateful to the contributors to this book who took the time to turn their Future Frontrunners Summit remarks into the essays that follow. They are powerful role models and continue to pave the way for us to have a platform, make changes, and pursue our dreams.

For any men who may pick up this tome, please know that our purpose is not to debate the effectiveness of male versus female leadership. To paraphrase Marie Wilson, to be for women is not to be against men. Taking her thoughts one step further, we all have much to gain by enhancing women’s leadership. The bottom line is that we need more women in power because, as Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) affirms, “Good policy depends on input from a wide variety of views and perspectives.”

A final note: This is a book of essays by political leaders, born from the political conventions that took place during a historic presidential election season. It is clear from the contributors’ stories of policies they have been able to influence and enact that politics is a place where change happens. But you can make change from anywhere, and we hope you use this book as a guide to leadership in any arena you choose.

One of the central themes echoed in the following pages is, don’t wait to be asked to lead. This is your moment. As this book confirms, and as Laurie Westley of the Girl Scouts of the USA writes in her essay, “There’s a chorus of women rooting for your success.”

Rosario Dawson, activist and co-founder of Voto Latino, speaking at the 2008 DNC Women’s Caucus in Denver, Colorado



Introduction: Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About…Power

Rosario Dawson

While most people know me as an actress and singer, one of things I’m most proud to be is an activist. As a woman and as a Latina, I am passionate about helping women and Latinos find their voice and use that powerful tool in their political process. That’s why, in 2004, I cofounded Voto Latino, an organization dedicated to empowering American Latinos in the United States through registering voters, then encouraging them to vote and get involved in the political process.

Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in America right now—50,000 Latinos turn eighteen every month, and almost 98 percent of those young adults are eligible to vote (yet only 1 in 6 do). In a democracy, such a large population deserves meaningful representation, yet many American Latinos are still severely shortchanged when it comes to educational opportunities and health care. Voto Latino seeks to bring attention to this solvable problem—and that starts by helping the growing Latino population to participate and engage in their communities and our country. When we go door-to-door and register people to vote, we’re telling them, “You are powerful, you have a voice. Don’t hold back. Use your voice and make a difference.”

But Latinos aren’t the only Americans who are not utilizing their growing power. Women make up 51 percent of the population in the United States, and by the time you read these words, women will have surpassed men in number in the American workforce. Yes, women will be the majority of the workforce in this country. Yet conditions like unequal pay are still a stark reality in many working women’s lives. In the United States, women are more likely to vote than men, yet we remain underrepresented in our government and in leadership positions across the business world. For example, women and people of color own less than 5 percent of television and radio stations. They make up less than 25 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives.

So many women I’ve looked up to, from Rita Moreno to Jane Fonda to Eve Ensler, aside from being great dancers, singers, writers, and actors, are also great humanitarians and activists for causes they believe in. I love being an actress, I feel blessed to work with talented actors like Will Smith and Ed Norton, but my work as an activist is what makes me most proud. I believe that my work registering voters is a responsibility. I know it makes my mom and grandmother proud, too. They motivate me to go out there and ask people to respect their power and find their voice. Even on the days I’ve been rejected ten times in a row, it’s all worth it whenever I get even one more person to say yes and register.

Through this process—knocking on doors, approaching people in the street—I’ve recognized a strength in myself. Each of us has to find her own strengths to understand her power. My power is that I am a recognizable face and voice, and can help draw attention to issues and to people who haven’t yet found their voice. I have spoken on many panels and addressed many groups, and I’ve often been told I should run for office myself. Friends call me Senator Dawson, and that cracks me up. While I have no desire to run for office myself, I find joy in exercising my civic duty by going out and telling people that they are powerful. I was raised by strong people who didn’t necessarily have great titles but who were powerful in life. Their generosity in encouraging me, in advocating for me, is something I can also do for other people.

What is your strength?

Often, when Voto Latino registers someone in their thirties or forties and it’s their first time voting, we ask why they’ve never voted, and they say it’s because no one  ever asked them. When Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, asks why women haven’t run for higher office, the answer is the same as when I talk to unregistered Latinos: They are waiting to be asked.

The women sharing their knowledge, stories, and passion in this book are asking you to step up, find your voice—your power—and use it. These women are trailblazers and daredevils, like Madeleine Kunin, the first woman governor of Vermont, and Loretta Sanchez, the first Latina to serve on the House Judiciary Committee. They are Congresswomen and lobbyists and journalists. They are Republicans and Democrats. They are from Tennessee and Washington State, from Texas and Vermont, from rural Colombia and New York City. They are white, black, Asian, and Latino. All their stories are stories of passion—and all the insights into power they share here are culled from enthusiasm and adventure. These women are relating their experience of becoming leaders, but their words are only one half of a conversation. I hope you will want to talk back to them—to the world—with your actions. Voting is the first, fundamental step. But after we have shown up at the polls, some of us should consider taking the next step. And then the next and the next and the next. Into leadership positions…into power.

What is your next step?

Throughout this book, women leaders share their favorite quote, the one that keeps them going. Michelle Bernard cites one by Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” If you start acquainting yourself with your own power, you will see that there is little to no fear. There’s such a reservoir of power among us when we pool our resources and uplift one another. We are limitless in our power when we understand that. And that’s why it’s so important that we talk about power together. It’s incredible to hear the stories, the passion that comes out of us.

The endurance of women is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’m blown away by the strength of my grandmother, who raised five children alone. We need to understand that women are this world’s precious resource, and to see to it that every woman and child is safe to walk the streets and take her dreams to the top. We have to get past the point where we diminish one another. During the 2008 presidential race, the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were both undermined by the derogatory words journalists wrote about these candidates’ wardrobes and demeanor—and many of the journalists who wrote these things were women. When we depict one another that way, we’re fighting against one another when we should be fighting together. This is not something we can blame on men. It’s our doing.

But we can change. To read this book is to know that change is possible. Almost every woman here was profoundly inspired by a mother (or aunt or grandma) who worked in a time and place when it was unusual for women to work—and they all comment on the importance of these pioneers having opened the door for the rest of us. The same is true for me. I grew up in a squat on the Lower East Side in New York City. My mom got pregnant with me at sixteen. We were poor for my entire childhood, and I wasn’t able to go to college because we couldn’t afford it. But my mom worked. She cleaned and found work doing freelance carpentry and plumbing. And my mom has always been an activist. These days she’s using her carpentry and plumbing skills at her boyfriend’s medical clinic in the Dominican Republic. She’s also using her activist experience and people skills to help raise money for the clinic. Because of my mom, I’ve recognized women’s resourcefulness and our interconnectedness as a populace since I was very, very young. That’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about being an advocate—I was raised that way. Having that understanding is almost like speaking a different language, and I’m very fluent in it. So I try to encourage other people to learn that language and find their voice.

If your mother amazed you, you will relate to the women who share their stories here—and you’ll see the kind of wonderful lives such mothering inspires. If your mother wasn’t able to be a role model, if your mother didn’t inspire you, then you especially should take up this book. These women are offering their strength and good humor. Take it all. It’s yours.

Local Girl Does Good

Kathy Lantry

St. Paul City Council president and its only woman member

Love Thy Neighborhood


On Sale
Feb 2, 2010
Page Count
208 pages
Hachette Books

Andrea Wong

About the Author

Andrea Wong is President and CEO of Lifetime Entertainment and was previously Executive Vice President of Alternative Programming, Specials and Late-Night, ABC Entertainment. Her long list of business successes include importing Dancing with the Stars from the UK to ABC, taking Lifetime from moribund to hot within a year, stealing Project Runway from Bravo for Lifetime, etc. She’s a graduate of MIT and of Stanford Business School. She was chosen to speak before the Women’s Caucus at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

Learn more about this author