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Top Girls: Humanities Forum

TRAILBLAZING WOMEN DISCUSS WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A “TOP GIRL”

Listen to a panel of accomplished women leaders for an in-depth discussion about their lives and experiences and what it means to be a “top girl” today. Panelists include:

  • Moderator: Joyce Kulhawik, Emmy Award-winning Arts and Entertainment Critic
  • Ruthanne Fuller, Mayor of Newton
  • Joyce Linehan, Chief of Policy for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh
  • Evelyn Murphy, President of The WAGE Project (former Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts)
  • Colleen Richards Powell, Vice President of Diversity and Corporate Philanthropy, MFS Investment Management

  Top Girls Humanities Forum

Read an edited selection of the conversation with Joyce Kulhawik, Ruthanne Fuller, Joyce Linehan, Evelyn Murphy, and Colleen Richard Powell. 

Joyce Kulhawik: Well first of all - thank you to this panel on a Sunday afternoon to be here. And also this play. What a cast, what a play. I mean, I sat again and watched it from the back, the last few scenes. And no one knows what to do quite at the end - you're so stunned. I mean, it's such a powerful thing and that play is so very much with us.

So I kind of want to start very briefly with just my quick overview of the play and then how it relates to what we're going to talk about today. I mean, obviously it's called Top Girls and I think it's called Top Girls and not Top Women for a reason. I think that's very deliberate on Caryl Churchill's part. And I think all of these women or girls are not fully formed in some way. This is my take on the play, I am a critic after all so I have to have my say. But all of these women, and there are no men in the play in case you hadn't noticed, all of these women are somehow either defined by, or enthralled to, or suffered at the hands of, or patterned themselves after men. So one of the pivot points of the play is men. And they've all payed some sort of price or suffered at the hands of a man. Either in terms of their gender identification or in terms of motherhood or in terms of the kind of power that they eventually wield. And sometimes they pay with their lives. I'm thinking about Pope Joan, I'm thinking about how she disguised herself as a man, and I'm thinking about Joyce - and we have two Joyce's up here today. Joyce Linehan and myself. And the Joyce in the play. She may have paid with her life. We don't know if Angie may have actually followed through on her desire to want to kill her mother. But Caryl Churchill again leaves that sort of up in the air, which is fine. It's the resonance of questions like that - what these women have sacrificed in order to be "top girls." Particularly in this Thatcher era. So it's associated with women having to really sacrifice themselves to some extent in order to make these choices. 

So my question is, really here today, as we look at our top women, who are, you know, who have achieved a certain amount of power in our fields: how did we get there? And what is the price that we have paid? So I'm going to just throw this out with anyone who wants to start - I mean this sort of my question. I'm always very interested to know how you, any of you, figured out that you could lead, wanted to lead, and what did you have to do in order to make that happen? You're all leaders.

Joyce! 

Joyce Linehan: Well, my experience was very different from most anything I saw onstage this afternoon. It was actually the final scenes that I identified with because I was very much politicized during the Reagan-Thatcher era. And so that speaks to me. But, I was raised by a single mom who was widowed at age thirty-three, with three little kids. So I don't think she had any time to put in our heads the notion that there wasn't anything that we could do. Ironically, the two industries that I've spent most of my career in are probably the most sexist industries that there are in the world - and that is the music business and politics. 

Kulhawik: Yep.

Linehan: But I don't - sometimes when you're in it you don't see it. Or at least you don't see your own place in it. I do take very seriously the position that I am in now and I spend a lot of time standing on Evelyn Murphy's shoulders and mentoring the young women who work in City Hall with me. That's something that's really, really important to me.

Kulhawik: Ruthanne!

Ruthanne Fuller: I too reject a little bit of the premise of the play. Let me try to make two points. One is I was able to make choices and at different stages of my life chose different priorities. So that there were times where after business school I worked full time, there was times where I worked part-time, there was times I dropped out of the work force - was home with a lot of kids, doing a lot of non-profit neighborhood things.

Kulhawik: You have twins and a son.

Ruller: Correct.

Kulhawik: You have three children, right. 

Fuller: Three children, twins are now thirty, the singleton's 26. I'm now 60 and very much working full time. But there were phases in my life where I made choices and I didn't regret them at those points. They worked for me. Keep that idea in mind, but then keep a little bit of campaign, the second idea, in mind. I was running for mayor and it came down to two of us and we were quite different people. My opponent Scott Lemon is a terrific man. But let me just paint a picture: male, grew up in Newton, and - by the way this play had lots to do with class, gender - there are lots of things weaving through it. So Scott - terrific guy - grew up in Newton, Catholic, early 40s, dad was a firefighter, lives on the north side of Newton, more of the working-class part of Newton, um - did I say Catholic? I'm female - obviously, older, Jewish, grew up in Detroit, a dad who was a lawyer, yes I have some Ivy League degrees. So there was all sorts of undercurrents. Scott and I actually agreed on all the issues. It was, if you had a debate - we had plenty of them -there was very little room between us. Thirteen days before the election Scott took out an ad in the local newspaper and essentially the first line was "I am the only candidate for mayor who has worked continuously for twenty years." 

Kulhawik: Irony of ironies. 

Fuller: There you go.

Kulhawik: Okay. And you didn't have to give up any of your children to prove anything. 

Fuller: Exactly. And so unlike the play. And again, I was in a lucky situation though, where a husband who was making a nice living - I could drop out of the work force for a number of years. That's not true of all women. 

Kulhawik: Right.

Fuller: So I didn't have to make that trade off. 

Kulhawik: Right, well it certainly wasn't true in Joyce's family situation. Colleen what about you?

Colleen Richards Powell: It's interesting. I've worked very hard for what I've accomplished, but I feel as if the sacrifices were made for me. I am a first generation American, my parents immigrated here. They both grew up in poverty, limited by--

Kulhawik: Where did they--?

Powell: They grew up in Jamaica. And they were both limited by nation status, by economics, by political situations - and they wanted better for their children. So, I was interviewing for a position in the White House years ago and they asked me: "What was the most important decision you've every made in your life?" And I thought about it, and I said: "The most important decision that was ever made in my life was made for me. It was the one where my parents decided to immigrate to the United States." Because that determined - it just determined the complete trajectory of what I was able to accomplish. And they always, like many parents, told me that I could do anything I wanted to. And my sister and I just believed them. I mean, we just kind of didn't know any different. So, and I think that they, you know they just thought, "well, you could do anything." And so, if you're playing the piano, "well you could be a concert pianist and you could play at Carnegie Hall." And well, you know, "You could - you like to take care of animals? Oh you could be a veterinarian!" Or you could, you know, you could kind of - you sort of had to be the hilt of anything. And so, mediocrity--

Kulhawik: Do you have brothers or sisters?

Powell: I have a sister. She's a doctor. Immigrant dream. 

Kulhawik: Okay.

Powell: Don't remind me. She's my older sister too. It's really a problem. So, actually, the reason I have accomplished so much is to compete with my perfect older sister. I think that one of the things that has been interesting is that my mother had two career options. She could be a nurse or a teacher. And her parents wanted her to be a teacher. And she really, really wanted to be a nurse. And so she became a nurse. And she loved being a nurse. She loved her profession. And my father felt - who was a research scientist - felt that her career was the most important thing. He would do all the laundry, he would bleach her uniforms, and he would say, "well, you know, your mother has to go to work, it's very important," etc. He would walk us to school, he would do our homework with us. I mean, he really, I felt I lived- I saw her example. I think that's part of why my sister became a doctor. And then I also lived through the example of my father, who really valued her career and her contribution. And, also told us that we could do anything we wanted to. And then I married a man just like him. 

Kulhawik: Is he right here?

Powell: Yes he is. My husband Adam Powell. 

Kulhawik: Hello. So we need a few good men! Clearly. 

Powell: Do we ever. 

Kulhawik: I mean having a father who supports the decisions of women. This is, you know, obviously we need men's help. This is chapter two, you know, this is chapter three and four and this is the future. Evelyn - clue us in!

Evelyn Murphy: Well, I started, my parents - my father finished the eighth grade and my mother finished high school. And my dad had a heart attack when I was about twelve years old. And that sort of imprinted into my brain that somewhere I would always have to support myself and the family. Because my wonderful older sister was very social. But not very oriented towards a career or business or work or anything else. But people loved her. So I quickly discovered that - not to compete with my sister. I would become the little data nerd and scholar. And so I ran through college. I started, my career starts before this play. And so, I have to tell you the first part of this which is in the mid 1970s Mike Dukakis gets elected governor. And he - and Kitty, his wife, persuades him that he should appoint four women to his cabinet. And so - and the Globe goes on - there's on the front page of the Globe all the time, "Who are these four women going to be?" And so-

Kulhawik: And it was a radical sort of notion. 

Murphy: It was a huge - huge! Yes this was big news. So, on New Years Eve, I am - there are three positions left - and Lola Dickerman and I are announced on New Years Eve that I'm going to be one of these cabinet secretaries. I'm going to be the secretary of environmental affairs. Now I had never been to a press conference until I'm it. Fortunately, New Years Eve, nobody really cares. Everybody wants to go out and go drinking. And so this announcement happens. But now I, having been in an architectural firm before this, I had been used to managing and running companies. But now I have five thousand employees. And I have these commissioners that I've got to appoint. And so I look around and I think, "I've got to have a really good" - then called secretaries, not administrative assistants - "I need the best secretary I can find." So I look around through the commissioners' secretaries, and I find Joan, who is known to be the best secretary in all of environmental affairs. And I go to Joan and I say: "Joan, I would like you to be the secretary to the secretary rather than just the secretary to the commissioner. And it's a great advance for you and it's more status" and everything else. And she looks at me and she says: "Madam secretary, I must think about this. Can you give me a couple days?" And I say, "Sure, take as much time as you want." And a couple days later I call her and I say, "Joan have you made a decision?" And she says, "I cannot work for a woman. I wish you well." But this is an era in which women couldn't work for women in the mid 70s. 

Kulhawik: Right 

Murphy: So, despite that would have been, you know, an advance in her stature and her position and everything else, that wasn't going to work. I have a great time in environmental affairs, get thrown out of office along with Mike Dukakis and decide I want to run for public office. And that the next step up for me is to be a Lieutenant Governor since I've been this Cabinet Secretary. And it never occurs to me that there's never been a woman elected to a statewide office in Massachusetts. This is now in the late 1970s, early 1980s. And what I found and what I find interesting is from that move of a woman not being able to work for another woman, the amount of support I had running for office from men. From guys who work their hearts out to help me get elected - I didn't get it right the first time. I got it right the second time. But all the way through this there were lots of men who wanted to help. And I also discovered the kind of good will of people throughout the state - wanting to see a woman break this barrier. And I never, never campaigned on it, I never mentioned it. But everybody sort of knew that was the stakes. The day after I'm elected, I'm shaking hands at Government Center T stop, and the excitement and the kind of outpouring of good will and excitement about what this was going to mean for leadership was just - it was so overwhelming. It was - it just sort of got to your heart. That's the transition that went on during that period of time. Interestingly enough right now, I watch the schism that there are lots of women now with women's groups advancing women. But I was at a gathering the other day in which Mayor Walsh was kicking this off about how men have got to get more involved with getting women paid and advancing through their careers. So there's been a schism here, in which we are still now having to pull men back in to this kind of support for women. So in that period of a couple decades we've sort of moved around here in ways that I find now challenging. 

Kulhawik: So, you know, if I'm hearing you correctly, these are all - these are the exceptions. I think that we are exceptional in some way. And if I may play devil's advocate for a bit, I mean I had a strong mother who worked and she was my model and my grandmother worked and my father loved that she worked and I got all that support. And yet, and yet, there were very few women in power. There are - we have still not closed that wage gap. I don't know what is taking so long, but that we're still talking about equal pay for equal work in the year 2018 is a mind-blower to me. That we still have a movement like MeToo that could bubble up to the surface in the last year and throw everything into chaos suggests to me that there is still an extraordinary untapped reservoir of female power, steam, energy, and leadership that has yet to be tapped. And yet, every single one of us, you know here, has managed to somehow break through to a certain extend. But, I don't think this play is as dated as all that. I mean, do you think it's a dated play? What's still relevant here. What are we still fighting? Because I think there's a lot of ground to cover. 

Murphy: Well there's still a power struggle. I mean in the workplace, you're right Joyce. The wage gap has not moved significantly in 30 years. 

Kulhawik: And I'm, if I may mention here, you're the president of the WAGE Factor. WAGE Project Inc. 

Murphy: WAGE Project, yes. 

Kulhawik: Which I just realized is why women - you say it. 

Murphy: Women Are Getting Even is what WAGE says. 

Kulhawik: Women Are Getting Even, right. I love that. Why women don't get paid like men and what to do about it.

Murphy: So it's about pay equity, yes. 

Kulhawik: So what is that about?

Murphy: It's - you know it's so complicated nowadays. It's about the biases that are there and about the unconscious bias that gets into promotions and into hiring. But it's also about a schism right now in which, polls show, if you ask men whether there is a problem for women in the work place - eighty percent of the men say no. 

Kulhawik: Of course they do. 

Murphy: Eighty percent of the women say yes. So there's a real sense here, from lots of men, that we've solved this problem. And we haven't. 

Kulhawik: Yeah. Just jump in. 

Fuller: The issues are still there if you saw what my opponent claimed, you know, what would make a good mayor is that you had to work continuously for twenty years. That has a lot to do with how people are paid. If you can move in and out of the work force and what that does to pay. In my first couple weeks in office I - almost all my department heads are male- of course went out to visit with them in their departments. And they would walk me around and - remember the title of this play when I tell this - at three of the department heads as they walked me around introduced me to the "girls" who worked there.

Kulhawik: Still. 

Fuller: Still. So that, that's January 2018.

Kulhawik: Wow.

Fuller: Another, there was an interesting undercurrent also in the play about power and who gets to make decisions. And whether you can work for somebody who's a female. One of the interesting parts also of being mayor is that two paramilitary departments report to you. Police and fire are - in Newton - a hundred a percent of our firefighters are male. And our police officers - almost a hundred percent are male, but certainly all the officers are male. And I am still finding it's taking a while to get particularly those two departments really on board. And I'm finding, I'd love to ask Evelyn about this, there's this trade off in the play about being a woman and being in charge. You definitely have to have a command presence and be steely in certain situations. But I'm also much gentler, softer, quieter than I suspect all thirty of the male mayors that were before me. So there's interesting worlds still swirling around  -

Kulhawik: Well right, this goes that whole idea that women in order to be powerful had to sort of pattern themselves on a man. On the way a man might lead, or the way man might exercise power. I mean to the point in the eighties, which is when this play was written, you know that we were wearing big shoulder pads. I still have all those, you know, suits in my closet they were out to here. We were like little mini men in some way. How different is that now? I mean, Joyce, what do you find in politics?

Linehan: I don't know - I don't think that women leaders are modeling themselves on men so much anymore. And I'm thinking about, so, about four or five months ago, might have even been longer ago, we had a great panel event that Lieutenant Governor Murphy was involved in. It was the five women who've run for governor in Massachusetts. There's never been a female governor of Massachusetts. It was amazing to hear them talk about some of the ways in which they felt that they needed to campaign like men campaigned. And - I was looking at these five amazing, powerful who, you know, no holds barred they have nothing to lose at this point. So it was just, it was a really raucous conversation. And if they had had that sort of, if they'd had that sort of energy at the time that these campaigns were going on we might have seen a woman governor at some point in our history. But it's really amazing that she was the first female Lieutenant Governor many years ago and we still haven't achieved that. 

Kulhawik: Exactly. This was a breakthrough moment and then a big pause. 

Powell:  You know, Joyce, you mention this wellspring of energy that women have and I think one of the reasons that we haven't seen it to this degree previously is that we live in a hegemony that hasn't heard women's voices.

Kulhawik: Yep.

Powell: And so there are a lot of things, I think things that we've taught our daughters that we've reinforced within each other, is "how do you accommodate the situation that we're in?" And some of that is just survival. And I think that what happened is that there came a point of rage. When women felt that they weren't listened to. When they felt that they really were in a position where this was just okay. We can just behave however we want. And so women started speaking up, which was an act of bravery within itself. And then women starting supporting them. They started saying, "You know what, that happened to me too." And it's actually not unique. It's actually really widespread. And then from the sheer volume - and you have to think, of all those people who've spoken up on social media, in the press, in the media - it's really still not a full picture of what is going on. And I also thought about the fact that we really haven't seen all of the industries' stories be told.

Kulhawik: Right. It sort of focused on the entertainment industry-

Powell: Right. And news.

Kulhawik: And the news industry. So we're talking celebrity culture in a sense. Because these are the people who have a platform. And we all kind of live our lives sort of, not all, but vicariously, it's like that soap opera that we watch, you know, who's seeing who and what are they doing and all of that. So they command our attention. But, yeah, what about the woman who's working in the dress factory and the boss is hitting on all of them and what is she gonna do?

Powell: Domestic workers. 

Kulhawik: Yeah, domestic workers. 

Powell: Law, medicine, finance. It's just the beginning.

Kulhawik: Yeah. 

Powell: And it's been a loud din. And so what I think is that, what I hope is that this will create a shift in terms of how, how these things are seen. Even when Monica Lewinski came up and said, "You know the way that I was treated back then, some of the same people who are saying ‘Me Too’ now, looked at me as this person who - this harlot." 

Kulhawik: Yeah. She must be a slut. Right? She must be that person.

Powell: Right.

Kulhawik: Although other people were saying sexual harassment, because she was an intern. 

Powell: Right.

Kulhawik: And then I'm thinking Anita Hill, saying-

Powell: Right. Right. I mean, so I feel like there's this, we're having this - these things have been going on forever. You know, unfortunately black people, black men have been killed by police all the time. And by civilians. We're just catching it on video now. There's just someone speaking up about it now. So the question is, with that knowledge comes accountability. And then what do we do about it? And that's the question.

Kulhawik: So, yeah, that really is the question. What are each of us doing in our respective spheres to make these changes. It isn't modeling ourselves after men. And they're nervous. I mean, are you sensing that? I mean, I'm thinking about this in the play where the wife of the guy who's been displaced comes in and tries to get his job back. And then he has a heart attack and keels over. I'm sensing that men are sort of on their guard now and it's hard to know like they're, they're not sure where to place themselves. Need we be concerned about that? 

Powell:  Can I say something about that?

Kulhawik: Yes.

Powell: Because what I saw was that women have also benefited from the hegemony. This was upsetting her system. 

Kulhawik: Yes.

Powell: And so, what I saw was she was somewhat complicit in wanting the system to stay the same because then her life got to be normal.

Kulhawik: Right.

Powell: With it being upended, everything was upended for her. So it's not only that men are unseated. It's also the order of things is unseated. 

Kulhawik: But I'd like to think that she's - she probably is feeling that way because it never occurred to her that she didn't need him. Maybe another path never occurred to that wife. That was her path. Had she thought she might be a CEO herself, or a doctor, or something, this may not have been such an issue. But the question stands, so yeah-

Fuller: A couple things. So last week  - the gun control movement continues in Newton and is lead by young people - a group of Newton North High Schoolers marched from Newton North to City Hall to talk about gun control. And of the people who arrived who took the microphone and passed it around and spoke so passionately and articulately - I would say ninety five percent of the people who showed up were female. 

Kulhawik: Interesting. 

Fuller: So it was, it's interesting that that generation and that voice are really empowered and are just magnificent I think. While somebody like me built on Evelyn's foundation and Evelyn built on others, I think there's another generation of women, young people, that - I'll also say one other thing. So on the campaign trail I spent a lot of time knocking on doors. You go to a neighborhood, you find out who the frequent voters are, you knock on their doors. Inevitably, a parent would call their girls to come see me. They didn't call their boys. So there's still something that we've got to get into the heads of the boys and make it as apparent to them that it's important to see women in lots of different roles and holding power and making decisions and having purse strings in their hands. 

Murphy: So here's, you know as I'm listening to this, the question about what we do next - because I think Elaine you're right - the potential is here right now that has been uncovered and ignited is either fleeting and it's going to go away again, or we seize the moment and do something about it. The interesting thing is that, because of our national leadership - or lack thereof, the play here and the action is going to be in the States and the cities. This is the place where we're going to have the changes. And it will spread throughout the country. The example for me is of the Equal Pay Act that Massachusetts passed late-2016, which takes effect in July of this next year, passed in it the ban on asking salary history when you're in a hiring interview. So you can't ask what someone earned before. It allows women, or people of color, anybody who's been discriminated against when there's, in their previous salaries, you lose that baggage. You make salary history history. So the interesting thing is, is what - while we passed that in Massachusetts before any other state, or the federal government God forbid, but it has now gone to Delaware, to California, to Oregon, to Pittsburgh, to New York City. The governor of New York did buy regulation pronounce that you can't ask salary history when you're hiring for the state employees. So what happens is, these reforms at the state or local level can spread in spite of the federal government. We need to do that on so many fronts. Whether it's Ruth on the, on the guns. All this stuff now. And the mayor, I mean, Joyce take it over because you're doing spectacular things -

Linehan: Yeah. I mean between that and the way that Evelyn and the team at the mayor's office of Women's Advancement is stoking that fire by training women - what's the number, eighty-five thousand women? In Massachusetts? We're going to train eighty-five thousand women in Massachusetts to negotiate their own salaries. Which is huge. So the American Association of University Women along with the WAGE Project has taken that on and we've trained a lot of women, heard from a lot of women who've gotten raises using the negotiations tactics. Including some at City Hall in Boston. So - keep going! 

Kulhawik: Interesting. And I'm thinking about, well two things, one is that I do know that one of the reasons that women often don't get equal pay for equal work is because they don't ask for these raises. 

Linehan: Yep. That's right.

Kulhawik: But the other part of that data is that even when they do ask for raises they, it's negatively correlating against them. So that maybe a hundred percent of the men would be getting those raises, but maybe twenty five percent of those women are still not going to get those raises because they're, they're very asking works against them. So that's a really deep, kind of, unconscious bias that's still at work. 

Murphy: Except that when you think about, as Joyce said, eighty-five thousand women in Boston, that's half the working women of Boston, are going to know how to negotiate their salary. So at that stage the scale takes over. And it's not so much, then it becomes more common place--

Kulhawik: Oh don't get me wrong, we should be asking for raises. Even if we're still not always going to get them. But it is a, it's sort of an extra thing in there that's a very tricky thing to navigate. And it's not like, "Oh poor me," it's just a fact. It's just a fact there's a perception. The other thing I was thinking about was something that Harry Belefonte said to me recently at the ripe age of ninety-one, I had the good fortune of being able to interview him. And he's been, of course, at the crossroads of every civil rights and civil justice issue for the last seventy-five years. And he told an extraordinary story about the head of the Pullman Car Porters' Union, who was having dinner with, forgive me, FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. And he was complaining to the president about everything that was going wrong and what needed to happen, etc. And FDR puts his cigar down and says, "You know, I hear everything you're saying. I agree with everything you're saying. Now you need to do me one favor" And he said, "What's that?" And the man's name is Randall - A. Phillip Randall. Randolph? A. Philip Randolph. 

Linehan: Has a statue in Boston. 

Kulhawik: He says, "You need to do me a favor. Make me do it. Make me do it," the president says. So, to your point, we need to get out and do. Politicians may know what needs to be done, but unless pressure is brought to bear, unless there's a full, you know, outcry somehow, things don't take shape. And that's still just a part of this. 


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