When the subject is women's political leadership, Vigdis Finnbogadottir specializes in firsts.
Seventeen years ago, as the new president of Iceland, she earned a place in record books by becoming the first woman in the world to be elected a constitutional head of state. Now, having stepped down in 1996, she is taking on another innovative role. As first chairwoman of the Council of Women World Leaders, she will guide a new international organization of women who have held the highest offices in their own countries.
"There are women in the world who have been there and succeeded," says President Vigdis, who is addressed on a first-name basis according to Icelandic tradition. As the longest-sitting woman president of a country, she adds, "We need the women of the world to step forth and start to participate in democracy."
The council, based at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, hopes to increase the visibility of women leaders and promote women's leadership by drawing on the experiences of these leaders.
"Because women have historically been out of power, these women are enormously symbolic, in terms of what leadership in the 21st century is going to look like," says Laura Liswood, the council's founder and director. "The world needs new combinations of leadership."
Four years ago Ms. Liswood, founder of the Women's Leadership Project, traveled around the world to interview 15 current and former women presidents and prime ministers. She discovered many similarities in their problems and perspectives.
After compiling the interviews in a book, "Women World Leaders," and creating a video documentary, Liswood organized a gathering of women leaders in Stockholm last year. It was the first time many had met. The council grew out of that forum.
"One of the challenges in terms of what we know about leadership and who we call our leaders is based on history," explains Liswood. "History has been pulling from one pond. It's not surprising that if you fish in that pond, all you end up fishing for is men. You have to stock the pond with others."
Higher standards for women
Yet efforts to include more women bring challenges. "People set higher standards for women in politics," says Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, a council member who served as prime minister of Dominica from 1980 to 1995. "That sometimes scares women from office. It's important for young women leaders to know that we have all gone through this. There is no way you're going to make it as a leader without mistakes, but you must learn to brush them off."
Another council member, Maria Liberia-Peters, former prime minister of the Netherlands Antilles, explains that the group will not focus on women's issues as such. "We will deal with world leadership," she says. At the same time, she emphasizes that "social policies should not be seen as soft issues. Family life is very important."
Other participants in the council include Violetta de Chamorro, former president of Nicaragua, as well as former Prime Ministers Kim Campbell of Canada, Edith Cresson of France, and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. Also taking part are former Prime Ministers Maria Pintasilgo of Portugal, Kazimiera Prunskiene of Lithuania, and Hanna Suchocka of Poland.
The council will hold an annual summit. Members will also meet periodically with policy experts to debate global issues. They will be available to help newly elected leaders, and will collaborate with other international groups to encourage young women to assume leadership roles. Liswood deliberately placed the council in an academic environment so young women can be involved.
Although the number of women in top leadership posts remains very small, there are signs of progress. "The trend line for women leaders is clearly up," says Liswood.
Still to be achieved is what Liswood terms a major breakthrough in public attitudes - "overcoming psychological and other barriers to envisioning women as leaders," so that it will someday be "common and not exceptional" for a woman to lead a country.
Accomplishing that, Liswood says, will require "cradle to grave" shifts in attitudes. "We need to change our fairy tales, our education system, and particularly in the United States the incumbent system of government."
Another task, according to Dame Charles, involves identifying ways in which men and women complement each other in leadership roles. "Men will someday realize they can't be without women in government," says President Vigdis. "Everything would be richer in flavor and color if more women participated."