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Woodhull Institute Brings Women into the Public Debate

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When was the last time a crowd applauded for you? Better yet, when was the last time you let yourself actually bask in that applause without bowing your head in embarrassment or humility, or running off the stage with a nervous smile pasted on your lips?

I stood before a dozen of my peers on a warm summer morning in the Berkshire Mountains gazing at their smiles and listening to that clatter of hands coming together. There, I realized how difficult it is to revel in applause. But we women should—we deserve it.

That’s one of the many leadership and life lessons I have learned from the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, a New York City-based non-profit that offers professional development and leadership training to women nationwide. In August 2005, I took part in the organization’s five-day young women’s seminar on 100 acres of trees, hills and grassy meadows in Ancramdale, New York.

Most of Woodhull’s young women retreats—the core of its program—take place over weekends, three days crammed with discussions, lectures, and workshops. The five-day program is an indulgence: twelve modules covering such topics as ethical leadership and ethical dilemmas, voice, civic responsibility, conflict resolution, nutrition, and diversity. In between the serious business are hikes on the property, rap sessions, and an afternoon at a nearby state park.

Created in 1997 by best-selling feminist author and speaker Naomi Wolf, and radio producer Margot Magowan, Woodhull is not like other women’s professional development organizations. One can learn public speaking and money management anywhere, but at Woodhull, you learn just how much of a responsibility it is to teach these skills, as well. “Women that go through our program understand that, as they rise into leadership positions, they have a moral and social obligation to the rest of the world,” explains Wende Jager-Hyman, executive director. “We train all of our women to realize that they have to give back and become mentors for women coming up the ranks behind them.”

The 20- and 30-something women on my retreat were successful in their own rights: among us was an opera singer, an author, a political strategist, a book editor, and an entrepreneur. With all that knowledge and power in just one room during just one retreat, it’s amazing that just 14 percent of guests on Sunday morning political talk shows are women, according to a 2005 study by the White House Project. More than 50 percent of those influential programs included no women at all, the study found.

Using those statistics, Woodhull has expanded to train women in writing book proposals, op-eds and other media, and Woodhull Fellows, experts in several industries, serve as mentors as well as public speakers. “As some of the women [who have gone through our retreats] are reaching levels of expertise and are in leadership positions,” Jager-Hyman explains, “we want to ensure their voices get out into the public debate.” Holding retreats in cities including Miami, Atlanta, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Chicago, Jager-Hyman says Woodhull will expand to four new cities each year. This year, Woodhull is offering an intergenerational retreat along with its young women’s, 30-something women and older women’s retreats.

Woodhull takes a holistic approach to leadership development. It’s not just about practical skills but about tackling the psychology behind them, Jager-Hyman adds. “Women have an inherent aversion to positions of power. They shy away from realizing they can handle money and it’s really what you do with your money and power that’s the crux,” Jager-Hyman says. “The negative connotations around those words are something we deal with on a visceral, emotional level.”

That explains in some way why it’s so hard to accept, let alone enjoy, applause—but how crucial it is to do so. Once you are a Woodhull woman, now more than 1,300 strong, you belong to a group that keeps clapping for you. “You join a community that understands the need to work together and the power of having access to each other,” Jager-Hyman says, “so each one becomes more successful.”

Don’t hold the applause.


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