As Women in High-Profile Leadership Increase, So Do the Risks

January 10, 2011

We aren’t used to female leaders being targeted by an assassin. 

 I’m old enough to remember the stunned horror that gripped our nation when John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and former Beatle and political activist John Lennon were murdered before our eyes.   They were each courageous men who left tremendous legacies before being silenced by lone maniacs.  There is always danger in stepping forward as a leader.   The more visible you are and the more willing to take stands on controversial issues, the greater your exposure to the dark side of leading.   As a nation, we have learned that lesson the hard way.  With the pre-meditated attack on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the lesson just got more complicated.  

We’ve never had a national female leader shot down in cold blood.  I’m not implying that it’s worse for a woman leader to be shot.  It’s not.  We’ve just never had to face it before.   But as the numbers of American women stepping up to high-profile public positions continue to increase, so will the risks. 

In modern history, three women heads of state have been assassinated.  India’s first Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was murdered by her own bodyguards in 1984.  Agathe Uwillingiyimana  had served as prime minister of Rwanda for one year when Hutu soldiers killed her in 1994.  Most recently, Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister of Pakistan, was assassinated in 2007 while campaigning for a second term.  

Congresswoman Giffords, who remains in critical condition after being shot through the brain at close range, was well aware of the dangers.    Hundreds of shouting, angry protestors routinely gathered on the street corner near her office.    And, as she fights for her life, it is her voice that we have heard throughout the weekend as TV has replayed her eerily prescient words about violent political rhetoric.   “I think it’s important for all leaders, not just the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties, but community leaders to say, ‘Look, we can’t stand for this,’” Giffords told MSNBC  last March.  “We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list.  The way she has it depicted there are the cross hairs of a gun site over our district.  When people do that, they have to realize there are consequences to that action.”

This national tragedy holds multiple examples of the increasing role of women in shaping American public life.  Fingers of blame immediately started pointing at Sarah Palin.  This is a defining moment for the rising political star.  If her presidential ambitions are real, she must drop the confrontational rhetoric and find her voice as a leader who can bring calm and clarity in times of crisis.    

In addition, it was a  61-year-old woman,  Patricia Maisch, who prevented further slaughter by knocking the semi-automatic out of Jared Loughner’s hand and helping two men subdue the deranged 22-year-old while he was trying to re-load.    Renowned San Diego attorney Judy Clarke, who represented the “Unabomber”, has been recommended to lead Jared Lougner’s  defense team.  Charges against the deranged shooter will be brought by Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall.   And one of the victims,  9-year-old  Christina Taylor-Green, the only girl on her baseball team, had just been elected to her student council.  She was waiting in line to have her photo taken with  Rep. Giffords -- no doubt a role model.

Leadership is never an easy path.   But when Gabby Gifford recovers, which we all pray she will, I believe she will be the first to urge other women to continue to dare to lead.

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