WASHINGTON _ Twenty years ago, as she recalls it, Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold saw a problem in the public policy arena: Too few women.
So Farenthold, then president of Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., pitched an idea to other like-minded women: Create an organization that educates college women on public policy.
Thursday that organization, The Public Leadership Education Network, celebrated its 20th anniversary among the works of Mary Cassat and Georgia O'Keeffe at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
“Everything has taken enormous amounts of effort and has been incremental,” Farenthold said of the group, also known as PLEN, “but it has made us better.”
Today, more than 700 college women have participated in PLEN programs, which bring together students and women in public policy. Its graduates and supporters include lawyers, teachers, judges, and public policy activists across the political spectrum.
But at PLEN's beginning, even college campuses offered little awareness and information about women in public policy, said Ruth Mandel, now the director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.
PLEN's programs are open to any woman undergraduate. But the group, from its beginning, has focused on drawing students and support from small, women's colleges.
“At those schools, what we had to offer—small grants to stimulate the colleges to create new programs—would have an impact,” Mandel said. “We didn't want to get lost in a big university or even in the larger women's schools that have a variety of programs and funding.”
Mandel helped get funding from PLEN's first donor, the Carnegie Corporation of New York. PLEN remains a non-profit organization funded through private sources. The organization offers college women the opportunity to meet and intern with women in public leadership positions in Washington, D.C. PLEN's member and associate schools, totaling 21, also provide opportunities in public policy for students.
Helping women reach careers in public policy is as important today as it was 20 years ago, said Mary Hartman, former PLEN chairwoman and now director for the Institute for Women's Leadership at Rutgers Unviersity.
Only 12 percent of the U.S. Congress is composed of women legislators. That's not enough, said Hartman. “Meaningful democracy must be truly representative of the citizenry,” she said.
“Women need to be around the tables where the decisions are being made,” Hartman added. “Women join many organizations essentially to pick up the pieces because they were not around those tables when bad policy or laws were made that leave them out.”
PLEN's programs bring students together with women who work in public policy, such as Judge Gladys Kessler.
Kessler, awarded PLEN's 1998 Mentor Award, takes PLEN participants into her courtroom at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. As she talks about the issues before the bench, Kessler said, she avoids giving spiels about the importance of women in public policy.
“I think it's evident, especially being in the District of Columbia, that many cases and interpretations of the law affect national policy,” she said. “That, in itself, shows the importance of the public policy field.”
In the future, PLEN plans to offer international experiences that reach beyond typical study abroad programs, said PLEN President Marianne Alexander. The organization will develop internships and mentoring experiences that allow students to learn about different political systems.
But PLEN is already filling a niche, Alexander added.
“The past 20 years show we're filling a need that students feel and colleges see,” she said.
“And women leaders are willing to share their knowledge because someday they need to be replaced. They've got to pass the torch to the next generation.”