Fels Faculty Member Marjorie Margolies: Bringing More Women to the Table

July 26, 2010

Photos of Marjorie Margolies with world leaders and dignitaries keep popping up on her computer screen, but she doesn’t care. Click, click, click.

Instead, she’s looking for a picture of a little girl. Senator Arlen Specter. The president of Finland. Valerie Biden Owens, the vice president’s sister. Click, click, click. Keep moving. The president of Liberia. The former president of Ireland. Click, click. Not as interesting.

The young Liberian girl whose picture Margolies is searching for - and finally found - had just come back from the hospital after having been raped. She found refuge at a safe house supported by Women’s Campaign International (WCI), run by Fels professor Marjorie Margolies. “There were about 10 girls between the ages of 7 and 12 who had all been raped,” she says, “some so badly that they have no bowel or bladder".

Margolies, who represented Pennsylvania’s 13th District in Congress during the Clinton years, started WCI in 1998 to help increase the participation of women in political and democratic processes around the world—“to make sure there were more women at the table,” she says. “This is our template: media message, grassroots organizing, all that stuff,” Margolies says. “And then we’ll do it with women who want to learn about entrepreneurship. We’ll do it with women who are farmers. We’ll do it with women who are interested in healthcare issues. We’ll do it with women who are political leaders.”

The work feeds directly into Margolies’ Fels courses, particularly “Women Leaders and Emerging Democracies.” “It’s really hard to live by a syllabus,” she says. “We concentrated on Liberia this semester, but another semester we dealt with malaria in Malawi.” For that class, they brought in the Malawian minister of health, a woman whom WCI had helped get elected. “Malaria is not a disease of a mosquito,” Margolies says. “It’s a disease of ignorance and complacency and stagnant water—all things that can be addressed.” Margolies later took some of the students to Malawi to deliver what they’d learned. “We went back and did a postelection training on HIV/AIDS, and we talked the women in the caucus into getting tested,” she says. “And it was unbelievable. If you talked the women in Congress here into getting tested, everybody would know that nobody’s positive. But that’s not true in Malawi.”

It’s the kind of class that couldn’t happen elsewhere, Margolies says. Based on her experience in Congress, her early career working as a journalist (she was a well-known correspondent for two decades for NBC, as well as a reporter for what would eventually become NPR), and her decades spent working with women, Margolies believes that Fels’ focus on helping its students develop practical public policy and political skills is important and unique. “You have to respect a school that is willing to say, ‘This is what you really need in life,’” she says of Fels. “Because so much of what we get in college, although very good, isn’t practical. And this is a place where everything is practical—you can use all of these things.”

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