Archive for June, 2010


Janet Reno’s Mother Built The Family’s Home

Summer is here, and with it, a little more flexibility about how I spend my days.  As a college professor, I think every year this time:  this must be Heaven:  going with pleasure from one little (or big) project to the next, at my own pace.  I dash from researching women who could have been president, exercising, contemplating home improvement projects (and actually doing some),  and spending more time with my family.  And I’ve been reading a lot.   Recently, I read a chapter about Janet Reno, the former United States attorney general and I was thinking about the powerful message her mother sent the family when she literally built the family a new home.   Reno said, “she went to the brick mason, she went to the electrician, she talked to them about how to build a house.  She came home and over the next two years she dug the foundation with her own hands with a pick and shovel, laid the blocks, put in the wiring and the plumbing…and that house was a symbol to me that you can do anything you really want to if you work hard enough at it, and it is the right thing to do.”  I was thinking about the powerful role model that anyone doing something he or she  is passionate about and that is the right thing to do offers us.

 One of my favorite lines:  “action beats inaction”, or what Cindy Ratzlaff said at a Power of Women meeting “imperfect action beats inaction.”  She must have seen me on one of my morning runs. 

I’ve always been interested in invention, in speech, the idea of how an utterance came about;  in writing, what made the work take shape, and of course good, old fashion Ben Franklin-type invention.  I think:  “How’d you think of that??”  Invention to me is a spark of an idea, acted upon. 

It’s one of the reasons I urge people to speak about their passions.  You never know who you’ll inspire.  It might even be yourself.


“But there is something that I must say to my people”

Widely considered the greatest speech of all time, Martin Luther King, Jr. urgently and passionately let it be known that equality is not an option.

I am reminded so often of the power each one of us has to speak up and speak well.  Just today in my local, Allentown, PA area newspaper,  The Morning Call, there is an article about the PPL rate hikes.  One woman, pictured in the article had the courage to speak up and explain how the rate hikes are causing her family to suffer financially.   No doubt her passion and courage to speak will have an effect on the issue.  At the least, her bravery may inspire others to speak about something they care about.   What do you care about?  Do you want to do something about it?  You have all the power in the world to start today.      A civic-minded acquaintance   recently asked me to help him shape a message that he plans to deliver to civic groups because he feels strongly that the time is right for his message to be heard. Often, civic groups such as Kiwanis, Rotary and others are seeking speakers to add something of interest to their regular meetings.  Some groups offer online speaking suggestion forms on their Web sites.  Nothing like putting yourself out there in order to learn something new, meet people and challenge yourself.  Requesting to speak at a civic group is one way to share your passion.

When I teach public speaking at Penn State, I ask students, “Can you imagine what will be your rhetorical situation?”   A trick question, really, since most of us have no clue what will cause us to step up to the microphone and make our case.   For sure, most of us will have at least one occasion that requires us to be heard.   So this summer, I ask you to think about how you could share something you know about and care about with others.  It’s a generous thing and it makes the world a better place.   Whether it is racial equality or a more affordable electric bill, speak up and speak well!


We discovered women politicians are not monolithic. This is very good.

When Sarah Palin was introduced to the American people as the running mate of John McCain I had several friends say, “Wow!  You must be thrilled!”  As a scholar, of course.  More women, more writing about women.  What surprised me is that some people thought that I would vote for any woman.  Just because she is a well, a woman.   This most recent primary was very positive for women politicians in general and Republican women specifically.  But again, surprisingly, some women spoke out about how these particular pro-choice women are not helping to showcase women or feminism as it should be.  This article in the New York Times points to some of those tensions. 

As someone who has been studying Republican and Democratic women politicians for over a decade, I can say that this recent wave of  women winning primaries  is very good for reaching the critical mass of women politicians  that Witt, Paget and Matthews wrote about in 1995 in their important book Running as a Woman:  Gender and Power in American Politics.

Today 17% of women are senators.  I’m not so caught up in what women are winning.  I’m caught up in that they won.


Helen Thomas Reminds Us of the Power of Words

She’s almost 90, so it isn’t surprising that Helen Thomas is retiring.  That she is retiring because of her own words, does surprise me.  The words were harsh and she should not have said them, of course.   Helen Thomas is  a woman who has spent a lifetime thinking, speaking and writing.    My own experiences with Helen Thomas have been nothing short of delightful.  When I wrote Seen and Heard:  The Women of Television News, she was my first choice as a foreword writer.  I found her phone number in the Washington, D.C. phone book and knew I found the right “Helen Thomas” when her unmistakable voice on her answering machine prompted me to leave a message.  I left her my best “nice, favor-asking voice” message inquiring about whether or not she would write a foreword for my book about television newswomen.  A month went by with no response, so I followed-up and got the same answering machine message.  I left the same, nice favor-asking message as I did before.  A week later she called to say she’d be interested in reading the manuscript and if she likes what she reads, she would write the foreword.  So I shipped her the pages and a month later, in her own handwriting she faxed a five-page foreword for the book.  I trimmed it a bit, but it was what I wanted:  the perspective of a woman who had worked in the media for a long time.  She wrote:  “These women of television news toughed it out and fortunately were driven enough to insist on equity.” 

A year later, when Penn State Lehigh Valley needed a commencement speaker, she sprang to my mind.  Again, the phone call, and this time a written letter follow-up and she was all ours.  Her speech was brief, but it was gracious and inspiring.  Her interactions with students, faculty and staff were also warm and fun.  She was terrific.

Helen Thomas is stepping down.  By anyone’s standards she has  had a long and good run.  She said of the women profiled in my book:  “They had to prove themselves over and over again in a tough, demanding and sometimes merciless profession.”  She ought to know.  I take my hat off to Helen Thomas.

Nichola D. Gutgold is associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Lehigh Valley.

June 2010
« May   Jul »