The right to vote forms the foundation of meaningful participation and leadership. Most of the South Dakota colleges and universities that women lead today were established decades before women had the right to vote in the United States. Thankfully, these institutions were open to women seeking college degrees well before ratification of the 19th Amendment. It took nearly 70 years to achieve women’s suffrage — and it took another 70 years from that pivotal moment in history for a woman to hold the top leadership position in any of the colleges and universities founded in the 1860s and 1880s. Four of us are “first” female presidents within the last decade.
Grateful. There are many who helped pave the path for women to become college and university presidents and other leaders throughout the public and private sector. We celebrate first and foremost our forebears who supported ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Their sense of justice and self-worth along with their courage, hard work and resilience, resulted in the largest expansion of voting rights in our country’s history. Enfranchisement started the long road to changing attitudes about women as full citizens in our democracy who are capable and valued contributors to self-determination.
We also are grateful to female colleagues on our campuses — those who served before us and those with whom we serve today — who were among the “firsts” to lead academic departments, operational functions, governing boards and alumni associations. Their talents and tenacity paved the path further by demonstrating that women are equally competent and similarly gifted to lead as we partner effectively to develop strategies, manage budgets, recruit and retain talent, make hard decisions, and articulate visions for the future.
Purposeful. When each of us assumed leadership roles, we were well aware of the trends and challenges in higher education that require more innovation, more partnerships, strategic investments and creative solutions. We also knew that as women presidents, we would have opportunities within our spheres of influence to address lingering inequities and to empower more women within our organizations and within our broader communities. Throughout the past decade, we’ve navigated and managed enormous amounts of change to strengthen our colleges and universities, serve more students, and fulfill our institutional missions, all while being intentional and deliberate in fostering the growth and development of more women leaders to overcome barriers that clearly still remain.
The opportunity to lead a college, university, or other organization during good times is exhilarating and deeply fulfilling. The right to lead during times of crisis is both exhausting and immensely rewarding. In the year 2020, we have been faced with public health, economic and social crises that have affected our campus communities in ways we never could have imagined. But women’s struggle for the right to vote also happened amid crises — World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. It’s a good reminder of what turbulent times require of all of us. History is such a good teacher, and provides us critical context. We will weather the storms and achieve aspirational goals with focus, determination, compassion, and by supporting each other.
Hopeful. We recognize that the socialization of young women and men is based in part on what they experience and observe in childhood and young adulthood. This socialization changes with each generation, and we know that the dreams and aspirations of young women today are limitless based on the ongoing progress of the past 100 years. Many of our women alumni continue to break glass ceilings and become female “firsts” in their chosen professions. We celebrate them. We celebrate history while confronting the challenges of the present and looking ahead to the future because our campuses are communities in which young people are prepared to be active and engaged citizens, to contribute in meaningful ways to their workplaces and communities, and to lead. We are inspired by the level of public-mindedness of Generation Z.
In honor of the 100th Anniversary of the Ratification of the 19th Amendment, we are promoting the celebratory activities of the Her Vote, Her Voice campaign, including the “Look Up to Her” programming and the lighting of Mt. Rushmore. We also are planning educational activities on our campuses for Constitution Day, September 17, to reflect on the history of suffrage and voting rights in America and to highlight the importance of active participation in our democratic system of government.
Dr. Ann Bolman, Western Dakota Tech
Sheila Gestring, University of South Dakota
Dr. José-Marie Griffiths, Dakota State University
Dr. Paula Langteau, Presentation College
Dr. Laurie Nichols, Black Hills State University
Dr. Amy Novak, Dakota Wesleyan University
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Augustana University