As an intern this summer, through the college’s Praxis Program, with the Women in Public Service Project (WPSP) in Washington, D.C., Christina Nelson ‘14 engaged in duties both substantial and quotidian, interviewing parliamentarians one day, transcribing speeches the next, helping organize panels, then writing blog posts, editing articles and researching policy.
The WPSP was launched in late 2011 as a partnership among the United States Department of State and five women’s colleges, including Smith, to advance women’s participation and influence in all spheres of public service, including positions in government and civic organizations worldwide. WPSP is a program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.
Nelson recently wrote about her experience at WPSP.
The email inbox flashed in the corner of my computer screen; a note from the youngest Member of Parliament in Afghanistan: “The quotes you chose look great. Go ahead and post it! Best, Naheed.”
The note referred to an interview I had recently conducted with Naheed Farid about how she was able to lead a successful campaign in Afghanistan only because the men in her life were receptive to the idea of a female parliamentarian.
I made a few final edits and uploaded the interview to the Women in Public Service Project website. It was only a few weeks into my internship at WPSP, and I had already seen former congresswoman Jane Harman (Smith ‘66) speak about women’s rights in the Middle East, helped organize a panel on domestic violence and gender quotas in Kosovo, attended a reception for women policymakers and politicians at the Sri Lankan Ambassador’s house and, of course, met and interviewed Naheed Farid.
I started my internship with the WPSP in June just days after returning from a semester in Buenos Aires. I was still accidentally inserting Spanish phrases into my daily conversations and craving Argentinian yerba mate, but life at the Wilson Center was so fast-paced that I adjusted quickly.
As a WPSP program intern, I didn’t have one specific set of duties. Every week brought something different. The WPSP team at the Wilson Center is small—only the director, two staffers and three student interns—so every member mattered. The WPSP brings together women leaders from all over the world—mayors, policymakers, parliamentarians, ministers—to discuss their experiences, challenges, and strategies for making change. It also organizes a mentorship program to connect emerging women leaders with other women in their countries who already have established careers in public service.
My time at the WPSP linked my academic work at Smith, my previous internship experience, and my semester abroad. I am grateful to Smith for granting me a Praxis stipend, without which I would have been unable to work at the Wilson Center with the WPSP.
At the WPSP, one of my long-term tasks was doing research for a report for the World Bank. I was able to understand this project in a deeper context after studying the history of the World Bank at Smith in my class, Gender and Globalization, taught by Payal Banerjee, assistant professor of sociology.
The summer after my sophomore year, I worked at a domestic violence research institute in Minneapolis, finding and organizing resources for women’s shelters in the United States. In many parts of the globe, the threat of violence from relatives and other men is one of the primary barriers for female politicians. Finally, last spring I studied social change in Argentina, one of the few countries worldwide with a female head of state, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is currently finishing her second term as president.
Women in public service face steep obstacles around the world. Often they are judged for their appearance and wardrobe instead of the merit of their ideas. Their political parties may offer little to no financial support, making it next to impossible to fund a successful campaign. They are less likely than male politicians to receive the support of their spouses and families. The United States, where women hold less than a fifth of the seats in Congress, cannot hold itself up as an exception to these trends. Still, studies suggest that female leaders are less likely to engage in corrupt practices and are more likely to prioritize healthcare and education policies than their male counterparts.
The women leaders I have had the opportunity to meet through my internship with the WPSP know firsthand how hard it is to succeed in politics. They also realize that they personally have a huge part to play as role models for other women and girls who will enter politics in the future. A sense of urgency and passion touches everything they do.
As Naheed Farid once told me: “If I fail, a generation will fail. If I win, a generation will win.”