Women's History Month: Lessons from 5 Historical Female Leaders
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Women’s History Month: Lessons from 5 Historical Female Leaders

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Leadership isn’t a new skill set for women. We’ve been leading families, communities, nations, and even armies for centuries.

Sure, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon that companies and governments have actively sought out female leaders. But throughout history, there have been stubborn, fierce women who refused to believe half the world’s population should be “seen and not heard,” who innately understood that it often takes a woman to do a “man’s job.”

Now, scientists have proof that women are natural-born leaders.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll examine the neurological differences that make women powerful leaders, and recap the important lessons we’ve learned from some of history’s leading ladies.

The Female Brain on Leadership

Women’s brains are hardwired differently than men’s, giving us distinct advantages when it comes to connecting, communicating, and collaborating, all of which are important skills for business and political leaders.

The Female Brain by Louann BrizendineOnly in the past 25 years have scientists really begun to study differences in the male and female brain. In 2006, Louann Brizendine, M.D.—one of the foremost thinkers in this field— published her bestselling book, The Female Brain, in which she explains:

More than 99 percent of male and female genetic coding is exactly the same. Out of the thirty thousand genes in the human genome, the less than one percent variation between the sexes is small. But that percentage difference influences every single cell in our bodies—from the nerves that register pleasure and pain to the neurons that transmit perception, thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

She goes on to outline many of the key brain differences that account for women’s unique leadership skills, including:

  • The anterior cingulate cortex, which weighs options and makes decision, is larger in women, making us slower (but often better) at decision-making.

  • The prefrontal cortex, which keeps emotions in check, is larger in women, making us more likely to resolve conflicts and avoid aggression.

  • The insula, which processes gut feelings, is larger in women, making us more intuitive and better at “reading people.”

  • The hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memories, is larger and more active in women.

  • Lower levels of testosterone help female brain circuits in communication, gut feelings, emotional memory, and anger suppression.

Communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence, humility, and other so-called “soft skills” are where women tend to excel. And as businesses have begun to realize, these are among the most important traits for leaders. In fact, 44 percent of executives believe this is the most critical skills gap in the US workforce and that American workers lack the soft skills necessary to help businesses succeed.

One obvious solution to this problem: Promote more female leaders.

Leading Like a Lady

For the most part, women didn’t get a chance to show off their inherent leadership skills until recent decades, especially in the US, where we still have a ways to go before reaching gender parity. (Case in point: While Hillary Clinton vies to be our first female head of state, more than 70 other nations have named women presidents and prime ministers).

Still, many female trailblazers—both here and abroad—didn’t wait for an invitation to take the reigns. They took it upon themselves to do what needed to be done, even if that meant going where few women had gone before.

Below are five of these powerful women, and the lessons they taught us about what it means to lead:

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former prime minister of Iceland1. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

Leadership lesson: Empowered women empower other women.

The world’s first democratically-elected president, Finnbogadóttir was a middle-aged divorcee and teacher with no political background when Iceland put her in office, and then re-elected her twice. Among her many accomplishments while in office, she worked hard to help organizations like Iceland’s Women’s Alliance turn the country into one of the most female-friendly nations in the world.

Margaret Thatcher, British prime minister2. Margaret Thatcher

Leadership lesson: Women are not the “weaker sex.”

Love her or hate her (and many of her citizens did both), England’s “Iron Lady” defied gender stereotypes. A chemist, wife, and mother of twins, Thatcher was known for her no-nonsense approach and strong will. As poet Phillip Larken once put it, “Her great virtue is saying that two and two makes four, which is as unpopular nowadays as it always has been.”

Indira Ghandi, former prime minister of India3. Indira Ghandi

Leadership lesson: Diplomacy often trumps aggression.

Like Thatcher, Ghandi was a controversial prime minister who was not loved by all, a reality which eventually led to her imprisonment and assassination. But despite her challenges and faults, she achieved some remarkable feats while in office. After the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, she invited Pakistan’s president for a weeklong summit to discuss their countries’ dispute over Kashmir. Both leaders eventually signed the Shimla Agreement, agreeing to a peaceful resolution, which eventually led to the creation of a new nation called Bangladesh.

Eleanor Roosevelt, former U.S. first lady4. Eleanor Roosevelt

Leadership lesson: Social injustices should never be ignored.

Roosevelt, who might soon be featured on the $10 bill, used her position as First Lady to elevate other women, including women of color. Her popular “My Day” column addressed important social issues of the day. And she famously resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) after the society refused to allow renowned African-American opera singer Marian Anderson to perform at a concert hall it owned. In her resignation letter, Roosevelt rebuked the DAR, “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.” Then she helped arrange for Anderson to give a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for 75,000 people.

Madame CJ Walker, entrepeneur and philanthropist5. Madam CJ Walker

Leadership lesson: Women mean business too.

After inventing a line of hair care products for African-Americans in 1905, Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) became America’s first female self-made millionaire. As an entrepreneur, she found plenty of ways to give back, founding philanthropies that provided scholarships to young people and making sizeable donations to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Conference on Lynching, and other civil right’s organizations. She was also the largest African-American donor for the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA in 1913.

These are just a few of the powerful women who helped change the world in their own unique ways. The list of leading ladies to whom society is forever indebted could (and has) filled books.

From Joan of Arc to Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony to Sandra Day O’Connor, Sappho to Marie Curie, many female leaders have proven it’s possible to be feminine and fierce, to be public servants and world leaders. So, while Women’s History Month won’t last much longer, their legacies—and the gratitude we owe them—will endure forever.

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