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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, May 13, 2018 1:00 am

Civic conversations increasingly in female voices

KAREN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

Chicago has no shortage of role models when it comes to inspiring women leaders. The Windy City elected its first female mayor, Jane Byrne, nearly four decades ago. Oprah Winfrey is synonymous with the city, where she long produced her syndicated talk show. Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama have Chicago roots. 

Yet there's a dearth of women's voices on the op-ed pages of the Chicago Tribune, argues columnist Heidi Stevens.

“Let's do better,” she urges her readers, making a pitch for letter-to-the-editor submissions.

I'm proud to point out Fort Wayne is doing better. As a reader you might not have noticed, but The Journal Gazette's opinion pages aren't lacking in a female perspective. Our editorial board – the source of our institutional voice – includes Publisher Julie Inskeep, Editor Sherry Skufca and myself. And our op-ed pages increasingly feature women's views, thanks to the efforts of Rachel Tobin-Smith and her co-founders at Advancing Voices of Women.

As I wrote last August, Tobin-Smith returned from the 2017 Women's March in Washington, D.C., energized and wondering what she could do to elevate women's views in public discussion.

She worked with Patti Hays, Marilyn Moran-Townsend and Faith Van Gilder to create Advancing Voices of Women (www.avowfw.com), with a mission of encouraging women to contribute their voices “to public life, the community square and civil conversations.” 

Since March of last year,  they have invited, inspired and encouraged women to submit “thoughtful, well-researched and civil opinion” on crucial topics.

Each Sunday for the past year we've featured those columns on these pages, adding dozens of new voices to the community conversation on a broad spectrum of topics: violence against women, infant mortality, white privilege, teen suicide and more.

In addition to raising issues sometimes overlooked in the community, the columns have clearly inspired more women to offer their views. While the Chicago Tribune's Stevens laments a shortage of female voices in her newspaper, I'm proud to note the number of letters to the editor and op-ed articles we receive from women is increasing. 

It's not surprising. When you see people who look like you sharing their views, you begin to believe your own views are worth sharing. There's plenty of evidence to suggest women have long allowed men's voices to dominate discussions – in newspapers and the workplace.

“It's the ol' I'm not going to say that out loud in a meeting, what if I look stupid, wait, a guy just said it and everyone thought it was pretty smart,” Stevens suggests.

Advancing Voices of Women is doing more than encouraging newspaper writers.  In an effort to increase civic and political participation, it took a cue from the successful Lugar Series, which has increased the number of Indiana Republican women in elected and appointed positions, and created the Paul Helmke School for Women in Public Life. The former Fort Wayne mayor, now director of the Civic Leaders Center at Indiana University-Bloomington, is lending his talents in encouraging women from all political backgrounds to join boards and commissions, seek elected office themselves or support or manage political campaigns.  A three-day campaign institute for women is scheduled for August. (See Moran-Townsend's op-ed on Page 12A).

AVOW, with support from The Journal Gazette, also has created a Civil Conversations series. Topics have included gun rights, redistricting reform and sexual harassment. The next session, on May 22, looks at where resources are spent in our community. Men are invited to participate, too, but giving women a safe and civil forum to share views is a primary goal.

I can't promise views shared in a letter to the editor or an op-ed column won't draw an angry or sexist rebuke. But the more women write and participate in public discussion, the more likely it is that those who have dominated the conversation for decades will listen. All views are welcome here.

Karen Francisco is editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette.