Marsha Weinstein - A life of leadership

In 2014, the World Economic Forum’s list of the most gender equal countries ranked the United States at number 20. We lag behind countries still considered developing and violators of human rights. Honestly, I was surprised by this statistic, because I would think that the U.S. would want to be at number one, if not in the top three. One of the reasons many believe gender equality is still an issue in the U.S. is due to the lack of female leaders we have in the work place and in politics (1). Without female voices at the top, our country will continue to lag behind. 

This is where Marsha Weinstein comes in. Marsha is a gender equality activist, wife, mother, twice political candidate, and mentor. I’ve known Marsha personally for about five years and in many ways she has been a mentor to me as I’ve navigated my way through the making of Raising Ms. President. She has been supportive, helpful, and inspiring, all the things that women should be for one another. That’s why I had to laugh, in an ironic way, when she told me about her experience in middle school when she told her teacher she wanted to run for office. 

“And what really sparked my interest in government was when I was in the sixth grade and my teacher Ms. Cobb was talking about how government worked. I got so excited I said 'Oh Ms. Cobb, Ms. Cobb, when I grow up I’m gonna run for office," and she rolled her eyes." 

Unfortunately, Marsha's experience wasn’t unique to the times. Marsha’s generation was told to go to college to get a husband, not to get a degree or let alone be president. ‘Being smart, but not too smart’ was common advice and graduating without a man, well, was scary. 

“And as a matter of fact when it looked I was gonna graduate from college and not be married I thought, oh no, I’m gonna have to take care of myself, I wasn’t expecting this. And I remember after graduating from college which one I’d rather have: A man to get married to or a job?” she laughs. “And I thought, well, I think I’d rather have a job because who I ever marry is probably gonna die before I am and I’m going to have to learn how to support myself eventually, so I need to learn how to support myself now.” 

Marsha is practical and her good nature and determination to help other people led her to get a degree in social psychology with a minor in history. She became a social worker for the welfare department in Alabama, where she was born and raised, and soon met her would-be-husband while working at a crises hotline. 

“I was single, I started doing volunteer work at the crises center as a telephone counselor and that’s where my path crossed with my husband to be. He was in medical school and I would hear him talking on the phone to these people calling in and I thought, oh this guy, he’s really good talking to these people on the telephone.” 

Marsha and her husband were married soon after he graduated from medical school and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. This is when Marsha decided to return to graduate school and get her masters. 

“I worked for the department of disability determination, that was a state agency, determining who was eligible for disability, but I really did not like that at all so then I went and got my masters degree in social work at the University of Tennessee in Nashville.” 

In 1979 Marsha and her husband moved once again, but this time to Louisville, Kentucky where she became involved with the National Council of Jewish Women. This connection opened many doors for her and paved the way for Marsha as a life long activist. 

“I really was not actively engagement in women’s right s activism until I moved to Louisville in 1979 and that’s when I really learned about feminism and women’s issues and how to make change.”

During the 1980s Marsha started to really advocate for women and children.  She helped to form Kentucky Women Advocates, which included a number of women’s organizations within the state and across the country. It was during this time that Marsha felt Kentucky was failing children.

“Well the thing that is so horrendous and about children in poverty and abused children is that our public policy does not support children and families. When you have women who can’t afford childcare and they have to leave their child with just any random person in abusive situations. When you don’t have access to healthcare, when you don’t have enough money to feed your child?” Marsha says. “These are basic human rights that our society that does not support. Just take for instance the whole issue of breast feeding. Women are stigmatized for breast feeding and they’re feeding the next generation, and we do not make children a priority in this country, because you know, children can’t vote.”

In 2007 Kentucky was ranked the worst state in the nation for death caused by child abuse and neglect. A recent study published this year didn’t place Kentucky much higher, although some improvements were made (2). Marsha feels putting money into programs that provide adequate heath care, nutrition, and early childhood education are good starting points. 

“I’m glad to see some of the candidates for governor are talking about that, but what is fundamental to a child’s success is the first five years of their life.”

Marsha’s passion for helping women and children also formed her choice in political party. She is a Democrat and believes that the values of the Democratic party line up with her own.

“Most of the Democrats' platform is invested in people, paying for social programs, equality, all of those values line up with my values, that’s why I chose to be a Democrat.”

In 1988 Marsha ran for Kentucky State Representative even though she lived in a very Republican district. While she did lose the race, she feels that the overall experience was wonderful, as it helped her career instead of hindering it.  

“When I ran for office and I lost, but I met a lot of people, and one person that was particularly helpful, Sherry Jelsma, she was on the school board. and was also very close to Brereton Jones, who was Lieutenant Governor and gonna run for Governor at that time. So when I lost my race in ’88, I started working on his campaign and then when he won um, he appointed me the head of Kentucky Commission on Women.”

Currently, Kentucky ranks 43rd in the number of women it has in its legislature. We’ve only had one female governor and very few female mayors (3), although our next Lieutenant Governor will likely be a female, no matter who the voters choose. In 1996, Marsha ran for office a second time. She again lost, but it only made her stronger and more resilient. 

“I also ran for County Commissioner in 1996 and I didn’t, it was not as good of a race, I made mistakes, but I still, you know lessons to be learned in everything; my life can’t be perfect, I have to have challenges. It was, but it just wasn’t meant to be and it’s not to mean that I couldn’t do other things that were significant,” she says with a smile. 

And do something significant she did. That following year Marsha co-founded Louisville Girls Leadership, an organization dedicated to training high school girls to lead and to use their voice to stand up for what they believe in. 

“If you look at the economic indicators for women and girls in Kentucky we almost rank at the very bottom in terms of access to ah, access to good jobs, healthcare, political participation, and I thought you know if you really want to make a difference Marsha you need to focus on girls to raise a new generation of women leaders to change these numbers.”

Each year, one sophomore girl is chosen from every school in Louisville to participate in LGL. The idea is not just to train these young women for office, but to bridge the community and to talk about the issues that are important to young people. The program culminates with an Idea Festival for girls each spring. 

When Marsha puts her mind to something, she will go out of her way to see it through. She’s helping to foster young female leaders throughout Louisville, giving them a place to ask questions, be themselves, collaborate, and thrive. While currently she has taken more of a back seat with the organization, she has not slowed down. Marsha is currently focused on the next five years and what that means for women and our country.

“Well, what I’m really excited about is this 100th Anniversary of suffrage and I think finally people are gonna start paying attention to this whole issue of women getting the right to vote and why it’s important to vote and exercise your citizenship.”