School & District Management

Women Step Into Leadership Roles at Teachers’ Unions

By Vaishali Honawar — August 07, 2008 7 min read
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At the national teachers’ unions, this is the year of the women.

For the first time in recent history, all of the American Federation of Teachers’ top elected leaders are women. At the National Education Association, women occupy two of the three highest posts.

Although more than 70 percent of teachers are women, the national unions have more often been led by men. That tendency is in line with the predominantly male leadership of most labor unions, noted Mike Antonucci, an independent watchdog of teacher-union activities through his Elk Grove, Calif.-based Education Intelligence Agency.

“The question we should be asking is, why did it take so long?” Mr. Antonucci said.

The new president of the American Federation of Teachers is expected to be a forceful voice in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The leadership changes come at a crucial time for the unions, with battles over the renewal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act looming and interest mounting in the thorny issue of performance pay for teachers. Many expect Randi Weingarten, who was elected unopposed as the president of the 1.4 million-member AFT last month, to be the unions’ most prominent voice on such issues.

Until the elections, held last month at both unions’ conventions, only one of the top three jobs at each of the Washington-based unions was held by a woman. Antonia Cortese, who is the AFT’s new secretary-treasurer, previously served as its executive vice president. Lily Eskelsen served two terms as secretary-treasurer of the NEA before her election as vice president.

At the AFT, Ms. Weingarten and Ms. Cortese are joined by Lorretta Johnson, the first former paraprofessional elected to a top office in the union, who is the new executive vice president.

A longtime union leader, the AFT’s secretary-treasurer is known for her expertise on education policy and is an advocate for a common curriculum.

At the NEA, Becky Pringle was elected secretary-treasurer after serving on the union’s executive committee. Dennis Van Roekel, the former vice president, will become the president of the 3.2 million-member union on Sept. 1.

‘Time for More Women’

“What’s most important is who the people are and not their gender,” said Ms. Weingarten, 50, who has served as the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s New York City affiliate, for the past 10 years. A labor lawyer, Ms. Weingarten also taught social studies part time in the city.

She added that she could understand, though, why the notion of women leading the unions would be significant to some observers.

“Teachers are disproportionately female,” she said, “and that suggests it’s time for more women in leadership positions.”

Mary Hatwood Futrell, whose final term expired in 1989, was the last woman to serve as the president of the NEA. Since then, the association has had four male presidents, including Mr. Van Roekel. The NEA, whose leadership traditionally moves in lock step up its executive ladder, is likely to see a woman as president in no sooner than six years, when Mr. Van Roekel bumps up against term limits. Many union observers expect Ms. Eskelsen to run for president at that time.

The AFT, which has no term limits, has had only three presidents since 1974: Albert Shanker, who died in office in 1997; Sandra Feldman, who retired in 2004 because of poor health and has since died; and Edward J. McElroy, who chose not to seek a third term.

As the AFT’s executive vice president and first officer to have been a paraprofessional, she aims to increase the AFT’s membership.

Breaking Glass

Long-term unionists like Adam Urbanski, a vice president of the AFT and a member of its executive council, concede that the glass ceiling so often described in other fields has been present in teachers’ unions. But on the positive side, he said, the rise of women leaders at the national level shows that it is being shattered.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in society fighting off sexism, and people now realize that what really matters is not gender or race, but an ability to do your job well,” said Mr. Urbanski, the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association.

Unions have themselves made active efforts to bring more women into leadership jobs. Observers point out that women have long been active at the local-affiliate level.

“The NEA doesn’t leave leadership to chance,” said Ms. Eskelsen, pointing to a leadership-training program for women created in the 1970s to train women to assume leadership positions in their locals, state affiliates, and the national union.

The NEA’s secretary-treasurer took part in the NEA’s leadership training for women and was inspired by former President Mary Hatwood Futrell.

Ms. Pringle, in fact, is a product of the NEA’s training program for women. Ms. Futrell was a major source of inspiration for her, said Ms. Pringle, 53, who started her career as a science teacher in Philadelphia in 1976 and later moved to Harrisburg, Pa.

“One of the things that’s extremely influential is to see someone in that position ... as a woman, as an African-American; it made me believe this was something I could do,” said Ms. Pringle.

Ms. Eskelsen, 53, the incoming NEA vice president, started out working in a school lunch kitchen, became a teacher’s aide, left to go to college, had a baby, and then went back to the classroom as a full-time elementary school teacher. In 1989, she was named the Utah state teacher of the year, and in 1998, she ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress.

The NEA’s new vice president could become its next female president, since the association’s leaders tend to move in lock step up the executive ranks.

“I had a lot of media attention because I liked to talk,” said Ms. Eskelsen, who is of Hispanic origin and often uses Spanish phrases in her speeches.

A love of talking was what got her involved in her local union in Salt Lake City and eventually with the Utah Education Association, which she led as president before stepping up to the national union to serve two terms as secretary-treasurer.

Asked if women’s leadership can make a difference to the union, Ms. Eskelsen said: “It’s not about bringing a different perspective [as a woman], but about the experiences I’ve had as a working mother. How do I balance home and work? It’s a question women are asked very often.”

“[W]hen Lily becomes president, it will be a different story” for the NEA, said Mr. Antonucci. “She will be more out front.”

Predecessors’ Efforts

As the president of the United Federation of Teachers, an office she will continue to hold while serving as president of the AFT, Ms. Weingarten has made headlines for butting heads with New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his education department on some issues, and for working with them on others.

Last year, she strongly opposed a district initiative designed to help weed out bad teachers with the help of a team of lawyers; earlier this year, she helped create and implement a performance-pay system in the city’s schools. She has also started two union-run charter schools.

Ms. Weingarten made personal headlines last fall, when she came out as lesbian while receiving an award from a gay-rights group.

In her speech last month at the AFT’s biennial convention in Chicago, Ms. Weingarten called for scrapping the current version of the federal No Child Left Behind law and building a new one. She also called for creating community schools that would provide all the services and activities, such as child care and dental and medical services, that children and families need. (“New AFT Leader Vows to Bring Down NCLB Law,” July 30, 2008.)

In an interview, she said she wants to build on what her predecessors have done at the AFT. “Al was a tough negotiator but also a follower of ideas,” she said of Mr. Shanker. “Sandy [Feldman] had incredible passion for kids, and Ed [McElroy] was about growing the union at a time of huge challenges to the labor movement.”

Julia Koppich, an education consultant in San Francisco who has written about the unions, said Ms. Weingarten will be a forceful voice for teachers as Congress works on reauthorizing NCLB.

“The AFT has learned that there is too much broken about the law to be fixed,” Ms. Koppich said, adding that both on NCLB and on other matters affecting teachers, Ms. Weingarten “will be a voice that will be heard on the national scene.”

Ms. Cortese, 63, the AFT’s new second-in-command as secretary-treasurer, is known for her expertise in education policy. To date, she has been the union’s leading voice on NCLB issues. She is also a passionate advocate of a common curriculum for all children and of after-school programs, because as a teacher, she says, she saw how much more was needed for children who came from poorer families.

Setting a Strong Example

Those who know her recall how, in 1971, as a 4th grade teacher turned school social worker, Ms. Cortese led the Rome (N.Y.) Teachers Association in a brief strike to win a fair contract. She went on to hold positions with New York State United Teachers, which is now affiliated with both national unions, for 30 years.

Ms. Johnson, 68, the AFT’s new executive vice president, began her career as a teacher’s aide in the Baltimore schools, where she later organized a union of paraprofessionals. Her hope, as she dons her new mantle, is to represent education workers, including teachers and paraprofessionals, as a single, unified voice, she says.

“My priorities are to bring more [paraprofessionals and school-related personnel] and state employees into the AFT,” Ms. Johnson said, “and make us the largest union in the AFL-CIO.”

Mr. Urbanski, the Rochester union chief, said he sees the unions’ woman-dominated leadership as setting a strong example not just for teachers’ unions, but also for the larger labor movement.

“It’s fortuitous that these new leaders are not only reflective of a majority of the organizations’ membership, but they are also independent of that. They are all highly accomplished and competent women,” he said. “I’d say it’s about time.”

Coverage of leadership is underwritten in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the August 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as Women Step Into Leadership Roles at Teachers’ Unions


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