It is my great pleasure to be in Atlanta today to help Womenetics celebrate the POW awards.
Elisabeth [Marchant], it seems like it was yesterday when you and I were sitting in my living room and you were describing the vision for Womenetics—look at it now. You have built an incredible resource for purposeful women who want to reach their full potential.
Womenetics is inspiring. Womenetics is empowering.
I congratulate the women who are recipients of the POW awards. You have been exemplary in your careers and community work—a shining example of lives being well lived.
As Winston Churchill once said, “You make a living by what we get, but you make a life by what we give.”
Today I would like to speak to all of you to encourage you to further your involvement in your community and state, and to step forward to let your voice be heard in so many important issues—education, the environment, economic development, and human rights.
Whether you speak out as an elected official, a community volunteer, or a professional—whatever your position, you can make a difference, if you speak truth to power.
A few weeks ago in New York City, the third annual Women of the World Conference was held, celebrating the lives of girls and women throughout the world.
Women leaders such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Burmese political leader Aung San Suu Kyik, Actress Meryl Streep, and many other women of valor participated in the conference.
Women, who despite extraordinary hardship, have spoken up for peace, health care, human rights, and education. The speeches from the conference are available on the Website for Women of the World 2012. I urge all of you to look at it for courage and inspiration in your own work.
At the conference Secretary Clinton spoke about women all over the world who faced incredible danger:
“Now, we know that young woman in Tunisia and her peers across the region already are facing extremists who will try to strip their rights, curb their participation, limit their ability to make choices for themselves. Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women. They want to control how we dress, they want to control how we act, they even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and bodies. Yes, it is hard to believe that even here at home, we have to stand up for women’s rights and reject efforts to marginalize any one of us, because America needs to set an example for the entire world.”
Secretary Clinton explained that in order to accomplish that “we have to live our own values and we have to defend our own values. We need to respect each other, empower all our citizens, and find common ground.”
The Secretary went on to say:
“We are living in what I call the Age of Participation. Economic, political, and technological changes have empowered people everywhere to shape their own destinies in ways previous generations could never have imagined. All these women – these Women in the World – have proven that committed individuals, often with help, help from their friends, can make a difference in their own lives and far beyond. So let me have the great privilege of ending this conference by challenging each of you. Every one of us needs to be part of the solution. Each of us must truly be a Woman in the World. We need to be as fearless as the women whose stories you have applauded, as committed as the dissidents and the activists you have heard from, as audacious as those who start movements for peace when all seems lost. Together, I do believe that it is part of the American mission to ensure that people everywhere, women and men alike, finally have the opportunity to live up to their own God-given potential. So let’s go forth and make it happen.”
Several months ago, I was at the Port of Savannah, and one of the women who works at the port said to me, “I noticed from your biography that you are from Pineview, Georgia. How did you get from rural, tiny Pineview to being the chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission?”
So, I want to share with you a little bit about my background, in hopes that it will inspire you to take a risk, to get involved, and to go forth and make it happen.
From 1994 through 2004, I was a candidate for four statewide elections in South Carolina – lieutenant governor in 1994, state superintendent of education in 1998 and 2002, and United States senator in 2004.
Although I did not win the Democratic Primary for lieutenant governor in 1994, I ran successfully in 1998 and 2002 for state superintendent of education, receiving more votes in both races than any other candidate on the ballot for that office. I served as State Superintendent for eight years.
I was the Democratic Party’s nominee for the United States Senate in 2004, but lost that race to Jim DeMint. And when I was nominated for Chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Senator DeMint was the first congratulatory phone call I received.
Senator DeMint also provided introductory remarks before the Senate Commerce Committee during my confirmation hearing and said, “Please confirm Inez. I do not want her to run against me again.”
Running four statewide races has given me so much insight, which I want to share in the hopes that I may inspire you to take on the challenge or to encourage other women to take the challenge.
People frequently ask, what motivated me to pursue public office, what got me involved in public office in the first place, and what has it been like to be a woman candidate.
My interest in politics began to develop when I would hear my parents, grandparents and relatives around the dinner table discussing the news of the day, news that would often involve political issues.
Every four years, we would all watch with great interest the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Hearing the speeches, seeing the candidates, listening to the commentators—all of it was both entertaining and exciting to me.
The nominee for president was selected from a vote count, and it was always thrilling to watch the conventions as this drama unfolded.
So, as a child, I had an awareness of the importance of electing good leaders and began observing the lives of public officials and their families.
Also, as a child, I wanted to be involved in leadership roles in my school—a small rural school in Pineview, Georgia, where the population was less than 500 people. My first memory was wanting to be the class fire marshal in the third grade.
I lost this election for fire marshal to my cousin, but it did not lessen my desire to be a leader.
My mother was an elementary school teacher for over twenty years, teaching in public schools in Georgia, Tennessee and California, as we moved with my father on Navy tours. She was a natural teacher and leader committed to quality, equality and excellence.
She also taught Headstart in the early years of the program. She was one of only a few white teachers to go to the then segregated black elementary school to teach Headstart. She led by example.
Like my mother, my first career was being an elementary school teacher in Georgia’s public schools. After teaching for a few years, I left to become a state employee in the South Carolina Department of Social Services. In this position, I licensed Headstarts, federally funded child care centers, and was the liaison to the South Carolina General Assembly on legislation to regulate child care centers.
This was the first time in my career that I had the opportunity to “speak out” on a social issue. It was empowering.
Day after day, I would go up to the South Carolina General Assembly as the liaison from the State Department of Social Services to advocate for a child care licensing law—it was my first experience working to get a law passed—I was 26 years old.
The year after the General Assembly passed the child care center licensing law, I became Director of Research for the Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee (called the 3M) of the South Carolina House of Representatives.
In this role I learned to appreciate and love governance and the shaping of public policy. I was able to work up with strong women like
Representatives Jean Toal, who is now the Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The 3M committee was responsible for issues relating to medicine, health, human services, aging, child welfare, the environment, adult corrections and juvenile justice, state military affairs, local government and social service.
After working for the South Carolina House of Representatives for six years, I was accepted into USC’s School of Law. One of my friends tried to discourage me from attending law school saying, “You’ll be 35 years old when you graduate.”
I said, “I will be thirty five years old anyway, and I may as well have a law degree.”
After the first year in law school, I married my husband Samuel Tenenbaum, who I met as a volunteer in Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. My good friend from high school, Caron Griffin, had married Jimmy Carters’ middle son Chip, and I was on fire to get a fellow Georgian elected to the presidency.
Samuel and I were also some of the earliest volunteers for Dick Riley’s campaign for governor. Dick Riley performed our marriage ceremony in the Boylston Gardens of the Governor’s Mansion on June 3, 1984.
It has been a wonderful 28 years with Samuel. He was my biggest supporter on the campaign trail and has been there every step of the way, as I lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Upon graduation from law school, I began practicing with the law firm Sinkler & Boyd in the area of health, environmental and public policy law. I left Sinkler & Boyd after five years to create a nonprofit organization called the South Carolina Center for Public Policy whose mission was to reform the state’s juvenile justice system.
A few years later, I ran my first race for Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina. I remember my first interview with a South Carolina editorial board whose endorsement I was seeking.
At the end of the questions on issues in South Carolina, the editorial page editor said, “Well, you are knowledgeable on the issues and well qualified to be South Carolina’s Lt. Governor, but will South Carolina elected a diminutive women?”
I, of course, said “yes.” But in my mind I thought, “Well, we sure have elected our share of diminutive men.”
The first question any candidate is asked when seeking public office is, “Why are you running?”
This is not just a question that people will ask you, it is one that you must ask yourself. Why am I doing this?
Running for office is not just a political decision; it is one that goes to the very core of your being.
Knowing oneself, one’s core values, are essential for a successful political career.
“The unexamined life is not worth living” is one of my favorite quotations from Socrates that has formed the foundation of my journey into public life.
So, once you establish your core values and want to run for the right reasons, the next step is to examine your life. Because, your opponents will be examining it for you!
If you are pondering running for a position you should ask yourself, “Is this the right race for me?”
Other questions that you have to ask yourself are:
Can I manage this race and my family obligations too?
Can I run for this office and work full time?
Can I afford to run for this office and not work full time?
Can my personal and professional life be open to scrutiny?
Am I physically able to campaign for this race?
What do I need to do to improve my physical stamina?
exercise is essential,
no alcohol on the campaign trail,
good nutrition is essential, too.
Can I raise the money for the race?
Do I want to win this race badly enough to overcome all of the obstacles and hardships?
Can I win?
In every race that I have run since 1994, I truly believed that I was the best candidate and that I could win. I have never believed that my gender was a handicap.
In an article entitled, “Why Don’t Women Run for Office?,” Brown University’s Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox established these findings: “Women perform as well as men when they do run for office. Studies show a complete absence of gender bias in terms of vote totals. Winning elections has nothing to do with the sex of the candidate.”
I don’t think that my not winning in the 2004 United States Senate race had anything to do with my gender.
In October, both my polls and Senator DeMint’s polls showed me in the lead by three points. President Bush ended up winning South Carolina by 17 points, making it impossible for a Democrat to swim against a tidal wave of Republican support.
Whether pursing public office or a corporate leadership position, it is so important to pursue your passion—your reason for living. My passion has always been and continues to be improving the lives of children and families.
The best gift for running for the US Senate in 2004 was meeting Barack Obama when he came to South Carolina to campaign for me. By appointing me to chair the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, he has given me the privilege of sharing my passion for the well being of children with the entire country.
As Chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, I am leading an independent federal agency that protects the public against unreasonable risk of injury or death from consumer products. Over the last year, we have been especially focused on the safety of
durable juvenile products, such as cribs, bath seats, and baby walkers;
pools and spas;
children’s apparel and footwear; and
recreational off-road vehicles.
I am proud of the direction—the forward-leaning direction—that the CPSC is headed in under my leadership.
Since more stringent rules were established in 2008, recalls of toys and recalls of toys due to lead violations have declined 80 percent. This is progress, and it is the result of hard work by the staff at CPSC.
Since the Pool and Spa Safety Act went into effect in December of 2008, no child has died from the horrific hazard of a pool drain entrapment. The CPSC staff and I are working hard to maintain a zero death rate from this danger.
Since the strongest standards in the world for cribs went into effect in June of 2011, the sleep environment for babies and toddlers is safer than ever.
Infant walkers, toddler beds, and bed rails now have stronger, mandatory safety requirements, which is another win for children, parents, and caregivers.
Independent, third party testing of children's products is taking place in the United States and around the world.
Independent testing of children's products is one of the most important safeguards sought by parents and consumers and it was achieved under my leadership.
Farther upstream, Chinese companies are starting to incorporate best practices in manufacturing. I have seen it firsthand. I have seen how strollers, toys, ATVs, and fireworks are made in China, and there are signs of progress.
My philosophy is to "take safety to the source." And that philosophy is driving CPSC's efforts to work with Chinese manufacturers to adhere to U.S. standards and build safety into product design.
CPSC’s proactive work at the largest U.S. ports is another win for the consumer and another sign that CPSC is willing and able to stand and protect.
Because of all of these accomplishments, I can confidently say to all of you that the state of product safety is strong—and it is built to last.
CPSC is the strongest it has been in decades, and I believe we are making a strong contribution to helping purposeful women keep their families safe.
One of the most inspiring parts of my job as Chairman is working with other prominent female leaders in government, including Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Jan Schakowsky, Mary Bono Mack and Jo Anne Emerson; Senators Amy Klobuchar and Susan Collins; and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, to name just a few.
These women display the characteristics of what I believe make for a good leader:
Many of the women in this room have these leadership characteristics, as do many women throughout this state. The challenge is providing a pathway to leadership positions.
The mission of Womenetics is to encourage young women to value public service, supporting those who are inspired to lead, and recognizing good role models in public office.
In closing, I want to share with you a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, a famous poet from India:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was duty.
I acted and behold, duty was joy.
Thank you Elisabeth and to everyone at Womenetics for inviting me to speak at this wonderful event, and once again, I want to extend my congratulations to all of the recipients of the POW! award.