Women's History Month celebrates female leaders in E.L., MSU communities
When MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon was a little girl, she wanted to play catcher for the New York Yankees. Someday being the face of a university with more than 45,000 students was far from her mind.
“It was hard to imagine,” she said. “My parents were terrific, … saying that if (I) really worked at developing talents and skills and following (my) passion, specific jobs would follow.”
Simon, who is the first female president in MSU’s history, is just one of hundreds of woman leaders making a difference in the MSU and East Lansing communities.
As March marks the celebration of Women’s History Month, females across the city — both on and off campus — are making big strides to equal the playing field and close gaps between the genders.
Simon represents a campus that has almost 24,000 female students this semester — 52.1 percent of the student body, according to the Office of the Registrar. The university also has nine female college Deans, including College of Law dean Joan Howarth.
While growing up, Howarth’s mother never worked outside the home, but she didn’t encourage her daughter to do the same.
“At a time when she might have had the opportunity, she lacked the confidence,” Howarth said. “And on the other hand, she always had complete confidence that I could accomplish anything.”
Howarth took her mother’s support in stride and now is the dean of the College of Law. On her journey to achieve a leadership position in a flourishing community, Howarth said being a female wasn’t her only challenge.
“My identity as part of the (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender) community is sometimes a huge boost for my career and sometimes a major impediment,” she said. “I have the boost from the sense of pride from being part of that community, and the impediment of course, is the ongoing discrimination.”
When first exploring schools, she said she only considered law schools with a strong tradition of a nondiscrimination policy, with openly lesbian and gay faculty members, and found a home at MSU.
For Simon, as a first-generation college student from Indiana, she said she tried to look at women who were in a variety of roles and think about what attributes made them special to shape her leadership skills.
While she stands in line in the residence hall cafeterias or at local dairy stores waiting for her ice cream, Simon said she is constantly asking students what could make their college experiences better — outside of lowering parking and tuition rates — and what the university should improve on.
“I care deeply about MSU. There are always things you wish you could’ve done,” she said. “But (many students) still feel they’ve gotten a good world-competitive education at MSU.”
In the city
About 25 years ago, a lost Juli Liebler picked up a side job working in parking enforcement, checking meters and writing tickets.
After changing her major in college about five times, she had no idea what she wanted to do.
But after falling into a career she had never considered before, partnered with years of hard work and dedication, today Liebler is East Lansing’s chief of police, representing nearly 100 officers and working to protect citizens in the East Lansing community.
Throughout the years, Liebler said she’s noticed a major change.
“When I started here, there were only two female officers,” she said. “Now, 15 percent or more of our department are females, and we have them on all different assignments.”
When East Lansing Mayor Diane Goddeeris was young, she said there were paths young girls were steered toward that were considered “women’s professions.”
Now, as a city leader and registered nurse, she’s proving those stereotypes wrong.
She said when young girls see women in leadership roles throughout the city, it opens their eyes to positions they could achieve in the future.
Goddeeris said throughout her life, her parents and political figures have provided motivation.
“Hillary Clinton said, ‘Break through the invisible wall,’” she said. “It might not be easy, and sometimes you have to poke at it a couple times until it cracks.”
Liebler said she found inspiration and support from one of her supervisors, who told her there were only two people in the police department capable of making chief one day, and she was one of them.
“I thought to myself, how would he know that, I’ve only worked here for one year,” she said. “Apparently he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Liebler made it to the top of the ranks, but she said it was not without the support of her two sons at home.
“They like the fact that I’m a police officer,” she said. “Every time I go to their school, all the kids say, “Chief of police, chief of police.” It’s kind of cute.”
Goddeeris said despite those who will often disagree with leading ladies, it’s crucial for equality between genders to stand strong.
“The easy thing is to step back,” she said. “I would be the one to encourage you to get past the obstacles and just keep at it.”
In the future
As part of the current college generation, many female student leaders on campus are taking matters into their own hands.
During their weekly meetings, the approximately 40 regular members of the Women’s Council express their opinions on topics including politics, religion, science and women in the business world.
“For me, it’s not a matter of women in specific roles,” co-chair Alyx Ross said. “It’s more of a matter of people who represent women in specific roles.”
In her experience on campus, Ross said she is happy there are strong women in powerful positions on campus, but she believes they still are underrepresented, and there’s still work left to be done.
“Lou Anna K. Simon is a very strong woman, but we have a lot of policies at MSU that still need to be changed,” she said.
Using theatre as a model of female pride, members of the Vagina Monologues, such as co-director and MSU alumnus Stephanie Fluegeman, are encouraging women to take pride in their sexuality. The play ran on campus last month.
“The show is very much a celebration of not having to be shunned for speaking out,” she said.
Fluegeman said from her experiences, she knows the monologues have inspired many women to reach leadership positions.
“There’s always room for more,” she said. “MSU definitely has a lot of promise and potential to be gender-equal someday.”
Simon said she encourages women on campus to aim high and work toward a successful future.
“You may see limitations around you, but there are still possibilities,” she said. “You need to have big dreams. Those dreams need to be defined by you, not by the barriers around you.”