Marie C. Wilson

By:Judith B. Taylor Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Jewel Of Collaboration

For Marie C. Wilson, founder of the White House Project (a national, organization, which aims to advance women's leadership in all communities and in every sphere—political and social, cultural and economic) risk taking and the connection to collaboration was something she learned at an early age while living in Des Moines, Iowa.


During an Outward Bound trip, Wilson took on the challenge of rock climbing while blindfolded in the rain. Wilson felt the depth of what risk taking was all about and never forgot the experience.Raised in the 40s and 50s in Georgia, Wilson lived during the period when women were limited in their roles. She was a Homecoming Queen, class officer and cheerleader….she was a CEO of a complicated household, supporting her family. Wilson was involved in church related social issues and lobbied for affordable childcare. She found her ideas about women’s roles were viewed in some circles as dangerous and revolutionary.

With her tenacity and willingness to take on new challenges, the mother of five was elected to office in 1983. As the first woman to serve on the Des Moines City Council as a member-at-large. With a spirit for adventure and change, she took a dare from a friend. She applied for the job of executive director of the Ms. Foundation for Women in New York. “It was a glorious interview,” she said. “You belong here,” she was told.

Still, it was a risk to pick up her life as a new politician and move to the east coast. Nevertheless, Wilson made a defining change in her life and headed to New York City.Wilson wondered about her decision as she looked at the small room on 42nd street serving as an office and the list of existing funders.

Had she made a mistake in uprooting her life?“It was a huge risk,” she said. “I had to be a quick learner. Within a year or two, the Foundation came along and we had enough money to survive.”

The rest is history, as they say. Marie C. Wilson ran the Ms. Foundation for almost twenty years and co-created the Take Your Daughters to Work program. Truly a leader and legend, Wilson shares the essence of her convictions. Her 2004 and 2007 book, Closing The Leadership Gap…Add Women, Change Everything details her beliefs and convictions about moving women forward. Her previous book as a co-author, Mother Daughter Revolution, was a groundbreaking, critically acclaimed volume. Much of Wilson’s cutting-edge work included building and managing collaborative partnerships and helping low-income and middle-income women start businesses. Wilson had found her fit and helped build one of the largest women’s foundations in America.

A theme developed early on for Wilson; advocating for women’s opportunities and advancing women’s leadership roles. Early in her work at Drake University, where Wilson served as director of women’s programs, she initiated innovate concepts such as flextime and job sharing. Later, her almost twenty years at the Ms. Foundation generated some of the first collaborative partnerships, including partnerships with donors.

As an innovator and change-maker, Wilson works towards the transformation of American culture so that the number of women leaders in all sectors achieve a critical mass.

“Only a few groups were helping women plan and build businesses,” Wilson said of her early days with the Foundation.Wilson saw a serious need for women to be in the upper levels of leadership and in 1998, she founded the White House Project in order to build a richly diverse, genuinely representative democracy.

As an innovator and change-maker, Wilson works towards the transformation of American culture so that the number of women leaders in all sectors achieve a critical mass. Leading edge research and program initiatives have been focal points of the White House Project. The most recent groundbreaking research includes The White House Project Report: “Benchmarking Women’s Leadership,” a far-reaching study that documents women’s positions in numerous categories and illustrates the situation today. A few of the findings from the report include:

* Women make up only 17 percent of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. * On a global scale, the U.S. ranks 71st out of 189 countries in terms of the proportion of women in their national legislatures.

During her tenure as president of the Ms. Foundation and the White House Project, Wilson produced numerous achievements. She initiated the Collaborative Fund for Women’s Economic Development, a pre-eminent model within philanthropy of collaborative grant making. She established the Collaborative Fund for Healthy Girls/Healthy Women, which has committed $4.1 million to girls’ programs. The Fund supports innovative programs that nurture girl's and young women’s leadership and community activism, helping them to stay strong through adolescence. And, she formulated The White House Project’s Ballot Box Initiative, a national straw poll highlighting top women leaders in which more than 100,000 Americans participated. Real women's issues are everyone's issues.

It comes as no surprise that Wilson is a highly sought-after speaker on women’s political leadership and the interests of women and girls everywhere. She has appeared on national TV and in national magazines on numerous occasions. Her awards are many, including the prestigious Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking in 2002. She also received the Leadership for Equity and Diversity (LEAD) Award from Women and Philanthropy and an honorary Doctorate of Community Service from Drake University and another honorary Doctorate from Chatham College.Faith Winter, who headed up the White House Project in Denver for almost five years, said the tenacity to fight for what you want is something she will never forget from the experience of working with Marie Wilson.

Today, Wilson continues with her passionate message about having women in seats of power. She watches for legislation that might be considered regressive in any way. She emphasizes that real women’s issues are everyone’s issues. She cites concern over safety and security. “Women instinctively know about security through their family life,” she says. “They (women) don’t take security for granted. They know this raising children.”

According to Wilson, people are beginning to look at issues such as violence against women, trafficking and gender roles as shared concerns. “The central message of our time is about leadership and how diverse leadership is necessary.”Her message resonates with people across the age spectrum. Her ideas about women's roles were viewed in some circles as dangerous and revolutionary.

“Every time she speaks to a room full of women, you see her change lives,” says Faith Winter. “This is about the power women deserve and permanent change.”While putting a woman in the White House is Marie Wilson’s ultimate goal, she is an amazing person who has already changed the lives of so many women and in turn has created what she set out to achieve; increasing the number of female leaders.

One of the White House Project trademarked expressions reflects the stages of training for women aspiring to a political career and it may be a message for all of us in some way… Go Vote, Go Run, Go Lead, Go Girl!

Judith Brissette Taylor is an award-winning journalist and speaker. She has been a practitioner in the women's market for over twenty-five years as a writer, editor, and publisher and served for two years as president of the Women's Regional Publications of America. She is president of Leading Edge Advisers, a business consulting company specializing in emerging markets. (