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Women Leaders at Progressive Think Tanks

David Callahan

Here's a trend worth noting on International Women's Day: In just the past year, women leaders have taken the helm at four national think tanks -- changing the gender landscape of what has been, traditionally, a male-dominated sector.

Linda Tarr-Whelan was among the first female presidents of a national think tank, founding and leading the Center for Policy Alternatives from 1986 to 2001. More recently, though, Jessica Tuchman Matthews -- who has been president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace since 1997 -- was virtually alone among women leaders of national think tanks (not focused on women's issues).

So it was a big deal last summer when Janice Nittoli, a program officer at the Rockefeller Foundation, was named as the new president of the Century Foundation, one of the oldest think tanks in America. And it was an even bigger deal when, last October, Neera Tanden was named president of the Center for American Progress, now among the largest think tanks in the country. Tanden, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, had previously been chief operating officer at CAP, under founding president John Podesta.

The trend continued last December when Felicia Wong was named president of the Roosevelt Institute. Wong started her job this week and comes to Roosevelt from the Democracy Alliance, the progressive funders group.

Also in December -- and again, another big deal -- Sarah Rosen Wartell was named president of the Urban Institute. Wartell, who started her new position last month, had been executive vice president at CAP.

Meanwhile, a number of progressive state think tanks have long had been run by women leaders. These include Jean Ross of the California Budget Project and Amy Hanauer of Policy Matters in Ohio. In Texas, Dianne Stewart led the Center for Public Priorities for 11 years, until 2003.

Think tanks are among the most influential institutions in American society -- or so we who work at them like to think -- and the ascendancy of women leaders in this sector marks yet another important milestone in the ongoing quest for gender equity.

Is it such a surprise that progressive think tanks have led the way here? I don't think so.