Opinion: An example of a woman who has made an extraordinary impact on the world
On Women’s History Month, it’s worth noting Dana Perino, an Intermountain West product who ended up in the White House.
Women’s History Month, March, calls to mind stellar individuals from all backgrounds who have made extraordinary contributions to their countries throughout the world. As a supervisor of Washington interns, I’m reminded that some of these stories started in the Intermountain West and blossomed in the nation’s capital.
Dana Perino, former White House press secretary during the later years of the Bush administration (2007-2009), is one example. Her middle-class background, rooted in family, faith and civility set a pattern for many — male or female — to emulate.
Born of frontier stock in Evanston, Wyoming, Perino’s early life found her as much with her nose in the daily newspaper as riding horses on the open range. Her father took a keen interest in nurturing this budding interest in world affairs. During the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies, her father tasked her with reading the daily news and “briefing” him on three important stories when he returned home from work.
Pursuing an educational path encouraged by her father of attending a university close to home — in her case Colorado State, Pueblo — rather than chasing the distant marquee of a prestigious university, Perino studied broadcast journalism. She paired this with her initiation into political networking, inviting a local representative to join her on a weekly television show covering regional politics.
This contact launched her into a position in Washington, D.C., the same destination of many 20-somethings who left school with a bachelor’s degree, but also drowning in student loans, of which Perino had none. She had worked her way through school.
Her father’s special interest in his daughter, perhaps even more than the task of reading the daily paper itself, set the stage for healthy personal and professional development. While working in the press secretary’s office in the White House, she poured over daily news stories in the small hours of the morning before the daily onslaught of reporters. Her father’s challenge also steered her toward a career focused on current events rather than the commercial realm of public relations, a trait that served her well not only as White House press secretary, but also in her work in the media since the end of the Bush administration.
Second, faith contributed to Perino’s pursuit of a balanced life, even in the priority-shifting cauldron of a staffer’s life on Capitol Hill. Perino grounded her Washington experience in participation with a Lutheran congregation of young adults that engaged in volunteer work and healthy fellowship even as she navigated Capitol politics. This not only exposed her to like-minded peers, but also seasoned mentors who helped her keep life in perspective, including in the realm of enduring personal relationships. It was a combination of regularly taking inventory of her personal life, heeding a mentor’s instruction to not be so hard on herself, and a chance seating assignment on a flight from Denver to Chicago that led her to meet her husband, Peter, with whom she has been married since 1998.
Regardless of religious affiliation, the shelter of the soul that a community of faith provides can help anyone navigate the uncertain years following high school with its competing priorities, be they in social, professional or cultural endeavors. As with Perino, faith and its attendant activities lighten the heavy load of self-discovery and personal growth.
Third, Perino’s careerlong commitment to civility provides a model for one-to-one engagement among our closest friends as well as with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. In her 2015 memoir, “And the Good News Is ... : Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side” (Twelve Books), Perino tells the story of sitting next to Barack Obama at Washington’s prestigious Gridiron Club soon after he had won a seat in the Senate. Though she sometimes wondered if her later work in the conservative media offended America’s first Black president, it never harmed this healthy relationship across the aisle. In 2010, President Obama subsequently appointed Perino to the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
As she had before working in the White House, Perino projected optimism with each new face she encountered, tried to represent others — and the issues that were important to them — as they saw themselves and their political priorities, and promoted civil discourse in a way that acknowledged the humanity of others, be they friends in conservative circles or otherwise.
She now serves as a mentor for countless young women and is worthy of attention as a conservative professional who achieved great things, having started from a modest background. Her family ties, faith and commitment to civil discourse are just a few of the reasons to recognize so many women on this important day.
Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history.