The following is a transcript of a conversation she had with a representative of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame shortly after learning of her induction.
QUESTION: There are a couple notable areas in your background that seem to have helped shape your worldview. One is your upbringing on a cattle ranch. The other is your choice of an education in economics that was at least partially influenced by a professor who encouraged you to pursue that subject. Can you share how your childhood experiences, education and early career in the financial services influenced the direction of your professional life, and why you decided to help found the Women's Bank in Denver?
GAIL: I did not have a career plan in mind. From 1961 – 1965, I went to Stanford with a lot of smart women at a time when the formal policy was that only one-third of the student body could be female. I do not remember ever having a conversation with my women friends about a career or what we might do after we graduated from Stanford. It was generally assumed that we were meant to be educated wives, and support our future husbands’ careers. There were special social rules for Stanford girls, we had a curfew of 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. Two nights a month, we could stay out until 2 a.m. But, if you were even one minute late, there were huge implications and potential for disciplinary action.
It was a highly restrictive time for young women. If you became pregnant, it was considered your fault even though there was no access to birth control. You had two choices, get married or disappear for nine months and then give up the baby for adoption. Abortion was not an option.
I got married right after I graduated and, because we were living in Santa Barbara with nothing to do, decided to take classes at the University of CA at Santa Barbara. I found a seminar in African History and loved it so just kept going. When I was a PhD student in 1967, I remember a professor said to me, “It’s fine for you to get a PhD because you’re married, and your husband can support you, but no college would ever hire a woman to teach”. He turned out to be right since, when I started looking for a job as a professor, I was told that, either there was no such field as African History (my field) or that no white woman would ever teach African History.
I was married at 21, and yearned to see the world. I grew up in town of 500 on an isolated cattle ranch, and I always wanted something bigger in my life. We moved to Colorado, because my husband was a geologist and he had secured a job in the oil business. I completed my PhD dissertation while having 3 children.
I became a research assistant for an African studies professor at The University of Denver’s Graduate School of International Studies for $2.00 an hour. Just as my Stanford professor remarked, there were no women faculty at the time. I called every college in Colorado, and there were no opportunities available.
Life always finds a way if you are open-minded. As luck would have it, Judi Wagner lived two blocks away from me, and one day when my husband took our dog on a walk, our dogs got into a fight. Judi came up to my door with flowers to apologize for the dog fight. She told me about a women's bank being started up by a group of women, and asked if I’d like to be a co-founder, which required a $1,000 investment. Even though I couldn't really afford it, I wrote a check. We were committed, but had to learn everything from scratch. Judi was the leader we needed to organize the bank, raise the capital, secure our charter and open a bank that turned out to be a huge success.
QUESTION: How did your background in economics help prepare you for political office, and what can other women and girls learn from choosing to study finance?
GAIL: It honestly didn't occur to me at the time I should major in economics. After all, there were only three women economics majors at Stanford. I went to Florence, Italy on Stanford’s study abroad program, and had one wonderful and supportive professor, who encouraged me to major in economics, which I did. Without his encouragement, I wouldn’t have had the courage to do that.
In terms of beginning a life in politics, it started out in my local community. My daughter won the spelling bee in 1st grade. I sent the superintendent a thank you letter for making the award presentation himself. One of the school board members called me and asked me to run for her seat, so I did. My father had been on the school board and I’d always thought I might run for the school board sometime. I didn't realize the school board would be such a politicallycharged position. Having an economics degree in a race against two men was a useful credential because there were almost no women with economics degrees.
There was a group of five women in Douglas County at the time, who did a lot to get me elected. As a point of comparison, we spent $2,000 on my campaign, and the Koch family spent $1.2M for the Douglas County 2017 school board election. This wonderful group of women called every PTA member and every teacher - it was a small district then. I ran against two men, and received 51% of the vote. I was on the school board for eight years, and served as President my last four years. Douglas County was the fastest growing school district at the time. We built about 10 new schools in total and went from one to three high schools.
I became interested in school finance because it appeared that we, and other poor school districts were not getting our fair share of public school funds, making it really hard to keep up with growth and to build new schools. A parent in Center, Colorado was challenging the School Finance Act because her district was one of the poorest in the state and couldn’t buy textbooks, new materials or repair its school building because of their low tax base. Our board joined the Lujan case started by the parent in Center, which challenged the state’s School Finance Act. We lost in the Colorado Supreme Court, but started a movement to change the way schools are financed. Because we were growing so fast, we also got the Legislature to allow counties and school districts to require land developers seeking new zoning to help build new schools with either land or financial contributions to the district. For teachers, we developed the first pay for performance system in the country. Our teachers were part of the negotiation, so the plan passed by a 96% margin in their union vote.
QUESTION: Engaging women and the next generation in leadership and politics is certainly a hot topic these days. You've been at this for a very long time. Talk to us about your group to help elect Governors and U.S. Senators, Electing Women.
GAIL: After I lost the governor's race, which was very close, Judi Wagner and I were infuriated at the number of women, who I thought were my good friends, who wouldn’t financially support my campaign. They said, “I don't think you can win because women can't win this high of an office, so I won’t write you a check.” Some of the women I asked for a $1,000 contribution were wearing $5,000 suits, but told me they could only afford to write a $50 check to my campaign. So, we decided to start a group that would raise large amounts of money for women candidates, proving that women could and would support other women in a big way.
We realized that women needed to support other women. We started with Governor’s races, because of the importance of the role. It’s the ultimate credential. It’s pretty hard to say a woman can’t be a CEO if the CEO of the state, the governor, is a woman. We knew that every woman and girl would be able to look at a female governor and say to themselves, “I can do it too”.
We asked women to commit to raising $25,000 for each individual candidate. And, everyone involved contributed $1,000 to be part of our group. There weren’t enough women running for governor, so we expanded to U.S. Senate races. Because we supported only pro-choice candidates, it unfortunately eliminated most Republican women, who can’t get their party’s nomination if they are pro-choice.
We hosted our first event for Heidi Heitkamp, who ran for Governor in North Dakota in 2000. She’s a fabulous woman who showed up at our luncheon with her beautiful, flaming red hair and a rousing speech to match. We raised $36,000 for her campaign. She was even in the polls a month before the election, but three weeks before the election found out she had breast cancer. She ended up losing that race by 30 points, something we were sure would never happen to a man with prostate cancer. Five years ago, she successfully ran for the U.S. Senate from North Dakota, and Electing Women in Colorado was the first out-of-state group to support her, which raised her profile and credibility nationally.
While we may not like our flawed political finance system, we will lose if we sit on the sidelines. We must participate. We have supported over 60 women candidates in the 17 years we have been operating, raising $2.5 million for women candidates and $1.3 million for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. Momentum for women candidates has really picked up since Trump's election. Our Electing Women group now has 85 sponsors who make a significant financial commitment to women candidates each year. And, very exciting, we have started 15 other Electing Women groups around the country who are also actively raising money for women running for governor and U.S. Senate. This is giving women much more power in the political process and helping women run and win.
Women in Congress are making a positive impact. There are 22 Democrat and Republican women in the U.S. Senate (which is still only 22% of the Senate), who have dinner together every month to see where they can find common ground. In today’s polarized environment, you don’t see men creating as many friendships across the aisle, but elected women are making those important connections.
QUESTION: In terms of your international focus, your work with the International Women’s Forum (IWF) stands out. Your most recent passion appears to be eGlobal Education. And, you just returned from Iran. What is your primary goal with your international work to help women and girls? What is most needed in your view today?
GAIL: The IWF started initially as a national women's forum in the U.S. It was a big effort to get the organization going, and it eventually grew into an international organization as the interest grew around the world. The purpose is to get women together to discuss how to improve the lives of women around the world, and to seek ways to actively improve the lives of and opportunities for women globally.
There is a Fellows program that’s been in place for the last 20 years, which trains young women to be leaders in their countries. I've enjoyed mentoring some of these impressive young women. There’s one woman I’ve mentored for the last 18 years, and we remain in touch today. The program does a lot to improve opportunities for women who are up against enormous odds and social pressures.
When I was State Treasurer and my husband was Dean of the College of Business and UCD, we started taking groups of Coloradans around the world to introduce them to political and business leaders in other countries. When he retired, and I had left politics, we started a company, eGlobalEducation, to do the same thing. We believe it’s important for Americans to know and understand other countries and cultures, because we can’t lead the world if we don’t understand it. We also believe that what makes the U.S. unique is our diversity. It makes us better and stronger, and so many Americans have little idea what life is like in other countries. We need to experience other cultures that have their own rich sets of beliefs and to understand how to work with them economically and politically. I was fortunate enough to serve as U.S. ambassador under President Clinton, to negotiate a major global treaty, so had the opportunity to broaden my international experience and connections.
The need for equal treatment continues. It’s a fairly safe bet to assume most, if not all, women have some experience with sexual assault and harassment. When I was running Colorado’s civil service system in the late 1980’s, a group of women who worked at the Department of Corrections came to me to complain about their very sexually charged work environment. Their male boss insisted that their office walls be covered with calendars featuring nude women, which made them extremely uncomfortable. When they complained to him, he said, “too bad, if you want to work here, you need to deal with it.” We made him take the calendars down, but he remained in his supervisory role.
You tend to move on in life and put experiences like this behind you, but now lots of memories come flooding back for others and for me. It is a bit of a silver lining that we’re dealing with these issues head on right now after all the high-profile charges and firings of people who harass and assault both women and men. I think we are much better able to change how women are treated in the workplace. I hope it continues.
QUESTION: What is the best and worst decision you've ever made?
GAIL: My decisions have gotten better over time. I’ve become more comfortable taking risks, and evaluating the pros and cons of my choices. As you get older, you have more people to ask for advice along with considering your own life experiences. My advice is always to get out there and experience as much as you can. Look beyond what you can learn at your job, participate with non-profits, community organizations, and other venues to expand your world view.
In terms of my worst decisions, it’s when I wasn't thinking fully about the impact on others. I think we can all look back on some of our choices and feel a bit embarrassed when we’ve negatively impacted other people.
QUESTION: What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
GAIL: I think younger women don’t always have an appreciation for what it was like just 30 years ago, how hard we fought for women’s rights and how close we are to losing the ground we worked so hard for. They don’t often realize we could lose access to contraception - it wasn’t available to unmarried women when I was a teenager and is under threat now. If we’re not careful and working together to ensure women’s rights, misguided leaders could absolutely take away these rights. Some of them are trying to do that now. I remember a time not so long ago when women were labeled ‘hysterical’ because we have menstrual periods. It wasn't until 1970 that women could get a mortgage. It was a big reason behind starting the Women's Bank – so we could give women access to credit. I experienced this first hand when I couldn't change my credit cards to my married name, Gail Schoettler. The credit card had to read Mrs. John Schoettler. It was so humiliating I cried. And it ensured that women couldn’t get access to credit because they had no credit record.
In the State legislature, for years there wasn’t a women's bathroom on the floor of the Senate and House chambers. Women legislators had to go to the basement. It actually caused women legislators to miss votes on occasion. Part of what drives our focus on electing women as governors is to ensure a safety net with the power of the veto. A growing number of initiatives restricting contraception and abortion have passed recently. Everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs, but you don't have to support abortion rights to realize the importance of not putting women in desperate situations that could cost them their lives.
What gives me hope is the 25,000 young women deciding to participate in politics now – you can see that the light bulbs are starting to go off. It’s critical to mobilize young women to both protect and improve women’s rights.
QUESTION: Is there a message you want to make sure we are sharing with others?
GAIL: Support other women. I'm so excited and encouraged by young women who are taking risks and accepting larger responsibilities. My advice to young women is take a deep breath and get involved in our political system. Get your friends to support you and ask for help. Don't be afraid to ask. Jump in and participate, you don’t need a fully developed plan to get started.
If you care about someone who is running for office, show up and support their candidacy. In this last election, a lot of young women ran and won. I want them to get involved in politics. I'm tired of hearing its dirty business because, while that may be the reality in some ways today, each one of us can make it better. Getting involved in politics is the best way to make an impact in your local community and improve the lives of women and their families.
The Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame was created to recognize, honor and preserve the contributions of trailblazing Colorado women. Both historical and contemporary women have shared foresight, vision and accomplishment, but lacked a forum for recognition. Since 1985, the Hall has inducted 152 extraordinary women who have been outstanding in their field, elevated the status of women, helped open new frontiers for women or inspired others by their example. Inductees include scientists, teachers, social activists, philanthropists, authors, business leaders, elected officials and more.