Molly Dillon on being a woman in the White House

"I believed, and still do, in what Barack Obama spoke about. Government is better when all people are represented. Our government should look like us, including young women."

Molly Dillon was a senior in high school just outside Chicago when Barack Obama, her senator, announced he was running for President.  When he won in 2008, she knew she wanted to work for him in some way.  “When I graduated from college, I wanted to go into public service in some fashion, even if I didn’t know it was called ‘public service.’ And I knew I wanted to work for President Obama.”

While in graduate school, she applied for the White House internship program, where she was accepted as one of just 150 interns, out of over 6,000 applicants. She was thrilled to be placed on the civil rights policy team. “I couldn’t have dreamt up a better office.” After she graduated and a job opened up on that same team, she was hired – the youngest person on her team. “I was helping to protect workers, provide access to resources and opportunities for low-income families and communities, expand women’s rights, advance LGBTQ rights, help young people in foster care, reform our criminal justice system…civil rights, to us, meant a lot of different things and no two days were the same.”

After leaving the White House at the end of the Obama Administration, Dillon worked with nine other women to write “Yes She Can”, a book about being a young female staffer in the Obama White House. “We want more young women from different backgrounds and experiences to go into government. I don’t think a lot of young people grow up thinking ‘I want to be a government staffer,’ but they should! We wanted to share all the cool stuff you actually get to do. You get to fight for things you believe in and make a difference.”

“Our goal is to inspire the next generation of women who want to change the world. At the end of the book we’ve included a section called A Girl’s Guide to Getting into Government. We wanted to help demystify how to get into public service – a career path that doesn’t always have a clear road map. We want to help young people get their foot in the door,” Dillon explains.

Molly Dillon

Dillon was very fortunate while she was there, she says. “In Obama’s White House, being female was never a disadvantage or an obstacle. We had incredible great bosses and mentors who believed in us and wanted us to bring our experiences, our unique perspectives, to the table. We know what happens when there are no young people, no women at the table. If someone is making policy decisions about our lives, shouldn’t we get to weigh in? In the US, society at large has yet to fully grasp how deeply ingrained sexism and discrimination are. But if we can set the tone at the centre of power, from the highest office in the land…That was a pretty powerful tool.”

Other women's stories have encouraged Dillon throughout her career. “I think a lot about those who came before us, like suffragists Alice Paul and Ida B. Wells who tirelessly fought for, and won, to give women the right to vote. I’m also inspired by the amazing women who have stepped into the arena over the last two plus years, like my friend New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi—I watched her run for office last year in an incredibly difficult race, and she won. It made me feel like I could do anything. I also know that I come from a legacy of strong women – my grandma Sonya Dillon (we call her Bubbie) went to college in the 1940s when most women did not (many schools didn’t accept women). She’s the coolest person I know.”

Yes She Can: 10 stories of hope and change about being a staffer in the White House is out March 5th.

For more International Women's Day Content, click here 

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