Women We Admire
Nine women who demonstrate grace, generosity of spirit and remarkable achievement.
President and CEO of National Public Radio
Vivian Schiller became one of the few female top executives of a national American news company when she took over as president and CEO of National Public Radio (NPR) in January 2009. Since then, she has won praise for her leadership.
Schiller has engendered a level of collaboration and innovation within NPR and its member stations that is quite remarkable, says Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager of digital media at NPR. Under her leadership, NPR was one of the first news organizations to launch iPhone and iPAD applications. According to NPR executives, she also has helped get the organization’s finances back on track.
Bill Smee, who was Schiller’s second-in-command when she ran CNN’s documentary division and later the Discovery Times Channel, describes his former boss as unflappable, funny, egoless, fair, transparent and focused.
Schiller, 49, was already preparing herself for a future in multitasking when she was in elementary school in Larchmont, N.Y. When the yearbook asked where she would be in 2001, Schiller answered: part-time veterinarian, part-time archaeologist and part-time president of the United States.
Schiller studied Russian at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., earning a master’s degree in the subject at Middlebury College in Vermont. After a stint as a tour guide to the former Soviet Union, she worked as a translator and “gofer” for Turner Broadcasting, eventually moving to the Atlanta headquarters and rising through the ranks. There, she met her husband, Phil Frank, now an independent documentary producer. They and their two teenagers have lived in Bethesda for eight years.
Nina Totenberg, NPR’s award-winning legal affairs correspondent, thinks Schiller is the right person to take NPR to new heights. Her “style and demeanor belie the hard-core brains and abilities that lie beneath,” Totenberg says.
“Don’t underestimate Vivian Schiller.” —Carin Dessauer
Helen Simonson spent years resisting her voice.
She loved writing as a child growing up in a small English town. But at college she studied economics and politics because they seemed more practical. After moving to the United States 24 years ago, she finally started work on a Master of Fine Arts degree, and spent years trying to write the kind of “edgy” stories she read in literary magazines.
It wasn’t until she wrote something just for herself that she found literary success, however.
Simonson, 47, who lives in Bethesda with her husband and two teenage sons, says she thought Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand would get “laughed out of the room” by the literary community. Instead, her novel about a traditional Englishman who bonds with a Pakistani shopkeeper in a sleepy British village became an instant best-seller when it came out in March.
“She talks about the time she spent writing in another voice, but the best thing about her book is that it’s told with her remarkable insight into human nature, and with her wry sense of humor,” says Susan Kamil, the publisher and editor in chief at Random House. “It truly does feel like it’s written from the heart.”
Because she wasn’t expecting the book to be a success, Simonson didn’t “make any time in my mom schedule” for book tours, interviews and speaking engagements. She rushed from her sons’ robotics competition to her first reading at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.
Simonson is working on a second novel, but her “mom schedule” remains intact. When she returned from a multicity book tour recently, her son greeted her with: “Yo, what’s for dinner?”
“It’s surprising that when you achieve your greatest dream, ordinary life goes on,” Simonson says. —Amy Reinink
Montgomery County’s first lady and senior vice president at the International City/County Management Association
Catherine Leggett’s résumé doesn’t even begin to tell her story. Sure, it lists her time as a lawyer, her 31 years of executive experience, her work-related awards and membership on numerous boards. What it doesn’t note is that she is her husband’s secret weapon. She’s married to Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and has become a political force in her own right.
Playwright Margaret Engel, whose husband served on the county council for eight years, calls her a “roll-up-your-sleeves kind of person.” Catherine Leggett is an unpretentious, warm people-person, Engel says, who effortlessly organizes events and participates on committees while maintaining a successful professional career. She was Montgomery County’s 2007 Democrat of the Year.
Leggett, 60, of Burtonsville, is senior vice president of human resources at the International City/County Management Association, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that assists retired public service employees with financial matters. She also serves on numerous boards, ranging from Montgomery Hospice to the Maryland Commission on Public Art.
Jan Irwin, who met Leggett when they worked at the Hechinger Company in the 1980s, has always marveled over her former colleague’s outlook that “there is abundance in the universe—if you want it, work for it and it is there.”
Leggett grew up next to the projects in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., the daughter of a single mother of three on welfare. She says she was beaten up almost daily in elementary school, and had to learn to fight back. She worked her way through college and law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Ike Leggett admires his wife’s many accomplishments. She’s “a very strong adviser to me,” he says. He laughs as he adds that Catherine sometimes is asked to speak at events instead of him. —Carin Dessauer
Syndicated columnist and editorial writer
Ruth Marcus has won accolades not only for her smart, nonpartisan and witty columns at The Washington Post—on topics ranging from public policy to culture—but also for being a “pioneer” among her colleagues.
Marcus maintains a part-time schedule even as she tackles more than a full workload that includes her syndicated, Pulitzer-nominated column, a blog and at least one to two editorials a week. She was instrumental in “breaking down boundaries in terms of working a flexible schedule and integrating family life with work life,” says Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jackson Diehl, who has known her since they were both at Yale in New Haven, Conn.
A self-described “suburban mom,” Marcus, 52, lives in Bethesda with her husband, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, and two teenage daughters.
After graduating from Yale, Marcus worked at The National Law Journal in Washington, D.C. She went on to Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., and was hired by the Post after working for the newspaper as a stringer. She covered the Supreme Court, the White House and Congress, later becoming deputy national editor and the first top editor to work part time.
Mona Charen, the conservative national columnist, co-edited the junior high school newspaper in Livingston, N.J., with Marcus. “Ruth always stood out for her combined intellect, ambition and drive,” Charen says.
“She is our generation’s David Broder, with her knowledge of Washington,” Diehl says. “And she is the columnist who can match Anna Quindlen or Ellen Goodman in her way of taking on social affairs and family life.” —Carin Dessauer