The now-famous "three tenors" have been a perennial holiday favorite for years. What would Christmas be without PBS replays of those beloved male operatic voices -- Corelli, Domingo and Pavarotti -" singing their hearts out in an Italian amphitheater?
This year there's a new trio bringing joy to the hearts of many who could care less whether they can hold a tune. The female trinity, leaders all, has a great deal in common, starting with their first name. Each is making her mark on the world in ways that matter .
Michelle Bachelet, former Chilean president, was recently appointed to head the new United Nations agency overseeing gender and women's issues. The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or UN Women, brings together UNIFEM and other agencies focused on women at the UN that have lacked the budget, positioning, or clout necessary to truly impact women's equality and self-sufficiency.
Batchelet is ready to change that. The 60-year old pediatrician and feminist activist is known for what UN Secretary General Ban Ki- Moon calls her "dynamic global leadership [and] highly honed political skills." She instituted numerous gender equity policies while president of Chile, making it the Latin American country with the most visible gains at this year's meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Recognized as a role model, Batchelet, who was imprisoned and tortured under the Pinochet regime, showed the world what political power can look like in the hands of a qualified woman. Now she brings those skills to an agency in need of female leadership.
Michelle Rhee, the recently defeated chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., is a more controversial figure but her contribution to educational reform can't be underestimated or easily dismissed. Rhee, a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is clearly committed to excellence in education. In the early 1990s she served as a Teach for America teacher in Baltimore and later founded The New Teacher Project to develop innovative solutions to the challenges of new teacher hiring. This work led to widespread reform in a number of large U.S. cities. Rhee's results in Baltimore, for example, were impressive: She moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to the 90th percentile.
Rhee aggressively sought to reform a school system much in need of effective change while in Washington, where despite having the third highest spending per student in the country, only eight percent of eighth graders there were at grade level in math when she arrived. She closed underused schools while beefing up early-childhood programs, art and music classes, and special education services. She fired teachers who were underperforming and sought to renegotiate teacher salaries and contracts based on merit. Efforts like these irritated her opponents but gained the respect of school reformers nationwide.
Then there is Michelle Obama, whose popularity remains sky-high despite criticism of her husband's administration. One of the First Lady's notable commitments is to the issue of balancing family and work life, and to the needs of military families. She spoke movingly about what inspired her to that work at a women's conference in California recently. "Every single woman I knew was struggling to keep it together," she told the crowd. "And I believed that the voices of working women needed to be at the heart of creating any comprehensive agenda to move this country forward."
But, admitted the First Lady, there was one group of women whose stories were new to her: military spouses. "Their stories took my breath away," she said, whether they had to do with compromised employment opportunities, parenting, relationships, or simply coping on a daily basis when the fear of a chaplain knocking on the door is ever-present. "How is it so that so many of us know so little about the challenges these women face or the sacrifices their families make?" Obama asked a hushed audience.
First Ladies are often criticized for the causes they choose to promote and Michelle Obama is not immune to that criticism. Someone with a prestigious law degree who left a senior managerial position to be "First Mom" shouldn't be focused on gardening and nutrition, her critics charge. But in her quietly powerful and compassionate way, Obama is making her mark. She inspires other women to act when she says, "As women, we know how to reach out. We know how to support each other. So the question is: How are we going to give back?" Then she gives them a list of things to do. That's what you call using the bully pulpit, whether you are a president or a president's wife.
The three Michelles know this about the gift of power: When you have it, you must use it, wisely and to the common good. You cannot cower in the face of critics. You have to be a presence in the public arena, finding your voice and singing out. Then you face the music when things don't go your way.
Every good tenor knows that much.