Irene Natividad (born 1948), who served as the head of the National Women's Political Caucus, is an educator and ardent activist for women's rights in both economic and political spheres.
When the phone rings in Irene Natividad's Washington, D.C., office, one thing is certain—the caller is a person with political power and influence. Natividad is simultaneously at the center of activity in many arenas as chair of the National Commission on Working Women, which works to improve the economic status of working women in the United States; as director of the Global Forum of Women, a biannual international gathering of women leaders that convenes to explore leadership issues for women worldwide; as executive director of the Philippine American Foundation, which implements programs to foster grassroots rural development to alleviate poverty in the Philippines; and as principal of Natividad and Associates, which provides consulting services for groups wishing to reach specific segments of the voting constituency. Natividad continues to rise to top executive positions in every activity she pursues.
Born in Manila, Philippines, on September 14, 1948, Irene Natividad is the eldest of four children. Her father's work as a chemical engineer took the family from the Philippines to Okinawa, Iran, Greece, and India. Irene's ability to quickly master new languages was the key to adjusting to the ever-changing schools and communities she encountered while growing up. Partly because of her family's frequent moves, Natividad speaks Spanish, French, Italian, Tagalog, Farsi, and Greek fluently, and is adept at working with people from other countries and cultures.
But if Natividad's international upbringing broadened her understanding of other cultures, it also made her aware of the limited options available to women. In a 1985 interview with the Bergen (New Jersey) Record, Natividad described how her mother's experience during the family's frequent moves helped to shape her own perspective on women's roles: "My father had his job, we kids had our schools, and she had nothing," Natividad said. "In all those countries, a woman was not allowed to work … I think I have a very intelligent, outspoken, articulate mother, and she had no outlet."
Her parents had high expectations for their three daughters and one son. In Greece, Natividad completed her high school education as valedictorian of her class. A few years later, when her mother indicated that she would not attend Natividad's 1971 graduation from Long Island University unless her daughter was valedictorian, Irene made sure her mother was there by earning the number one spot in her class. In 1973, she received a master's degree in American literature and a masters in philosophy in 1976, both from Columbia University in New York; she has only to complete her dissertation to earn her doctorate. She has been awarded honorary doctorates from Long Island University (1989) and Marymount College (1994).
Natividad's first forays into the working world were during the 1970s, when she held faculty and administrative positions in higher education. She was an adjunct instructor in English at Lehman College of the City University of New York in 1974; an instructor in English at Columbia University from 1974 to 1976; and director of continuing education at both Long Island University and William Paterson College in New Jersey from 1978 until 1985. In continuing education, she relished the opportunity to support and guide women seeking to return to the work force or to upgrade their skills.
While working as a waitress, Natividad launched her career as an activist by organizing the other waiters and waitresses to demand higher pay. Although she was fired as a result, Natividad thereafter remained a committed activist employing organizational and political means to achieve a goal. In 1980, Natividad served as founder and president of Asian American Professional Women and as founding director of the National Network of Asian-Pacific American Women and the Child Care Action Campaign.
It wasn't long before Natividad turned her formidable leadership talents toward the political arena. Natividad's first taste of politics came in 1968 when she distributed campaign leaflets for Eugene J. McCarthy's presidential bid. Her appetite for organizing and constituency building had been whetted, and she went on to serve as chair of the New York State Asian Pacific Caucus from 1982 to 1984, and as deputy vice-chair of the Asian Pacific Caucus of the Democratic National Committee. By 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro made history by becoming the first woman from a major party to run for vice-president of the United States, Natividad was tapped by the Democratic party organization to serve as Asian American liaison for Ferraro's campaign. Ferraro joined Walter Mondale on the Democratic ticket, and although the Mondale/Ferraro team lost the election to Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Natividad viewed the campaign as a significant turning point for women in politics. In 1985, Natividad told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,"[Ferraro's] legacy is she broke the credibility gap for all women candidates, from presidential down to the local level. I don't consider '84 a loss. I consider it a win."
By 1985 Natividad's career as a political activist was in full swing. She was elected to chair the National Women's Political Caucus, becoming the first Asian American woman to head a national women's organization. Commenting about her election to head the caucus, Natividad told USA Today in 1985, "A minority group [Asian Americans] perceived as invisible now has a very visible spokeswoman."
The National Women's Political Caucus, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1971 by a small group of feminists (including former congresswomen Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, and Patsy Mink) to focus on putting women in public office. The caucus is bipartisan as a registered Democrat, Natividad succeeded a Republican as leader of the group. But as a very pragmatic political insider, Natividad acknowledged the need to look to both political parties for support. Natividad described the caucus in the Bergen (New Jersey) Record as including "friends on both sides of the aisle [in the U.S. Congress]. I'd like to think [the National Women's Political Caucus] is party blind."
Throughout her career Natividad has focused on using organizations to achieve her goals. Her election to head the 77,000-member Caucus was a logical step on her mission to help women gain power and influence through the political system. In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Natividad laid out her goals for the caucus: "One of our missions [at the National Women's Political Caucus] is to transfer the political experience we have developed on a national level to the state and local level. We want to train women to run for local offices because if we don't feed that pipeline we won't have state winners. We have to insure that we have more wins at the local level, for that is where it all starts." During her tenure, the caucus trained candidates and their staffs throughout the United States on the basics of campaigning. The workshops covered topics key to running a successful campaign, such as polling techniques, fund-raising, grassroots organization, and strategies for dealing with the news media.
Under Natividad's leadership, the caucus gathered hard data to analyze factors influencing women's congressional races and compiled an annual Survey of Governors' Appointments of Women to state cabinets. The caucus also established the first-ever Minority Women Candidates' Training Program and created the Good Guy Award honoring men who further the cause of women's rights. As a result of their activities, the caucus gained real clout. Through the work of the caucus' Coalition for Women's Appointments in 1988, Natividad was invited to meet with President George Bush to promote women candidates for administration posts. An estimated one-third of all women appointed to high-level positions in the Bush administration had been recommended by the coalition led by Natividad.
In 1989, Natividad stepped down as chair of the National Women's Political Caucus to pursue other interests and to make way for fresh leadership. Her interest in and commitment to women's issues has not waned, but has rather taken on an international dimension.
Natividad's interests are truly global in scope. She has frequently written and spoken on topics ranging from the struggle for democracy in Czechoslovakia and her native Philippines, to proposals for changes in the workplace culture that will benefit both women and men. Reflecting on her commitment to work at the grassroots level, Natividad is editor of a reference book for public and school libraries, the Asian American Almanac, published in 1995.
In 1992, Natividad served as a director of the Global Forum of Women, a gathering in Dublin, Ireland, of 400 women leaders from fifty-eight countries to develop strategies for addressing issues facing women worldwide. This international summit was followed in 1994 by a Forum in Taiwan (attended by representatives from eighty countries), for which Natividad developed a program that focused on political empowerment. The basic premise of the Taiwan gathering was that no real change can take place regarding women's lives unless women themselves are the policy-makers. Natividad's program featured practical "nuts-and-bolts" techniques of running for public office and skills-building workshops for policymakers. Natividad develops and leads political training workshops at locations around the world, from Barcelona to Bangkok. Natividad contributed to planning for a conference that ran in conjunction with the 1995 U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women.
In 1996, Natividad returned to domestic issues by joining several other activists and politicians to develop "Project Vote Smart." The founders of this program sought to increase voter education and registration in the U.S. Furthermore, Natividad became the Chair of "Women's Vote '96." Although women are more concerned today about the economy, education, crime, and health, she believes that women are becoming more alienated from government. According to Natividad, "Voting provides an answer, a way for women to gain more control over their lives and futures. At this critical juncture, an unprecedented coalition has created a voter outreach campaign designed to make the suffragists' dream a reality."
Natividad's accomplishments have been frequently recognized. In 1994, A. Magazine: The Asian American Quarterly, named her to their list of "Power Brokers: The Twenty-five Most Influential People in Asian America." In 1993, she was named as one of the "Seventy-four Women Who Are Changing American Politics" by Campaigns and Elections magazine. The National Conference for College Women Student Leaders awarded Natividad its Woman of Distinction Award in 1989, the same year in which she received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Long Island University. In 1988, Ladies' Home Journal included her in their list of "100 Most Powerful Women in America." In 1987, she received the Innovator for Women$hare Award from the Women's Funding Coalition. Americans by Choice presented the 1986 Honored American Award to Natividad, and the Women's Congressional Caucus presented her the Women Making History Award in 1985.
Natividad is married to Andreas Cortese, director of Digital Communications Services for the Communications Satellite Corporation. They have one son, Carlo Natividad-Cortese, whose birth in 1984 coincided with Natividad's becoming leader of the National Women's Political Caucus. She remarked to Ladies' Home Journal on the demanding life of a political activist, "It is satisfying knowing that for a brief point in time you made a difference."
Further Reading on Irene Natividad
Women's Vote Will Decide the '96 Election: "http://www.feminist.com/vote.html," p. 1.