Ruth Cowan, ILR BS '53
Ruth Cowan— she was Ruth Burns when at ILR--- began her current international commitments in 1990 when she agreed to serve as Founding President of Pro Mujer, a non-governmental organization established then to empower poor, indigenous women in La Paz, Bolivia. Pro Mujer soon embraced micro credit to advance its mission and is now working in five Latin American countries, serving hundreds of thousands of clients. [Pro Mujer has received numerous awards for program excellence and operational transparency and was featured in an article about microfinance in the October 30, 2006 issue of the New Yorker.]
Her second current international commitment is concerned with democracy consolidation in the Republic of South Africa. Her focus is on the use of the courts and the composition of the judiciary in transforming the oppressive apartheid society to one based on the New Democracy’s founding values of human dignity, liberty and equality. Her institutional affiliation for this work is the Women & Politics Institute at American University’s School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., where she is a Scholar- in- Residence.
Her third commitment is community-based agricultural redevelopment in Afghanistan through the efforts of the Global Partnership for Afghanistan [GPFA], on whose Board of Directors she serves. GPFA’s efforts , in a country where women were mistreated in the extreme by the Taliban regime, include women as well as men as participants in agricultural redevelopment. As a Cornellian, she is particularly pleased that GPFA is now working in partnership with a team from Cornell’s School of Agriculture.
These three international commitments are rooted in her student experience at ILR-- where a concern for institutionalized fairness as well as analytic excellence were then and are now distinctive features. After leaving Cornell, she continued her studies in labor relations with a concentration in political science and then shifted to that discipline for her Ph D. It was a simple progression from that to an academic position. She was a faculty member at a large urban university—there she became aware of, and was troubled by, the pervasive sexism. She responded, in collaboration with others, by organizing faculty and staff to confront discrimination against women and, in the process, traced the mutual reinforcements among all forms of irrational discrimination.
In working toward institutional change, she saw up close administrative inadequacy and, in her judgment, inappropriate management “styles.” To demonstrate the effectiveness of management founded on respect for others and collaboration—the management “style” she advocated, she left teaching to work in academic administration. She served at two colleges, both of which during her tenure underwent turnaround processes in which she was deeply involved. When she left her last administrative post, she offered what she had learned to failing colleges in the United States that were committed to turnaround.
Her efforts on behalf of human rights in her first teaching position expanded beyond academia. She chaired the New York City Commission on the Status of Women during two mayoral administrations and in that position, co-chaired the state-wide mobilization in preparation for the first international meeting on the status of women. She participated in the subsequent meetings held every five years. Shortly before the 1995 meeting in Beijing, she was able to celebrate the international recognition of women’s rights as human rights.
She credits her ILR experience and all her subsequent experiences as the foundation for her engagement now in Latin America, South Africa and Afghanistan. The linkages are worth reporting.
As a consequence of her extra-curricular human rights work she was invited to observe the Nicaragua election in 1990. Back in New York, following one of her post-election presentations, an acquaintance approached to tell her about two women in Bolivia who were interested in empowering women and to ask her to meet with them. Cowan had neither been speaking about Bolivia nor about women’s empowerment, but she agreed to a meeting. When Lynne Patterson, one of the two women, came to New York they met as a courtesy to their mutual acquaintance. Each expected nothing of interest to emerge from their conversation. Instead, they realized that Cowan’s experience could be helpful in launching the new organization. That began an engagement of over sixteen years in Latin America.
Believing that responsible, responsive government is essential for poverty alleviation, economic development , widespread education, adequate health care (needs for which were manifest in the countries in which she worked) , and appalled at what passes for government in those countries, she determined to study what was being done theoretically and practically to advance responsible government. Her studies drew her to South Africa where the struggle against apartheid was not to remove an oppressive regime. Rather, it was to create a non-racist and non-sexist society committed to dignity, liberty and equality. Many of those who had struggled for this-- the founding fathers and mothers-- were engaged in trying to realize the vision that had motivated the movement for over half a century. She consulted an American political scientist who has been engaged for most of his 86 years in advancing human rights and constitutional democracy in South Africa. “I know I will learn a lot, but,” she asked, “can I make a contribution?” He encouraged her and she embarked on what has become a series of projects on human rights public interest litigation and the transformation of the judiciary by gender.
When the founders of GPFA invited her to join their enterprise she, of course, would not refuse. She had helped a non-governmental organization in El Salvador undertake strategic planning for comprehensive sustainable development in eighty-six contiguous agricultural communities and she felt the work of that organization, as well as her Pro Mujer experience in poverty alleviation could help inform her contribution to GPFA.
Much is, of course, omitted in this effort to chronicle a career. But, Cowan asked that an appreciation for the great benefits that have accrued to her be included in this chronicle. She was once accused of being an optimist, to which she responded “I am --because I have been privileged to work with people who, with laughter and joy, have realized what to pessimists are impossible dreams.”
- Ruth Cowan