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F.C. Elected Women Share Advice on Women’s History Month

March celebrates various women during Women’s History Month; it’s also a time for some women to reflect on how far they have come and what obstacles they have had to face. For those women who may be an elected official in the Little City, this is an important time to share what this month means to them, as well as advice they have for those who may want to follow in their footsteps. 

Vice Mayor of Falls Church Letty Hardi stated Women’s History Month gives her a chance to reflect on the “immense privilege” to serve the community as one of nine elected women in the city. As a first-generation immigrant child, a first-generation college student and a full-time working mother, Hardi said she is “lucky to have had those experiences” and uses her past experiences as “anchors” to create opportunities for the next generation. 

“I have seen first hand in both the professional and political worlds that the conversation is different and decisions are better when there are more diverse voices at the table,” Hardi said. “I am grateful for the brave women who came before me and demanded those seats.” 

City of Falls Church Council Member Marybeth Connelly said Women’s History Month is a way for women to encourage each other to “succeed together,” as well as an “opportunity” to remember and celebrate women who “came before us, and to look forward and encourage the next generation to take the steps to change their communities, professions and families for the better.” 

“No one (woman or man) succeeds alone,” Connelly stated. “To get this done, we need to find allies who support one another.” 

Her advice for women who may want to take on a position like hers, Connelly said being an elected City Council member is a “worthwhile” way to give back to the community. Over the years, Connelly stated she’s seen people run for office who aren’t as involved in the community, which can make them “less successful candidates.” People “embedded” in organizations such as League of Women’s Voters, PTAs and more “run the city” and are needed in office. 

“Your roles probably include some combination of mother, wife, daughter, employee, student, entrepreneur, volunteer,” Connelly said. “Elected officials need to be all of those things to be able to be compassionate listeners and good leaders.”

Laura Downs, the school chair for the Falls Church City School Board, said Women’s History Month is a “valuable reminder” of the “trailblazers” who came before her in the local leadership of Falls Church City. 

“These women laid the groundwork for those of us in public service today,” Downs said. “Currently, there is a female majority on both our School Board and City Council which is a testament to how far we’ve come.” 

Downs further stated that she is “grateful” to the female leaders who did the “heavy lifting” in her position before her, as well as her current male colleagues who have been “incredibly supportive” with her role as Chair. 

“I think as women, we need to encourage each other to step outside our comfort zones and run [for office],” Downs said. “For those who have not yet held leadership positions, those experiences can help to prepare you to run for public office.”

F.C. Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Director Elise Neil Bengston said she began her career in the federal government “where being both young and a woman” meant that she would have to “work extra hard to prove myself.” 

“I had to carefully assert myself and always be professional in order to be taken seriously and move up the ladder,” Bengston said. “My reputation for solid work and professionalism spread and I earned respect which was acknowledged all the way to the top.” 

Bengston’s advice for local women who may want to follow in her footsteps is “give great consideration to the opportunities that come their way.” Being thoughtful and professional, supporting one’s colleagues and proving “you’re not beneath doing simple tasks” are also takeaways Bengston has learned from her past and current work. 

Falls Church City School Board Member and Democratic fundraising consultant Lori Silverman said Women’s History Month is a time “to reflect on how far we’ve come” and how much work “needs to be done on behalf of women.” She said she believes that obstacles happen for everyone, but “some groups have more obstacles than others in various career paths,” whether it be based on one’s gender, race or “other protected classes.” 

Some advice Silverman has for women (and men) who want to work in Democratic politics is to find an area that interests them and are willing to “put in the hard work” for. 

“Don’t be sold on a specific path because you never know where the next door will lead,” Silverman said. “It’s not always the most glamorous work, but it’s really important work.” 

Caroline Lian, a Falls Church City Council Member, said her advice for women during Women’s History Month is to “speak up” every day, whether it be congratulating one’s success and looking for moments to “boost” one’s confidence. 

“In your daily life, you can make the most impact by demonstrating what empowerment looks like for girls and women around you,” Lian said. “That could mean modeling confident behavior or stepping up to protect others who are vulnerable.” 

In her 28 years in the workforce, Lian said her challenges have varied, such as overcoming pro-male bias and managing a work/life balance. Although things are “progressing” in terms of men and women sharing the “emotional” workload, Lian said society’s expectations are still not the same for men and women regarding their roles in families. 

“Women’s History Month to me means recognizing the history of women in our world and how far we’ve come, acknowledging how far we still have to go, but still making time to celebrate the progress and the accomplishments of women throughout the years to our culture and society,” Lian said.