Lindsay Rodman does not take no for an answer. Not as a lawyer nor as a marine.
When she reported for duty in Afghanistan, a colonel who is now a two-star general refused to shake her hand because she was a woman. That did not stop her from succeeding in her mission.
“There was another time when a different Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel both took me to lunch, on separate occasions, to voice to me why they don’t believe women should be in the Marine Corps,” Rodman said. “It shouldn’t be my burden to help him work through that, but this is how we make progress, so I figured I should try. He was saying he wanted to reform his thinking and wanted me to help him think it through.
“I asked why he joined the Marine Corps, ‘the adventure, serving his country, couldn’t think of a better way to serve.’ I explained that was my same thought process and I am seeking a world where women can have those same thoughts and go for it.”
After transitioning to the Reserves, Lindsay became a political appointee in the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had given the military three years to study the question of women serving in the military and present options for repealing the combat exclusion ban. The Marine Corps requested a partial exemption.
Then Ash Carter became Secretary of Defense. Lindsay, who studied at Harvard, had Carter as a professor. On December 3, 2015, Secretary Carter had a press conference lined up. “I gave him his binder,” Lindsay remembered. “He went up to the podium and I stood in the back of the room. He announced he would not grant the exemption, all positions would be open to women. There is so much emotion and conflict, you can work so hard but there will be times you are held back, and people think you shouldn’t be there. Being in the room at that moment, I was so happy I wanted to cry.”
Her journey started in college when she decided on a career in the intelligence community. She wanted to “go out, do things and to make change. ” She got her start with an internship with DIA. It was there she decided to join the military,
“I observed 30 or 40 year old civilians in DoD, especially women, who were not getting the credibility that the military folks had,’ she reflected. “I thought, ‘I can take steps now to make sure that’s never me. If I come in as a Marine, they will take me seriously. The sexism will go out the door.’
While it didn’t fix it, it helps me. I think, ‘Little does he know, I’m a Marine.’ Now I am working to fix it.”
Just as she spent her military career defying gender obstacles, she now leads an organization that tries to help remove hurdles for women in national security.
“When I applied to be the Executive Director of LCWINS, I realized what a great opportunity this was. I understood the importance of inclusion and the need for gender parity in national security. I wanted to be a part of the organization’s potential, and with my experiences and sharing my story, I knew I could help do that.”
I am a Type A planner, so have always set clear life goals. If you asked anyone from my high school about my likely career path back then, they would say, “Shelly? She wants to become a Supreme Court Justice.” This was my well-known and enduring plan until I took a Model United Nations course in college. That year, my school (Vassar College) was representing the United States. I was on the Disarmament Committee, where I learned about the history of the United States’ role in arms control. Once we got to the real UN in New York, I was hooked. There I saw, firsthand, that the United States is the center of everything related to national security. Your opinion matters, what you say to other countries matters. Our team, as the US, was truly shaping policy. It was intoxicating to make a difference globally (in this fictitious form) at Model UN. This later led me to pursue a White House internship in college during which I was able to continue working on arms control issues while serving in Legislative Affairs. It was then that I knew I wanted to work in national security as a career.
I feel like I have been very lucky in some ways. I have been working in national security for more than 20 years--many times as one of the only women in the room. Big rooms, small rooms, Situation Rooms…I never felt particularly uncomfortable or discriminated against due to my gender. However, despite working in defense and national security, I was frequently underestimated while away from work because I was a military spouse. I was married to an Army Infantry Officer and that male-dominated community expects women to primarily serve as a supportive spouse for your husband’s military career, a mother, or a leader of the family readiness groups. To have a vibrant career of my own in national security issues was certainly unorthodox. I was constantly underestimated by many of my husband’s colleagues who assumed that I didn’t have my own identity or expertise in this arena.
I found that dynamic extremely demoralizing and it made me want to prove myself by carving out my own path. This was only possible because I had an extremely supportive partner who championed my career alongside his. Instead of being at every ceremonial event attended by spouses, I was conducting research, I got a graduate degree while we were in Europe, I published a couple of papers, and I mapped out a future career working in Congress.
After returning to DC in 2003, I worked in the House of Representatives for several years and, in 2009, I was asked to serve in President Obama’s White House as a Special Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs. Twelve years after I interned there, I was back in Leg Affairs, pregnant with our first child, and managing the national security portfolio. When I returned from maternity leave, I was committed to keeping up with my nursing plan, which was challenging given my schedule and work in classified environments. My office, located in the East Wing of the White House, didn’t have a lock and the closest nursing station was two buildings away. I had to choose between picking up lunch or running back to my office to pump before going back to the Situation Room for another series of meetings. It was draining and hard to navigate as a young mom who was committed to excelling at her job and supporting her family.
One evening after I returned from maternity leave, I happened to be walking to the parking lot and ran into one of First Lady Michelle Obama’s policy advisors who asked how I was settling in. After I shared with her that it was an quite an adjustment to return to work, I mentioned that I was excited to finally get a lock on my office door but was struggling to manage the logistics of pumping and working at a high pace. First Lady Michelle Obama heard about this and within weeks, her team set up a mother’s comfort room in the East Wing of the White House. I was shocked this hadn’t been previously considered and was only created because I had a conversation with a friend after work. It was an amazing experience to have an inclusive team behind me during a challenging, new phase of my life as I balanced being a mother and continuing my career in national security. I was the first one to use this room, and mothers who served after me in the White House East Wing now had this amenity.
After the White House, I served at the Pentagon for two more years before embarking on a new career in the defense industry. After leaving an increasingly diverse Pentagon leadership team that was committed to appointing amazing women to senior roles, I expected to see more women around the table as business leaders--particularly since there were already a handful of women CEOs in the defense industry. I was surprised that it was led, for the most part, by white men at all levels.
Seeing women leaders, in all of their diversity, in senior roles in industry and in government has always been important to me. Just as I was looking for a way to do more to change the status quo and advance women in national security, LCWINS came to my attention. [Co-Founder] Julie Smith told me about LCWINS, asked if I wanted to get involved, and I now proudly serve on the Executive Committee. I love being able to work with LCWINS to advocate for women within the national security sector, achieving results with many of the Cabinet-level and senior appointees named so far and hopefully, many more to come. I want to ensure that women are valued for their individual contributions to national security and that any and all impediments – whether it is underestimation of their value or challenging logistics as a working mom—are removed from their path to leadership.
As the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants, I had a sense of the world beyond our shores--its possibilities and its dangers--from my earliest days. My father’s parents fled the Armenian Genocide and my mother escaped Germany’s class and gender constraints.
In college, I focused on human rights, first as a photographer documenting apartheid in South Africa and then as a researcher on land mines in Afghanistan. After college, during stints on Capitol Hill and for a campaign, I noticed that many of the people I admired around me were lawyers. (I didn’t put together that they were not practicing lawyers). So I went to law school, which is more like trade school than is generally acknowledged.
Fast forward a few years, through a fortunately-timed informational interview, I wound up in the West Wing as a special assistant to Sandy Berger who was President Clinton’s National Security Adviser, and his Deputy, Jim Steinberg.
At the National Security Council, I found the work I truly loved. But the experience went from completely terrifying to quite routine. I never had that moment at which I said to myself--this is so amazing! The hours were crazy. I shared a tiny office, once a broom closet, it is said, with Mona Sutphen who became a good friend and later a co-author.
When my job ended I moved to California, and worked at think tanks while raising children during the Bush Administration. With Mona, I wrote a book about US relations with big powers and then completed a volume on China while at the Center for American Progress. After President Obama’s second term victory, I threw my hat in the ring and, to my surprise, was named Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
It was only when I became an Ambassador that I looked around me and thought, “Wait a minute. Where are the women?” I was in charge of a multilateral mission working with 10 countries and their U.S. Embassies. The official pictures showed the group of my all male (and wonderful) Ambassador colleagues.
In this role I did have those “wow” moments. I never tired of sitting behind President Obama at summits. He was just phenomenal. And getting to represent the United States, sitting behind our flag, never got old.
While at post, I founded WASA, Women Ambassadors Serving America, after a photo-op with Secretary Kerry with all the women ambassadors. On our listserv, women ambassadors shared war stories about the unbridled sexism that they once had to endure, ideas for how to celebrate international day of the girl, and how to procure magnetic flag pins that wouldn’t ruin clothes, among other shared concerns.
When I returned to Los Angeles after President Trump’s victory, I had some time on my hands and wanted to continue my promotion of women in national security. I met in DC with women who would go on to found LCWINS. We had many conversations with other women in national security about serving and the obstacles along the way.
It was after a series of conversations that we realized we were onto something. Later, on a walk around my neighborhood, Mona and I came up with the idea that LCWINS could ask Presidential candidates to pledge to aim for gender parity in leadership positions in national security. With that idea we not only launched the Leadership Council for Women in National Security in 2019, but we got 18 candidates, including a GOP candidate, to commit to the pledge.
I currently serve as the first Deputy Mayor for International Affairs in Los Angeles and am very busy with this position and my family. But for the other founders and me, LCWINS is our baby, and I still spend time on it. But it is now happily in a place with new, excellent executive committee leadership and a fantastic executive director, that it does not need me anymore. As with raising a child, the transition to independence isn’t always easy, but it’s so exciting to see something you nurtured flourish.
I relate to the protagonist from the book “Penelope’s Zoo.” She was from Indiana. I was from Ohio. This middle-class young woman had smarts and energy and didn’t care what people thought her limitations should be. I have to say I was a lot like that. Penelope went to Washington DC, and hosted powerful salons. I applied and attended GWU because I wanted to be in the middle of everything and have impact.
I have a lot of experience surprising people. I learned Hebrew in high school so I selected Israel as the place to study abroad. I was a young Black catholic woman in Tel Aviv. No one wanted to room with me. I heard later that other girls complained that didn’t come to Israel to room with a ‘Shiksa’, especially a Black one.’ I finally wound up with the one other non-Jewish, roommate, a sweet Canadian girl, but we made good friends while we were there.
Going to Israel changed me. I learned that taking on the burden of breaking barriers comes with an emotional cost. But I also found I was comfortable being uncomfortable.
I went on to serve in the Peace Corps in Oman, learned Arabic and realized that public service is what rocks my boat. I went on to get a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins at SAIS, became a Presidential Fellow, but quickly joined the foreign service.
We were a class of 52. There was one black man and one black woman. Me.
I’m so used to being one of only. You can’t spend too much time thinking about that. As time went on, though, it became increasingly irritating. I knew I shouldn’t be the only one like me in the room. But I just got on with the work.
The issue of sexism is not unique to the U.S., but I was warned by a more experienced woman diplomat that her experience had been that by focusing on the Middle East the challenges and resistance came more from colleagues than hostnation interlocutors.
The race issue was definitely more from my colleagues. We, Americans, carry our own biases and baggage. Though we’ve tried to export both, when I was overseas, I presented as a U.S. diplomat. That’s what people saw; that’s what people got. No hyphens needed.
Even as Ambassador there were subtle and not-so subtle resistance from men. I remember hosting one of my early staff meetings and someone on my team began to mansplain. Not for long.
I left the foreign service during the Trump Administration, which made clear that diversity, or gender equity were not priorities. I remember early on, seeing a photo of a White House led meeting with a Saudi delegation.
There were no women on either side.
I never stopped caring about being a mentor and helping women and those of color succeed in the national security arena. I helped found LCWINS to counter what we saw and experienced. To our credit, we figured out how LCWINS could be value-added to the field, based on our experience and network. I love that we are focused on senior career women, though there are no hard barriers. We are trying to pay it forward and remove barriers for those that are coming behind us.
Our time was overdue and people were really hungry to be part of something to make a difference. LCWINS fit in in the space. We are at an inflection point in this country of exceptional people. That’s why we really can move this issue forward. We have had early success. We are known and respected. We now have to figure out how best to hold this administration to account -- to encourage and admonish when needed.. It is a difficult balance. But we want everything.