Missy Meloney’s name isn’t well-known, even among students of U.S. history. However, Meloney advised presidents, amplified women’s voices, and helped shape American women into an organized political and economic force. Even though she died nearly 80 years ago, Meloney’s leadership style is one that can be an effective model today, according to historian/author Dr. Julie Des Jardins, who has written the first-ever biography on Missy Meloney.

Dr. Des Jardins spoke to Womble Bond Dickinson on March 30 as part of the firm’s observation of Women’s History Month. Her discussion was presented by Women of Womble Bond Dickinson (W.O.W.) Womble Bond Dickinson attorney Deb Vernon is a long-time friend of Dr. Des Jardins and brought her to the firm’s attention. Womble Bond Dickinson attorney Cathy Hinger, the leader of W.O.W., provided introductory remarks for the presentation.

Meloney “was not a self-proclaimed leader in her day,” Dr. Des Jardins said. In fact, Meloney came to her attention while researching other books and finding the same name appearing in a range of contexts. For example, Meloney:

  • Served as a benefactor to scientific titans Marie Curie and Nikola Tesla.
  • Was a close friend of pioneering psychologist Lillian Moller Gilbreth.
  • Edited articles written by Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football.”
  • Wrote for the Washington Post as a teenager, launching a nearly 50-year career in journalism that broke barriers for women in the profession. She was instrumental in giving other women the opportunity to be published.
  • Advised numerous U.S. Presidents and was a close confidante of Eleanor Roosevelt.

“She was pretty much a rainmaker for all these other people,” Dr. Des Jardins said. “For an American woman growing up after the Civil War, if you had ambitions, you had to have those ambitions in stealth.”

But Meloney’s behind-the-scenes approach is more than just an interesting story from the early 20th Century. Dr. Des Jardins said “she fits the description of what research tells us are effective leaders for modern times.”

For years, she said women in leadership were told they needed to emulate the characteristics of many male leaders—aggressive, hypercompetitive, and focused on personal charisma. But instead, Dr. Des Jardins said every aspiring leader could learn something from the leadership style of women such as Missy Meloney.

So what are those leadership traits? Dr. Des Jardins said many successful women in leadership exhibit the following traits:

  • Considering how actions impact others—looking at the social good, not just “winning”. 
  • Exhibiting empathy and motivating team members through positivity.
  • Focusing on the process over the bottom line.
  • Collaborating with team members, rather than focusing on the “lone hero” model.
  • Using personal, private experiences to inform professional decisions.
  • Keeping relationships in good repair.

“They are the people who listen to everybody, regardless of where they sit in the organization,” Dr. Des Jardins said. “Women’s notions of winning are often different—they’re more motived to give a little with the bigger picture in mind.”

She said that men can and do employ this “transformative leadership” style. But she also noted that this approach can stigmatize women, noting that even in 2021, women get accused of being “too emotional” to be objective and logical. 

However, she sees signs that more people—particularly the millennial generation—are embracing this leadership approach. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this shift, she said. She points to real-world examples, such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has earned global respect for her nation’s high effective response to the pandemic, and Stacey Abrams, who turned a defeat in Georgia’s gubernatorial race into a campaign to increase voter participation.

“Women already couldn’t compartmentalize work and home,” Dr. Des Jardins said. “For many women, (work-from-home) felt like any given Tuesday. I’m hoping more people will respect the balancing act women have been expected to do.”

And for a role model, look no further than Missy Meloney, who made incredible things happen on a national level even before American women had the right to vote.

Click here for more information on Dr. Julie Des Jardin’s new book, American Queenmaker: How Missy Meloney Brought Women Into Politics.