TORONTO — Some people dream of being successful actors. Others dream of becoming doctors or novelists.
Meryl Frank had a very specific dream: she wanted to be the U.S. ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She never thought her fantasy would become a reality, but it did.
In graduate school, she studied political science and international relations. She also had four children in the span of seven years and became a stay-at-home mom.
Frank eventually got involved with her local school board, because she was upset with her son’s school and realized she’d have to do something about the problem herself.
Through her school-board activities, she met the mayor of her borough, Highland Park, N.J. He was a two-term mayor and she had no political experience, but that didn’t stop her from running against him for mayor, which she did with help from her friends.
“We were women that would meet at 10 o’clock at night because we had to put our kids to bed,” Frank said during a recent lecture at Beth Tzedec Congregation organized by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“They were college professors, they were secretaries – they were women that wanted to help. In fact, the opposition called us ‘the mommies.’ What they didn’t know is that mommies are very smart. Mommies know how to organize. Mommies know other mommies.”
To the surprise of many residents, Frank ended up winning the election by a landslide. “This was such a big landslide in an area in New Jersey that is known for corrupt politics, that it was a half page in the New York Times,” she told an audience of mostly women at the Toronto synagogue.
Frank served as mayor of Highland Park for almost 10 years, from 2000 to 2010.
After President Barack Obama won his first election in 2008, one of Frank’s friends suggested she should go after the position of ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. “I put an application in online. I am not kidding you, I put it in online,” she said.
By then, Frank had already been involved in both local and national politics, and had helped advocate for national and regional legislation, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, signed by president Bill Clinton.
She said Obama’s office sent her name to then secretary-of-state Hillary Clinton, who had worked with Frank. Before she knew it, the job she dreamed of having was hers. She was appointed to the position in 2009.
Frank, now a retired ambassador, said it was an honour to speak at the United Nations on behalf of her country. “You say everything that is, in fact, dictated by the White House and the State Department – which is the way it should be,” she said. “Because if you say something, and it’s not the policy or you’re misunderstood, this changes world politics.”
She did, however, make an exception when she was invited to speak to the UN General Assembly. It was the 15th anniversary of the World Conference on Women, and Frank was the only female representative speaking on behalf of a region – all the other representatives were men.
Frank said that she said something along the lines of: “I am so honoured to be here to speak on behalf of my country. But I am doubly honoured to be the only woman.” Luckily, the room erupted in applause, and she knew she wouldn’t be in trouble for saying something that wasn’t in her speech.
“The fact that I was scared because I said something that wasn’t in the script… told me that maybe this dream was not what I really wanted,” she said. “Maybe I was better at something else.”
The “something else” turned out to be teaching and empowering other women. Frank, who has also served as president of the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress, now works with organizations that talk to women around the globe about leadership.
Frank talked about some of the unsung heroes she’s met through her travels. One is the first Bedouin woman to become a member of parliament in Jordan.
“Being a Jew is why I do what I do,” Frank said. “It’s very clear to me that I have in my marrow, because I’m a Jew, an understanding of a need for social justice.”
After her lecture, she told The CJN, “I am viewing the world on the cusp of change… I feel honoured to be a part of it and to help ease the transition. To help women ease into that transition.”