During the fall of 1990, Felicia Kantor, a fourth year student and Student Council Vice President, approached Shamim Sisson, Assistant Dean of Students in the Office of the Dean of Students, with several concerns. The previous summer, Felicia had interned in a law office and, for the first time, had become aware of the sexism that was not uncommon in many work settings. It had caused her to reflect on her experience the previous spring running for University-wide leadership position, when some of her campaign posters had been defaced. Her male opponents' posters had been defaced, too, but what Felicia found most troubling was the difference. Someone had drawn glasses and a tie on her opponent's photograph, essentially making him look more intelligent. However, on her posters they had added breasts below her head-shot and written men's names in the section she devoted to “experience.” Felicia was concerned that so few women ran for elective office and that experiences such as hers might discourage those who would consider it a possibility. She wanted to find a way to help her younger peers to be knowledgeable about these challenges, but to actively pursue leadership opportunities leadership nonetheless.
Having a particular interest in women's education and leadership, Dean Sisson, was eager to explore with Felicia what sorts of experiences might accomplish these important goals. Together they identified key themes for conversation and invited women faculty, community leaders, and student leaders to share their expertise and their stories with the participants. Then they invited people around the University to nominate women for the program, setting aside the most obvious “movers and shakers” in favor of promising young women who had not yet fully found their places at the University. In the spring of 1991, the first Women's Leadership Development Program was held over three sessions with about 45 participants.
Each year thereafter, a previous participant was selected as the chair of the next year's planning group to work with Dean Sisson. As participation in the program grew, the topics evolved, more men were included as program resources, and for several years, there was an active mentor program as an optional additional experience for participants. One of the most important program developments took place in 1995, when Theresa Carroll, an Assistant Dean who worked with WLDP for two years, expanded the practice of selecting a student chair to include more former participants on the planning committee. This marked the beginning of valuable opportunities for more women to play important roles in providing meaningful leadership development experiences for those participating in the program after them. In 1998, Dean Sisson resumed work with the WLDP until 2001, when Stephanie Goodell, Assistant Dean of Students, became responsible for its continued contributions to the University of Virginia and the lives of its female students. In 2002, the WLDP Planning Committee chose to honor Dean Sisson for her involvement and outstanding leadership by naming the closing reception the V. Shamim Sisson Women's Leadership Reception.