Women Have Power: Let’s Hear Them
A conversation with Alyse Nelson, President and co-Founder of Vital Voices for Global Partnership. Co-editor of Vital Voices: 100 Women to Empower Other Women (Assouline)
Forget for a moment Joe Biden’s victory as President-elect and Donald Trump’s struggles with defeat, one of the main news from the 2020 American Presidential election is Senator Kamala Harris. For the first time in history, a woman—a Black, Asian woman—will become the first female Vice President of the United States. Harris will also rank first in line to succeed Joe Biden as President.
Besides the election of Kamala Harris, women seem to have taken center political stage whether it is in the United States or on the opposite side of the world.
Women actually played a key role in the 2020 American elections a mere 100 years after the 19th amendment of the American Constitution granting women’s suffrage was passed. Fast forward to 2020, 57% of women—and among them 90% of Black women—chose the Democratic candidate over the incumbent President, according to NBC News. Women also voted more than men (52%). In other words, they decided the Presidential outcome and chose Joe Biden although Donald Trump increased his base of white women voters.
Ahead of the Presidential election, another woman, Justice Amy Coney Barrett also made history and became the only the fifth woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court in 230 years. A woman Justice has replaced another one. While it surely seems to be a positive step for women’s empowerment and gender equality, succession might not be as simple as just having a woman leader succeeding another one. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the American champion of women’s rights; based on the 48-year old Justice Barrett’s past judicial positions show, the new Justice is not.
In Washington DC Senate, out of the 53 potential Republican votes, only one was ironically missing in favor of Barrett, the vote of a woman. Reelected this November as Senator of Maine, Susan Collins considered that a new Justice’s nomination should have waited until after the results of November 3rd ballots. She voted against Barrett’s confirmation.
Meanwhile in New Zealand, 40-year-old Jacinda Ardern won a second term as Prime minister after managing—so far successfully—the Covid19 epidemic, reacting swiftly to a right-wing terrorist attack against Muslims, dealing with a deadly volcano eruption, and giving birth to her first child while in office at age 37.
Ardern “just won a landslide victory,” the President of the bi-partisan foundation Vital Voices Alyse Nelson—who co-edited the book Vital Voices, 100 Women to Empower Women (Assouline)—told me in a zoom conversation. “There is a growing recognition that women lead in a different way. That difference is needed more than ever.”
Why more, why now?
Alyse Nelson: The people seen on display around the world in this past year in dealing with the global pandemic or in dealing with racial justice issues are so often women. And so often, their stories do not get told.
So, it was urgent to share these stories?
I have always felt that the work we do in amplifying women’s voices, women’s rights and opportunities was important and, yes, urgent, but I had never felt that it was as urgent as it is now to address so many of the challenges that we face. Women do bring a different style of leadership—not to say that men can’t bring that same style; not to say that men and women collaborating is obviously a good thing—but just that there’s a greater need for that. It is about empathy, listening, compassion, collaboration, and innovation: trying things that have never been tried before.
At Vital Voices, we’re not about women’s leadership for the sake of women. We are about women’s leadership for the sake of a better world. Alyse Nelson
One of the 100 leaders featured in Vital Voices: 100 Women to Empower Other Women, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, passed away just days after the book was released. President Donald Trump did not wait for long to nominate a candidate to replace her, and he chose a woman. In your book, we can read RBG actually saying, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Is it about any woman, even if her views on women’s issues differ completely from RBG’s as do Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s?
At Vital Voices, we’re not about women’s leadership for the sake of women. We are about women’s leadership for the sake of a better world. Someone was asking me recently, ‘why wouldn’t I support her? (Barrett) is a woman, and don’t we want more women on the court?’ I would certainly support a man over a woman if it came to the issues (of women’s rights). We are a bipartisan organization. We do speak up on issues that can be political when it’s about policies that will negatively impact the lives of women. In many ways, it’s a good slap in the face to say you had someone who is the ultimate champion, who pushed women’s issues forward dramatically, and then someone replacing her who is almost saying what women ought to be if you look at many of her alliances and things she’s been involved in. That, to me, is very scary.
It is not about where you come from, what you do, your background, your education, and your title; it is really about seeing a problem and stepping up to right it. Alyse Nelson
Your book is timely in so many ways. Women and the pandemic; Women and the U.S. Presidential election; the 25th anniversary of the 4th United Nations Conference on Women. Not a day without a story on women’s leadership, whether they are a judge or a voter. You selected 100 of these women. Some are world famous. Others are totally unknown, except obviously in their communities.
That was by design. I wanted to send a message with this book: What makes you a leader is not about title, position, credentials, and how many people report to you in your corner office.
The women featured in this book were all nominated by our network. They are women that other women admire, look up to and see as people who spouse the leadership of seeking power to empower. Where is that power—and how do I use it to empower? (That power) is in my voice, my platform, my talent, and my skills.
I wanted to feature women whom I thought were doing amazing, breakthrough, and innovative things, and some who were graffiti artists whether it be in Brazil or two young women in Honduras using their art to push back against feminicide and fight for reproductive rights juxtaposed to the world’s most famous women like Hillary Clinton and supermodel Karlie Kloss.
So, it is about empowerment more than power itself?
‘What can I do with my platform? How can I be helpful and supportive?’
It is not about where you come from, what you do, your background, your education, and your title; it is really about seeing a problem and stepping up to right it.
If your leadership is driven by that, it is such a pure form of leadership. It’s almost as if it can’t be tainted because you know so strongly what your true North is. You know what you’re fighting for.
‘Women’s rights are human rights, but rights are nothing without the power to claim them.’ Hillary R. Clinton
A quarter of century has passed since Hillary R. Clinton—then the United States’ First Lady—attended the 1985 United Nations conference in China and ushered these historic words: “Human’s rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” Yourself had made your way to this conference and have dedicated your life ever since to further women’s rights and gender equality. What has been the main progress made since the Beijing Conference?
Just the fact that these issues have become far more mainstream.
There was not an understanding (in 1985) that there is today not only that the battles we have won and the progress we’ve made can be taken away and slide backwards, but also that there is far more to do.
We have got a lot of data today, and research proves that investing in women is smart.
We have more allies than ever before, including male allies.
If you think back to 25 years ago and ask, ‘Who were the leaders who were willing to use their platform and their voice to speak for women and women’s issues,’ you had Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton, and a handful of others but that was pretty much it. You didn’t have the household names, celebrities or journalists whom we now have.
I think we’re poised in the next ten years to really fast forward our progress. We see the young gen Z generation coming forth. They have a different way to think about their values and the work that they will do in the world. They’re going to move us forward.
Technology! We were not connected globally 25 years ago. I went to the conference in Beijing because I wanted to understand these issues, and the only way I could do it was to go there. Although nothing beats connecting in person and traveling to places, you now can learn so much through social media and Google. So, obviously, we’ve made huge strides forward.
Yet, I think violence against women has gotten worse and has been weaponized against women as they have gained greater power.
The OECD studied this and realized that violence against women, everywhere in the world, was the main obstacle to women economic empowerment.
If we could end violence against women, we would unlock trillions of dollars of money that is going to tackle these issues: a loss of productivity from domestic violence, police, and legislative work.
Hillary Clinton recently said in a piece she wrote for the Atlantic: ‘Women’s rights are human rights, but rights are nothing without the power to claim them.’ I so agree with that. Yes, today, we have a lot more rights on paper: legislation that protect and advance the rights of women—not enough still, but we have more. The problem is that those laws are neither implemented nor enforced. They are not taken seriously and not well resourced.
The cultural and behavioral change of people valuing women and girls the way they value men and boys still needs to happen.
The cultural and behavioral change of people valuing women and girls the way they value men and boys still needs to happen. Alyse Nelson
It is about a cultural shift.
That’s where the arts and culture come in.
When you boldly brought the play Seven to Deauville in 2008 (the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society was then held in Deauville, France), so many people thought it was not such a great idea to bring women’s issues and women’s rights to a conference mainly made of business women.
Why do you think it was bold to mix in the same room businesswomen and an artistic format—a play—to share stories of women who instead of acting as victims, transformed their struggles into success, ideas, and actions?
We tend to put people into a box: ‘Businesswomen only want to talk about business issues; maybe they will spread to a little bit of mentoring for the next generation.’ But the underlying factor is, women are women, and they have experienced things. If a third of the population has experienced violence, then we know that every woman has either experienced it or knows someone closed to her who has experienced it. There is no woman anywhere in the world who can say she has not been touched by some violence, inequity, and quite frankly particularly women in successful business positions. I remember during the #Metoo movement how many of my business friends had stories I had never heard, things they had just tucked away somewhere in the corner.
So, rather than hearing to a speech, when people listen to art, the heart and mind open up in a different way. If I would have stood up there and rattled up all the statistics, people would have said, ‘Oh yes, it’s terrible.’ But when you tell a story, it touches people personally. They think about their own lives. Just because these women can talk about finance, it does not mean they don’t have these personal stories. There is no way that any woman who went to the top of her game without experiencing some form of discrimination or sexism.
So, I think (Seven in Deauville) spoke to them in a way that they were not expecting. It was needed, missing, and powerful.
A year after Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Diane Von Furstenberg and you made sure that Seven could be performed at the Women’s Forum in France in front of CEOs, Board and Executive Committee members, politicians, and entrepreneurs, the play was read in New York at Tina Brown’s first Women in the World Summit. Meryl Streep was one of the actresses on stage, and Hillary Clinton and Queen Rania were in the audience. The fact is, the issue of diversity—of all diversity—is a cultural issue and is defined as you say not only by behavior but also by education. Without culture, can we really move our society forward?
One of the most powerful ways to change culture is culture itself. A politician gives a speech, and people think, ‘You ought to thank me for listening to you.’ A musician plays a beautiful piece of music, and we thank them for performing.
The way we open our brains and accept art is very different from the way we accept information.
Culture can therefore be really a powerful tool and is, quite frankly, underutilized.
Should men read your book?
I definitely think that men should read the book. I hope that they will take away that although this form of leadership may be coming from more women in position of power, it is not a women’s model. It is a model for everyone.
The original portraits created by Gayle Kabaker of Vital Voices: 100 Women to Empower Other Women are exhibited at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.