Letter to Angella Nazarian
On the eve of Visionary Women Summit 2021 – https://www.visionarywomen.com
(Quotes below, unless in italics, are invented, and the attribution to people is purely fictional)
Do you remember the cobblestone streets of Coyoacán in Mexico City, a far cry from the busy double deck jammed highways that drive across the megalopolis? I am sure you remember the first time you pushed the double green doors of the Blue House—Casa Azul, the home of Frida Kahlo. I do, and I have returned there so often.
I have always pictured the young Frida playing in the lush garden. I imagined her conversations upstairs with her husband and muralist Diego Rivera, the tacos she prepared in the blue and yellow kitchen for Trotzky, whom she and Diego hosted for a while, and there she was: at her desk, among her books, staring through the window, painting a watermelon or, prisoner of her bed when she could not stand up for days, looking at herself in a mirror and drawing one of her many self-portraits.
I usually followed this ‘pilgrimage’ to Casa Azul with a long walk on Avenida Francisco Sosa all the way to the hilly streets of San Angel. There are everywhere on Plaza San Jacinto: dancers and painters and children all dressed up enjoying some candies and running and singing and laughing. A pure sense of joy and life. The streets are packed. This is Saturday morning, the Sabado Market. Was it the same path Frida walked on when she was commuting to Casa Estudio, the two cubic houses, one for her and one for Diego, reunited by a bridge on the roof, across the street from lined up Jacaranda trees in front of the San Angel Inn?
You and I never had time to wander around the city together when you gracefully came to moderate conversations at the Women’s Forum Mexico in 2016 and 2017. I am certain though that you thought of Frida when you were there. You wrote after all a magnificent portrait of her in Pioneers of the Possible, one of the three books you published with Assouline. Frida, the “Conquistador of Happiness.” She stood tall and proud despite her childhood polio, the atrocious trolley accident when a handrail pierced her teenage body, the many debilitating surgeries, the unborn children, and the art society she calmly defied and impressed. Miró, Breton, Picasso, O’Keefe, Noguchi, Kandisky, and above all, Rivera admired her. The French Government even bought one of her paintings in 1939—The Frame—the first ever of a Mexican artist, and they exhibited it in Le Louvre, no less.
Now, Angella, I wonder what question you would have asked her.
As you are about to welcome your guests in a Covid-19-shaped online virtual summit, Visionary Women, on March 4th and 8th, I am dreaming of an impossible meeting.
I am certain that your friends, and among them, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, and the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Yemenite journalist Tawakkol Karman, would agree to this.
What would happen if these leaders would sit at a dinner in the Casa Azul patio, under a midnight-blue Mexican sky? Frida is here of course, wearing a Tehuana dress, an embroidered blouse, and a shawl, with her hair braided with pink and red dahlias, but also, let’s see, Ella Fitzgerald and Marie Curie. You wrote about them as well, didn’t you?
It would be a soft and warm evening. Our friend, Mexican artist Betsabeé Romero—whose folkloric cultural dinners are among the most sought after in the city—could create a traditional, multicolor table, even perhaps prepare old fares from Morelia, and we would serve Tequila of course, Mezcal as well.
You would lead the conversations obviously and take notes for your upcoming books.
What would Ella and Condoleezza talk about? Ella, who lived blocks away from your house in Beverly Hills. You just did not know back then that the weeping willow you loved so much on Whittier Drive protected Ella’s front yard from the sun. She was the First Lady Jazz, born to poverty and raised by a single mom in Yonkers, New York. She wanted to dance, but her voice took her beyond the borders of discrimination and machismo towards the highest worldwide recognition. “She made words swing,” you wrote. And here she is, now singing with the first black woman to have led America’s foreign policy.
“You could have had two careers at once,” Ella tells Condoleeza. “Politician and musician!”
“I played Mozart and advised George W. Bush on national security. Not too bad.”
“The tunes you performed with Yo-Yo Ma and Aretha Franklin. I say, ‘Respect,’ sister. When shall we sing together?”
“Ella, come on, you recorded ‘It’s Wonderful’ with Aretha. That counts even more.”
“Don’t you think, Madam Secretary, that we should use more music, literature, painting, ballet, and sculpture in our diplomacy? The French call it, ‘cultural diplomacy.’”
“It is true, Ella, that 20 years ago this month, the Taliban destroyed the two 1,400-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan, representing both genders.”
“The sign that something worse was about to happen? That Al-Qaeda and the Taliban would eventually kill Massud and attack America within months?”
I would love to know your thoughts, Angella, did the pianist advise the politician or did the politics rhythm the music?
Do you recall the opening of the 2017 Women’s Forum Mexico? It was still early in the morning; the lights were dimmed in the circus-designed conference room at the Hyatt Polanco; a young French woman, Marie-Agathe Charpagne, approached a piano on stage, and while everyone was expecting a conversation on getting more women on boards or on trade negotiations between Mexico, Canada, and the U.S., she started playing In the Mists by Janáček. The audience seemed to love that soft opening with a virtuoso they had never heard before. How could they have known that Marie-Agathe is a PhD in metallurgy (materials science), a researcher at the University of Santa Barbara in California, and while studying in France, she worked on a metallic alloy soon to be used by GE engines on Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737Max. Does mastering an art could influence her scientific research? Marie-Agathe now investigates on materials for hypersonic flights and space exploration. If I may, Angella, she is a badass, really, one of the Women’s Forum’s Rising Talents as is the President of Vital Voices, our friend, Alyse Nelson.
Ask Alyse if she thinks that without culture, men and women can create more equal opportunities for all. Can we really change old fashioned paradigms without involving the arts?
“Well,” Frida says, “Did you listen to this young poet, Amanda Gorman on inauguration day? Did you see how she dressed up, moved her hands with theatrical assurance and injected a much-needed dose of optimism into our bewildered-pandemic-lives?”
“She is a member of Vital Voices,” Albright interjects, “the foundation I co-founded along with Hillary R. Clinton, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, and four other women including Alyse Nelson, now the CEO.” Gorman believes as we do that women should use their leadership to empower others. We are back to the power of words, the words you sing, the words you negotiate with, the words you choose to tell a story, to express your feelings, and if pronounced with heart and soul, they fuel inspiration. Gorman in an interview she gave me, when the Vital Voices book with her portrait on the cover came out, said, “language not only restructures how we think about women leaders, and all the gifts they bring to the table, but also leadership in general, which should be unafraid of empathy and generosity.”
Frida was a painter of course, but also a photographer and a fabulous writer. Her correspondence and her journal stand out as artworks. I recall a letter she sent to her ex-lover, the photographer Nickolas Muray after he had informed her, he got married. It was an incredible raw, sharp and loving text of despair, understanding, and of an invisible line she was drawing. Frida seemed to be fearless and could turn sadness into an artistic force.
Albright was the first woman ever to become Secretary of State. She has also always shown a fearless face. Flashback, two decades ago at the American Ambassador to France on rue de Rivoli in Paris. For 12 hours now, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime minister Ehud Barak had been negotiating the terms of a seemingly impossible peace agreement after a deadly conflict killed 60 Palestinians in the West Bank. Barak refused the idea of an international investigation into the clashes; so, Arafat decided to quit the conversation and leave the US Compound. When Albright heard about it, she raced after him, unsuccessfully. As Arafat’s car was about to exit the residence, she yelled to the MPs, “Close the gates! Close the gates!” and a flabbergasted Arafat became for a few hours her ‘unvoluntary guest.’ If other world leaders had not wanted to influence the negotiations later that night, Albright could actually have built a bit of peace at that moment. Fearless.
I do not know if Albright plays piano—she publicly played drums for sure. But let’s dream of a four-handed piano piece with Condoleezza. A Democrat and a Republican performing “Cheek to Cheek.” And everyone’s suddenly dancing.
Marie Curie seems happy too, although she knows the danger of not moving forward faster to get more girls into science and math. “I was born in Warsaw in 1867,” she tells everyone. “Within two years, one of my sisters died of Typhus, and tuberculosis took my mother.” She found solace in studying hard, and she was good at it. “Yet, I hit a wall; girls in my home country had limited rights to study, so I went to France, finally entered the Faculty of Science—and may I say, we were just a handful of women, less than 30 out of almost 800 students.”
This is a story you know so well, Angella. Curie is one of the Visionary Women you wrote about in the sold-out eponymous Assouline book. Her name keeps coming to my mind when I think of Katalin Kariko who pioneered research on the genetic RNA code four decades ago and stayed the course despite, well, that most of the scientific community seemed uninterested. The daughter of a Hungarian butcher, she left her country for France and then the United States when her University prevented her from pursuing her research. Fast forward to 2020 as Melanne would say—one of the most efficient trailblazers for gender diversity and women empowerment in the world, and one of your conference guests. Kariko’s vision and work has unlocked nothing short of a miracle: the Covid vaccine.
Many of the jobs that will be created in ten years from now do not exist yet but will involve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As of now, there are not enough Curie and Kariko studying mathematics and physics to fill tomorrow’s jobs with not only men, but also women. Are we already losing the battle of the next vaccine to defeat a future pandemic?
A woman scientist’s resilience in a male dominated sector may have given mankind a ray of hope. Yet, women have not been spared during the economic slowdown. In the United State, they have actually been suffering the most. Recent studies, including works published by McKinsey and Oxford Universities, show that more women than men had been forced into unemployment because of Covid19—unemployment rates among women in the United States are regressing to 1980s statistics. Worse, it would take two extra years for women to reenter the workforce at the pre-Covid19 levels.
Not everything is dismal though. Positive steps also happened to women leaders recently. The Biden’s administration is actually the most diverse one to date with 45% of women and 55% of non-white. The political elections and nominations of the first woman Vice-President of the United States, the first woman Secretary of the Treasury, the first woman director of the World Trade Organization and while the majority leader at the House of Representatives has also been a woman for a while, these nominations and elections are definitive steps forward for a more balanced society.
Don’t you think Tawakkol Karman—a journalist, politician and human rights activist—would agree? Tawakkol recently published an opinion on CNN and answered Christiane Amanpour’s questions. “The image of Yemen that most see in the US,” she wrote, “is a bleak one: war-torn, plagued by hunger and disease, hopeless.” She added, this is not the full picture, the Yemen she has been fighting for since the uprising a decade ago, is one the oldest civilizations in the world, the Sabaean Kingdom, where East meets West.
Frida remembers she was born before the Mexican revolution. She too was an activist.
“What do you fight for in your Arabic country,” she asks Tawakkol.
“Freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, freedom!”
Fifteen years ago, Tawakkol and some of her fellow journalists created an organization called Women Journalists Without Chains. Now she calls upon the Biden administration to help bring peace to Yemen.
“I am a feminist as you are one through the liberty of your paintings and your being, Frida. Women’s rights need to exist and to be applied,” Tawakkol says.
“Here in Mexico City, the President decided to protect his palace with a three-meter fence from women instead of protecting them from being murdered.”
“How many women were killed because because of their gender last year in Mexico?”
“At least 939 femicides. An increase of 130% between 2015 and 2020! No wonder, women want to march to protest the violence against them.”
“And the official answer for International Women’s Day is a three-meter high wall?”
“Yes, but this is Mexico. Activists turned the wall around the Presidential Palace into an art piece. They painted the names of all the victims on the barriers. Now, the pictures are everywhere in the media and on social media.”
“You were a pioneer, Frida, but there is still so much to do throughout the world. Women’s rights is what we need, now and everywhere in the world.”
“Yes, Tawakkol! Hillary said it herself in Beijing, at the United Nations World Conference on Women: ‘Human rights are women’s Rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.’”
“And 25 years after, she added, ‘but rights are nothing without the power to claim them.’”
In a story published by the Gatestone Institute and relayed by Vital Voices, Tawakkol emphasized the need not only for equal access to rights, but also to recognize them. “No dignity and no liberty for a nation which oppresses women and takes away their rights,” she said.
I am quite confident that your other guests, Angella, will love meeting with Tawakkol: of course her fellow 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Leymah Gbowee, the CEO of Acumen as well, “The Conscious Capitalist,” as you knicknamed her, Jacqueline Novogratz; Alyse Nelson who co-edited the Assouline Book Vital Voices; Katie Couric, the first woman to anchor, alone, the evening news on CBS; Ambassador Melanne Verveer, of course, the current head of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security; poet Tracy K. Smith; US Secretaries Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, and Pat Mitchell. Say hello to Pat for me. Now the director of TedWomen, she used to be the first female President of PBS—and later on, the President of the Paley Center for Media. I first met her in 2000. I was then a young producer for a television program hosted by Mary Alice Williams, one of the original CNN anchors. No one knew what we were doing then, not me for sure—I had been hired to work on a show called Amazing Women—neither my employer it seems who had launched—and ultimately failed—the first television on the internet. A bit of a premature ambition, and to be fair, the company, InexTV.com, a then visionary has been forgotten.
And there is you, dear Angella, your own vision to bring these VW together, to tell and write their stories and share them with the friendly complicity of Martine Assouline with other, lesser known but as powerful, leaders. I have seen them during this pandemic: the entrepreneur, the business leader, the interior designer, the housewife, the coach, the artist (who signed on the artwork above) and often we forget, the mother who does it all—she is one and the same. Actually, is there one of them who does not have a vision and words to share? “As we have become a polarized nation—and creating common ground is essential in moving forward—they will all discuss the role of women in building peace, equity, and unity,” you wrote to me.
One of my very close friends told me not so long ago—her voice was as slow as it was soft, perhaps to prevent any unwanted emotional reaction: ‘You may have worked with a lot women, but you surely do not understand them.’ And she is right of course. This is not about understanding one another (if we don’t speak the same language, we actually stand a chance). This is about understanding that each individual, a man or a woman, has the right to live in a society that meets his or her needs, and to that purpose, every vision is necessary. This is about realizing that every time a girl is ignored, malnourished, subjected to any form of violence, barred from studying, speaking up, working, being listened to, and loving, we turn off infinite possibilities of creativity and ideas.
How can any smart parent or investor decide that out of a baby boy and a baby girl, only the boy deserves a real investment—health, education, and safety? A vision does not know gender, does it?
What if Frida Kahlo had never been allowed to exhibit her paintings?
What if Marie Curie had never left Poland and become a scientist?
What if Ella Fitzgerald had tried to dance instead of singing at the Apollo Theater competition when she was 17?
What if Condoleezza Rice had been denied a career in politics, and male heads of States had not attempted to undo what Madeleine Albright had achieved with Yasser Arafat?
What if Tawakkol Markan’s voice had been shut down?
In so many ways, Tawakkol reminds me of Alaa Salah, the heroine of the Sudanese revolution, the ‘Woman in White with a Golden Earring’ who stood up and said: “It is the not the bullet that kills; what kills is the silence of the people.”
Your summit will be busy with stories, ideas, and inspirations so that more vital voices rise up. There will be no silence. In the background, I can already hear the voice of Ella Fitzgerald singing with Marie Curie “Willow weep for me.” Frida is smiling. She looks at all of us through her deep eyes, and biting into the fruit, she whispers, “Viva la Vida.”