Women in the World

03.12.12

A Weekend of Fearless Women: Tina Brown on Women in the World Summit

From top girl crush Christine Lagarde on ‘Lehman Sisters’ to Meryl Streep riveted backstage and Hillary Clinton’s embrace of Burmese activist Zin Mar Aung, Tina Brown shares her favorite moments from the third Women in the World summit.

Something wonderful happened at this year’s third Women in the World Summit. It really was not just a summit, but a happening that brought out the very best in everyone on stage and off, at the Lincoln Center and at the United Nations, where my summit cohost Diane von Furstenberg presented the DVF awards to such women of courage as Jaycee Dugard.

So many mothers brought their daughters to the summit. So many daughters brought their mothers. Has Christine Lagarde, our guest at the opening night dinner, ever been more convincing or more captivating, with the sheen of her white satin jabot blouse matching her hank of silver hair? (For girl crushes in the dinner audience, Lagarde took the prize.) “If Lehman Brothers had been a bit more Lehman Sisters...we would not have had the degree of tragedy that we had as a result of what happened,” she told Niall Ferguson archly.

Let’s hope Lagarde is the next president of France.

Angelina Jolie was gravely authentic as she took the stage and summoned up the words of Dr. Hawa Abdi, facing terrible peril in Somalia from Islamist rebels menacing the hundred thousand refugees in her camp. Then, from the darkness, as Jolie slipped into the wings, we heard Abdi’s own voice, taped the day before by our executive producer Kyle Gibson, on how buoyed she was in adversity by the news she’d been just been nominated for the Nobel Prize.

The only snag with being the onstage host was that I missed the excitement of seeing much of it unfold as the audience did, many of them attending every panel for two-and-a-half solid days. But sometimes backstage was a potent place to be, as Meryl Streep hung out in the wings in her playful Sergeant Pepper scarlet frock coat, riveted by the monitor just as much as little Suma Tharu. The 16-year-old former slave from Nepal, now a star student thanks to Room to Read, was waiting to go on stage and sing in her clear, poignant voice the lyrics she wrote of her life being tormented by a landlord: “Selfish were my mother and father / They gave birth to a daughter / Did you want to see me suffer, mother? / Did you want to see me suffer, father?”

Preparing for her own entrance, Hillary Clinton hung out back there, too, watching daughter Chelsea’s panel on the digital lives of girls, so relaxed, so content she seemed to be among the women she’s helped for so many unsung years. She had her arm wrapped affectionately around the small, intensely modest Zin Mar Aung, the 36-year-old who’d been imprisoned for 11 years in Burma for the crime of distributing pro-democracy leaflets on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi. Clinton knew Zin Mar Aung, of course, and had cared about her when no one else did.  On Thursday at the State Department, she bestowed on her an International Women of Courage Award. As Streep said in her masterful introduction of our soon-to-be-gone secretary of State, efforts on behalf of women have really constituted the “secret life of Hillary” all the way through her long career in public life.

(Could it be that Clinton’s mistake during her presidential campaign was to turn her talking points over to Mark Penn instead of letting her real constituency, the women who knew her story, tell the world who she really was?)

What was rewarding was the emotional transference between the heroes from overseas and the women and girls filling Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater.

“We have to be our own Gandhis, our own Kings, our own Mandelas,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee told the crowd, to cheers. “My definition of victimhood is the person who sits and waits for a knight in shining armor … it was always that way for me.”

Gbowee confessed to being bemused at American women’s passivity in the debate over reproductive rights: “I watched this and said to myself, ‘Where are the angry American women?!’”

Gbowee confessed to being bemused at the passivity of American women in the debate over reproductive rights currently roiling Capitol Hill. “I watched this and said to myself, ‘Where are the angry American women?! ” (Huge applause.) Her sentiment was picked up by the fabulously feisty young Kah Walla, who nearly won the presidency of Cameroon on the Cameroon People’s Party ticket. Women in Africa, she said, need to focus on boosting their representation in politics—but so, she added, do American women. “We don’t have critical mass,” she told the moderator Andrea Mitchell. “We need to be Sweden, Norway, Denmark—that needs to be the norm. We cannot accept that having 19 percent of women in the U.S. Congress is OK. And I think as women we need to understand: it is in the politics … until we get political power, we are not going to be able to make giant strides. Every woman in here needs to be involved in getting a woman elected.” Such thunderous applause to this, it made me want to load a bus up with all the mighty African women like her who have such uninhibited dramatic presence and take them on a political activism tour.

What’s exhilarating since the first Women in the World Summit three years ago are the advances women have made, overlooked by our scurrying, insular media world. There were tears in the audience that first occasion in 2010, when a West African mother, Marietou Diarra, sat on the stage in traditional dress and wept as she described how the tradition of female genital cutting, bequeathed through generations from mother to daughter, had killed her first infant daughter, from infection, and then her second at the age of 8.

In 2010, the translator of her words in Wolof was the woman who brought her, Molly Melching, nearly 40 years in West Africa running the liberating program Tostan, which works with village communities to abandon both cutting and child marriages. And there this year was Melching, translating again, but this time the deep voice of Demba Diawara, an elderly imam in a skullcap. He was emblematic of tradition in his tribal robes, and one expected to hear the voice of Melching’s opposition. The suspense of waiting for the Wolof to be turned into English made it all the more dramatic as he explained how he and the elders had come to realize the cutting custom inflicted pain unjustified by religion or reason. He was proud to say 5,000 villages have abandoned the customs. The end of them was in sight. Melching’s nearly 40 years of persistent, patient work epitomized what Clinton said was the very definition of what our summit was about.

In her closing remarks, Clinton said: “Being a woman in the world means never giving up on yourself, on your potential, on your future. It means getting up, working hard, and putting a country or a community on your back.

“What inspires me when I meet women around the world is not only who they are but what they do. They roll up their sleeves and they get to work,” she said. Women must “reject any efforts to marginalize any one of us…We must be fearless.”

Or as the actress Holland Taylor, in her delicious vignette as Gov. Ann Richards, told us in the voice of that incomparably ballsy Texan Democrat, “You women who shrink from public service…why should your life just be about you?”