First Ladies, from Beijing to Washington and Amman, are often in the news for their sartorial choices—we’re obsessed with Michelle Obama’s sheath dresses, Valerie Trierweiler’s French flair, and Peng Liyuan’s fabulous overcoats. But the focus on their fashion often crowds out talk of their passion projects—they’re iconic for their appearance, but what about their impact? Obama’s muscular arms have surely inspired as much ink to flow as her White House garden and her push to tackle childhood obesity. Likewise, we remember Laura Bush as much as for her perfectly pressed red power suits as for her literacy projects and her work on HIV/AIDS prevention.
Former RAND analyst Cora Neumann, for one, was fed up with this focus on fashion. While First Ladies may be “accidental” leaders—who land in a “job that has no description,” Neumann jokes—they have clout and potential. As Betty Ford once quipped, they have “the power of the position, a power which could be used to help.”
This power to help is what Neumann wants to tap into—to help First Ladies address needs in education, health, literacy and economic development in their countries.
But First Ladies often have fewer resources to deploy than their husbands—particularly in developing countries. That’s why in 2009, Neumann and her colleague Anita McBride concocted the African First Ladies Initiative, which connects the First Ladies of the U.S. and the U.K. with First Ladies from other parts of the world to mentor, advise, and provide resources. The First Ladies’ staffs get training as well, in an affiliated school. Given that Obama, Bush, Sarah Brown and Cherie Blair have all participated in this do-good mission, it’s clearly a bipartisan affair. The focus is on impact, not politics.
Currently, 24 First Ladies from Africa make up the power club. Each is seeking to create a legacy, with some serious boots-on-the-ground impact, that will be complimentary to but independent of their husbands. Success stories have already emerged: The First Lady of Namibia, Penehupifo Pohamba, has been focusing on maternal and child health services, and rolled out a national campaign in 2010 to stop the transmission of HIV/AIDS that has ravaged her country. Similarly, Sia Koroma, the First Lady of Sierra Leone, helped nationalize free healthcare for women and children under the age of five in her West African homeland.
Now, building off of the success of the African First Ladies Initiative, Neumann is getting ready to launch the Global First Ladies Alliance Leadership Fund in 2014, to expand the program to First Ladies in Asia, the Middle East and the Americas. The Fund will encourage First Ladies to nominate other female leaders from their countries to be a part of a larger support group, to receive yearlong training and funding to address social struggles in their homelands.
Neumann has tapped into a deep pool of resources for the new venture, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s International Council on Women’s Business Leadership, RAND Corporation’s First Ladies Fellowship, and McKinsey’s Centered Leadership Program.
They’ve also attracted the attention of Jennifer Diamond, the wife of former Barclays CEO Robert Diamond, who runs the Diamond family’s foundation, which is focused in part on health and education in the African continent. Diamond was inspired not only by the First Ladies’ visions, but by their accessibility. “Walking down the streets with them, they engage with locals, the ask if a child is not in a school or getting medical care. They care.”
During the frenzy and political acrobatics of UN Week last month, Diamond hosted several First Ladies of Africa—from South Sudan, Ethiopia and Mozambique—at an intimate gathering in a private residence overlooking Central Park. The women greeted each other politely and discussed roadblocks to maternal health, women’s education and cancer prevention in their respective countries. Yoo Soon-taek, the wife of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was also in attendance as an honorary First Lady; she noted that 57 million children worldwide are not in school, and that First Ladies can make a huge impact in this area.
Girls’ education sat high on the agenda of all of the First Ladies in attendance. It was a subject particularly close to the heart of the First Lady of South Sudan, a country that just recently came into being. Mary Ayen Mayardit was married at 14 and did not graduate from secondary school. She wants the women of her country to have access to the educational opportunities she lacked. “Other women should not have to suffer,” Mayardit said. “Girls are staying at home, and then are given away in marriage.” She’s joining the Global First Ladies Alliance Leadership Fund, she said, “to let everyone know that we have problems and we don’t have access, resources.”