There are 45 current and former female heads of state in the Council of Women World Leaders, including former Chilean president Michele Bachelet and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Many of them are gathering at the United Nations General Assembly this week. Together, they constitute a powerful group that’s setting its sights on an ambitious goal: to fight for gender equality in the countries of the Arab Spring.
To do so, they have joined forces with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution focused on the study of national and world affairs. On Monday, the council announced its move, a partnership made possible by a gift from the United Arab Emirates. The group will now be housed under the Wilson Center’s roof in a wing of the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.
The coalition began at Harvard and has been at the Aspen Institute since 2004. It won’t cut ties with the Aspen Institute, but will now be part of a center that can benefit partly from appropriation from the U.S. government, through the Smithsonian, rather than from an international nonprofit organization.
The Wilson Center is headed by Jane Harman, a former nine-term Democratic U.S. representative from California (who also sits on the board of directors of The Newsweek Daily Beast Co.). Harman says the new partnership’s first order of business will be to support the Arab Spring’s female voices.
The role of women at the forefront in the uprisings has been well reported. In one example, women have led demonstrations in Tunisia to recruit supporters in Egypt. But they’ve also had to endure countless acts of rape and violence, especially in the brutal regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Tarja Halonen, the president of Finland and leader of the CWWL, acknowledges the extraordinary resolve and sacrifice of women in the Arab revolutions, but she also notes that the spotlight only shines on them in the beginning of the movement. “I think we should see women building democracies, new societies,” she tells The Daily Beast. “They lay the groundwork, but the men swoop in and swamp the positions of power when it’s time to take credit."
In this way the U.A.E. might be looked upon, surprisingly, as a leader. Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi became its first female minister in 2004. There are now four women in the cabinet—perhaps not a lot, but the most in the Arab world, and good enough to equal the U.S. (That's if you don’t include acting Commerce secretary Rebecca Blank, or the cabinet-level officers.)
As such, the U.A.E. is not a bad place to instigate change in the region. The council is working on holding a conference there in 2012, in Abu Dhabi. With 45 current and former presidents and prime ministers as members, the council plans to invite emerging leaders there and provide mentoring and practical support, so that they might at some point be elected ministers and presidents themselves.
For Halonen, an important peer was former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “She had a tradition that she always wanted to meet all the female ministers and female ambassadors here in the U.N.,” Halonen recalls. “You perhaps know that there are joint meetings between the U.S. and the European Union. Once it was very difficult to organize that, and the others asked, ‘What’s the reason?' So she said, 'Because I have a meeting with the women ministers.’” Albright would spirit away all of the female foreign ministers, and the organizers grumbled that her “women’s summits” were not as important as the joint meetings. Albright replied, “Yes, they’re quite equal!”
This year’s U.N. General Assembly kicked off on the same day with an inspiring beginning. Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Vana Rousseff, will become the first woman to open the assembly meeting on Wednesday. The council hopes that she will become its 46th member, and the Wilson Center will honor her with a public-service award on Tuesday.
Margot Wallström, who was the first vice president of the European Commission and now serves as the chair of the Ministerial Initiative of the CWWL, describes the feeling of a glass ceiling bearing down on the women leaders in the world. “More often it is a sticky floor, or a layer of men,” she jokes. “A thick layer of men. I’m not saying a layer of thick men … and this is how we have to look at it. This is the challenge.”
The hope is that this won’t be the case for much longer. The council says its goal is ultimately that the qualifier “women” be dropped from its name. Someday it might just be the Council of World Leaders, with women representing at least half of the members.
“I was the only woman in the room, often, in the early days of my career,” says Harman, whose late husband Sidney was co-owner of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. “What I like is that one of my four kids, one of my daughters—I have two daughters and two sons—went to law school, in a class that was majority female. A completely different experience from me,” she beamed. “There’s a little sign in my office that says 'The best man for the job is a woman.' "