‘Fear Isn’t an Option’

Diane von Furstenberg joins a fascinating group of trailblazers at the Women in the World Summit, and tells the story that guides her life.

Gui Tichauer

Diane von Furstenberg praised Brazilian women at Newsweek and The Daily Beast's Women in the World Summit in Sao Paulo on Tuesday, saying, “I sell confidence, and celebrate freedom. But confidence is everything. And Brazilians are confident, and they like their body. It doesn’t matter if they are big or not.”

The fashion designer and women’s rights activist also told a very personal story about how she herself gained confidence. Her mother survived Auschwitz, she said, emerging as skin and bones. “My mother always said that she survived because of her will,” she said. “And a few months later, I was born. My birth was a miracle. My mother always told me that you will not be a victim, and fear is not an option.”

She continued, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I always wanted to be an independent women. The more I meet women, the more impressed I am by women. I have never met a woman who is not strong.”

She joined a fascinating array of women from around the world for the event. Among them: Marin Alsop, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra. She spoke about the challenges of working in a male-dominated career. “The gesture that a woman makes is very different from a male conductor,” she said of conducting. “If a male conductor is sort of flowery, then he’s sensitive, but it’s a woman, then she’s weak.”

In one of the day’s most wrenching presentations, Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes, a survivor of domestic violence so brutal that it left her a paraplegic for life, talked about her activism on behalf of women in her native Brazil.

When she filed a case against her abusive husband, it languished in court for two decades. Finally, in a landmark move in 2006, the government enacted a law called the Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence.

“I’m very happy to be here because I’m living in a beautiful moment,” she said. “And that other women are fighting against this.”

In a macho society like Brazil, she said, a law against domestic violence is a major milestone. “We need to have a future free of violence for our daughters, granddaughters, and other descendants. But we really need it to be recognized and enforced for this law to really work,” she said. She added: “A good companion isn’t someone who hits you. It’s someone who treats you and respects you as an equal.”

For full coverage of the summit, including a presentation from Condoleezza Rice on Syria and other global issues, click here.