Women World Leaders Share Lessons Learned as Council Marks 15th Year

Eleanor Clift on the 15th anniversary of the Council of Women World Leaders.

Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Whenever Mary Robinson, a human-rights activist and former president of Ireland, asks how many women people think have been elected president or prime minister, the answer she usually gets is five, or 11, or maybe 13—far fewer than the true number, which is 45.

The Council of Women World Leaders marks its 15th anniversary this year, and there’s a long way to go before women reach parity with men at the highest levels of government. That’s all the more reason for women like Robinson, who have scaled those heights, to share what they’ve learned with the next generation.

The situation in Egypt, where women who were on the front lines of the revolution are being denied a seat at the power table, adds urgency to the council’s work. To help spotlight the group’s recent move to the Wilson Center in Washington, Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s editor in chief, Tina Brown, moderated a panel Wednesday featuring Robinson; Finland’s president, Tarja Halonen; and Margot Wallstrom, special representative to the U.N. secretary-general on matters of sexual violence. In Egypt, 10,000 women marched in Cairo last month to protest a woman being dragged half-naked through the streets by soldiers. The degradation of women in many countries, culminating in rape as a tool of war, has been around since the beginning of history, said Wallstrom, “and we have to show it’s not inevitable, it is a criminal act.”

Robinson pointed out that women are the first to experience the negative effects of climate change. In Africa, women do 80 percent of the farming, though they own just 2 percent of the land. She recalled visiting Somalia in October 1992, when warlords were preventing food from getting to feeding stations. Still, it was the end of the dry season, and the people could be confident the rains would come. No more. The Horn of Africa has had its eight hottest years in a row; the U.N. declared famine after at least 28,000 children had died, and on a recent visit to Somalia, Robinson realized the situation is much worse than it was 20 years ago.

Laura Liswood, who has an MBA from Harvard, founded the Council of Women World Leaders in 1997, when there were 15 living women who qualified. She set out to interview each one. No one turned her down, but British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told her to come back after she had talked to the others. The council’s first president was Vigdis Finnbogadottir, president of Iceland, who liked to say that one woman is like a snowflake and can melt, “but together we can stop traffic.”

The panel at the Wilson Center was an opportunity for women who have made it, and for an audience of women mainly on their way up the career ladder, to share their stories. Finland’s president told of her first state visit to neighboring Sweden, and “a women’s magazine said I had too big a pocketbook.” Robinson told of calling for family planning reform in 1971 and how she was denounced from pulpits in the heavily Roman Catholic country. She was 25 years old and had just been elected to the Irish Senate. Her soon-to-be husband burned all the hate mail she got, an act she now regrets, saying it belongs in an archive of those times.

Jane Harman, former member of Congress and now president of the Wilson Center in Washington (who also sits on the board of directors of The Newsweek Daily Beast Co.), used the phrase “force multiplier” to describe the process where women at the top reach out to help a new emerging class of women rise up from the grassroots.

The panel concluded with a question posed by Harman about the personal courage it takes to pursue a leadership role and the sacrifices that are made, often by one’s family. Tina Brown identified passion for what she does as the driving force in her life. “Passion is like a love affair,” she said. “It overrules everything—you steam ahead, you don’t look left or right. You just do it.” And when there are assaults, she said, “you derive energy from that…you turn negative force to more momentum.” She credited her great group of women friends for buoying her and confessed that when she was offered the editorship of The New Yorker, at a time when her two children were very young, “I turned to my mother to come help me.”

Wallstrom echoed Brown’s comments, saying, “It starts with passion for something.” But she acknowledged there are those moments when women second-guess their career decisions and wonder whether that balance they seek between job and family can ever truly be achieved. Wallstrom “commutes” to Sweden, where she has teenage children, but there are far too many Sundays when she is in New York watching her son play the guitar on Skype “and I think, ‘Why are they there and I’m here?’”