Women of the World, unite!


NEW YORK — “There is a special place in hell reserved for women who do not help each other,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking Thursday evening at the Lincoln Center.

This was a major theme of the Women in the World Summit, a three-day festival devoted to women’s accomplishments organized by the inimitable Tina Brown and gathering what seemed to be just about every significant woman in the world.

It was also March 8 — International Women’s Day, a holiday that has long been popular in Europe but has only recently been recognized in the United States.

The guest list included glitterati of almost every forum of achievement. Actors Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep were there, as were political royalty like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, and the President of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjahga.

Media giants like New York Times editor Jill Abramson and television reporter par excellence Christiane Amanpour provided authoritative commentary, and larger-than-life personalities like Oprah Winfrey sparked things up when the audience flagged.

But perhaps even more inspirational were the “ordinary” people like the pair of Harvard grads who invented a soccer ball that stores kinetic energy from being kicked. Distributed to poor children, it provides enough electricity to power a light bulb that attaches to the ball, allowing the children to study in places that have no electricity.

Then there was the 17-year-old who raised $10 million for Hurricane Katrina victims — when she was just 10 years old herself.

The audience was put through harrowing tales of pain and triumph, like that of Suma, a girl from Nepal who was sold into indentured servitude at the age of six so that her brothers could go to school. Rescued by an international organization six years later, she has transformed her suffering into a haunting song that sounded several times during the summit.

Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted at age 11 and survived 18 years of imprisonment and rape, received a special Woman of Courage award. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, she overcame her ordeal to establish a foundation for others who have gone through similar torment.

All in all, it was enough to make most of us in the audience feel pretty under-accomplished. This is most likely not the message that the summit’s organizers hoped to convey. Instead, they wanted to inspire women, to show them that girls and women, when they put their minds to it, can do anything at all.

But women, as more than one guest remarked, tend to be their own worst critics. While a man who is approached to run for office will look in the mirror and say “Hey, I can do that,” a woman will start to think that she just doesn’t know enough.

My neighbor at the last session, which featured both Meryl Streep and Hillary Clinton, was a political organizer from Iowa. She had been approached about running for the state legislature but was having a tough time believing in her own ability.

“I guess this is aimed at me,” she sighed, as woman after woman exhorted us to stand and take charge.

The glass ceiling, we learned during the summit, is made up of “a very thick layer of men,” and women are just going to have to force their way through.

Age and history should be no obstacle.

Albright, a refugee from Czechoslovakia who rose to the highest ranks of government, was taking no excuses — from men or women.

The feisty 75-year-old is a true champion for women and had a few choice words for men who say they are unable to find enough qualified women to fill leadership positions.

“That is one of the biggest bullshit things I’ve ever heard,” she said to delighted applause from the audience.

Politics reared its ugly head on more than one occasion. Many women brought up the bitter debate over women’s reproductive rights, which has figured prominently in the Republican primary battle.

Any man watching the summit should have been quaking in his boots at the appearance of Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel Peace Prize winner from Liberia. Gbowee organized a movement to force their male counterparts to negotiate a settlement to Liberia’s brutal civil war in 2003.

Hundreds of women linked arms and refused to let the negotiators out of the hall until they had agreed to end the fighting.

“We were very specific,” she said. “No food, no water, no nothing.”

It worked, finally; the men made peace, and Gbowee became a star.

Now she wants to energize another oppressed group.

“Where are the angry American women?” she asked. “When men talk to you about your reproductive issues, why are you not beating men left and right? They have nothing to say — you only qualify if you’ve gone through the process.”

Her advice to American women: “You have to stop being politely angry.”

Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi brought down the hall with her remarks about women’s reproductive rights. She spoke proudly of her active support of the Affordable Health Care for America Act.

Pelosi also relayed the story of a fellow Catholic legislator who said scornfully of her, “Nancy Pelosi thinks she knows more about having babies than the Pope!”

Pelosi, who said she tried to comply with the Church’s rulings on contraception only to give birth to five children, said, “Yes, I certainly do!”

She, like many others, excoriated conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh for his scurrilous remarks about a Georgetown University Law School student labeled a “slut” by Limbaugh for lobbying for insurance coverage for women’s contraception.

Not that anyone said his name.

He shall remain nameless,” said host Pat Mitchell.

“And, we hope, advertiser-less,” said Pelosi, to more thunderous applause.

Clinton also sounded the alarm in her speech, which closed the summit.

“Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what country they’re in, or what religion they claim, they always want to control women. They want to control how we dress, how we act, and even the decisions we make about our own health and our own bodies.”

Just in case any woman in the audience missed the reference to the republican debate on women’s reproductive issues, she added, “Yes, even here at home.”

It was a heady few days, and I was sure that my world view had been permanently adjusted.

Then Meryl Streep came out on stage.

Don’t get me wrong: I adore the woman, stand in awe at her talent, and earnestly believe she deserves everything good that has ever happened to her.

But then there was her outfit.

“Do you like my jacket?” she said, taking a twirl on the stage.

I didn’t. I thought she looked like an organ grinder’s monkey. And those glasses …

I gave myself a mental head smack. Weren’t we supposed to stop all of this nitpicking? Are we not going to support other women, applaud their accomplishments and nurture their talents?

“Great, Meryl,” I thought, applauding wildly. “You look fantastic.”

I felt pretty virtuous until I went back to my friends’ house, still high on the adrenaline from the closing ceremony.

“You should have seen it!” I gushed. “Everyone who was anyone was there. Meryl Streep introduced Hillary Clinton, and she gave such an inspiring talk!”

Karen, my hostess, looked at me with real interest.

“Please tell me Hillary doesn’t still have that horrible haircut?” she asked.

Hmmm. I guess we need more than a summit.

If I learned anything from the three-day event, it is this:

“Women of the World, unite! You have nothing to lose. Period.”

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