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Nothing Ordinary about these Extraordinary Women

Johanna Martinsson's picture

In thinking about global advocacy and the journey of norms in development, a recent article in the July/August 2012 issue of Fast Company by Ellen McGirt caught my attention. The feature story is about a new kind of women’s movement entitled “The League of Extraordinary Women”.  This loose network of 60 influential women, mostly Americans, includes artists, academics, business executives, government officials, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists, who are committed to changing the lives of girls and women around the world.  The initiatives they have developed focus on specific issues, including education, HIV/AIDS, maternal health, microloans, women’s rights, and mentoring to develop future leaders and entrepreneurs. The list of 60 includes a few high-profile and famous women such as Hillary Clinton, Melinda Gates, and Oprah Winfrey

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has played an important role in this movement, which is said to have been sparked when she addressed world leaders about the abuse of women in 1995 at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.  McGirt points out that Clinton’s continued support for girls and women’s issues "has given the League global heft, and ensured that its members are taken seriously by decision makers in developing countries." The network members are not merely advocating at a global level, but are also highly invested in what’s happening on the ground.  They are committed to solving problems through innovative approaches, new technologies, and cross-collaboration. 

So what binds these busy women together?  Alicia Keys, artist and ambassador of the Keep a Child Alive Foundation,  explains it, perhaps, the best: “If there is a common thread between us "extraordinary women" it's that we are all just "ordinary women" who achieved success in another arena via business, government, academics, politics, and entertainment, etc., and soon learned that true fulfillment and self-worth comes from a higher calling... helping others.” As part of the article, Fast Company produced interviews with several of the women in the League, asking them three questions: what ignited them, who are their heroes/inspiration, and to name an important virtue that women can have. Included here is the interview with Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media, a media veteran and long term advocate for women.

The League has been highly effective in making girls and women's issues part of the global agenda. For example, the very first plenary session on adolescent girls in decades was held at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, largely due to the hard work of Maria Eitel, CEO of the Nike Foundation and the creator of the Girl Effect. Ever since, other major global events, and even corporations, have picked up and made the empowerment of girls and women a central topic for discussion.  So how did the League pitch these important issues to world leaders? And how did the members make a strategic case within their own organizations? Well, the answer (and message) is simple: investing in girls and women will create economic benefits for all. Network members have been able to pull facts from a strong evidence base including numerous studies pointing to the same fact that “If you train a woman in a particular skill and give her a microloan, or a way to build up some savings, she is more likely than a man to use her income to educate and care for her family and invest in the community.” Moreover, "Girls grow into women who are more likely to go to political meetings and organize on behalf of their community."

To raise awareness, network members are keen on using media and new technologies.  Since Pat Mitchell became president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media in 2006, she has increased the number of programming on women’s issues and poverty significantly. She has also provided ongoing support to Sheryl WuDunn (another “extraordinary woman”), whose book Half the Sky has been turned into a documentary (and a movement) that will air on PBS this fall and is part of a major transmedia project. The documentary tackles difficult but real stories by women on issues such as sex trafficking, prostitution, and maternal health.  Another “extraordinary woman” who has been effective in utilizing media is Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the director of Miss Representation.  Her documentary about media’s portrayal of women has been seen by over a million people.  My colleague, Maya Brahmam, interviewed Ms. Newsom at a recent screening in the Bank and was struck by “Newsom's firm commitment to changing how women and girls are portrayed in the mainstream media and her use of social media to instigate a conversation and advocate for change.”  Alicia Keys has also utilized social media a great deal in raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. She was behind the experiment of “digital deaths” in 2010, when a number of celebrities went dark on social media to raise funds. 

The League has generated a great amount of buzz at the global level, but how has this translated to impact on the ground?  While there are a few success stories, it’s recognized that “systematic change is a long and difficult battle.” As with so many other initiatives, there are difficult political challenges to overcome on the ground. While transformational change is a long-term goal, the League seeks to bring and keep girls and women’s issues on the table. As McGirt points out “What they hope for is to create lasting institutions and models that will bring the issues of very poor women and girls to the table, and that will help these women help themselves.”  With so many issues and crisis coming and going, a challenge ahead will be maintaining girls and women’s issues a priority on the global agenda.  For one, the League’s initiatives/campaigns must secure long-term political will and resources to sustain them.

There’s not a doubt that the League is a powerful network and that these “extraordinary women” are an inspiration to other women. In terms of global advocacy lessons, their work reminds us of the importance of long-term commitment, a clear and simple message, a strong evidence base, knowledge and passion about the issue(s), the effectiveness of cross-collaboration and building coalitions as well as the power of media and new technologies. I end this post with a quote of inspiration by Alicia Keys:

“What people often assume is that in order to make change a reality, you have to have some kind of superhuman quality and power inside of you. You don't have to be a politician, or a scholar or a singer or a celebrity to recognize a problem and work towards fixing it by empowering others around you to take up the fight. You have to be you and that makes it all the more valiant…

I've always believed women have an incredible power to be catalysts of change for other women of the world. It is our job to fight these issues that matter most to us, and realize how much of an impact we can have when forces unite. Come together, my sisters. Let's be extraordinary!”


Photo Credit: UN Women Gallery. Ms. Alicia Keys speaks at the high-level event HIV Priorities for Positive Change: In Women's Words.

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