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Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

"It" now means holding meetings of powerful leaders, shaping the world's agenda, demanding better leadership, and becoming high-level leaders themselves.
07/02/2007 05:02pm ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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Remember the song by Aretha Franklin, "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves"? Well, sisters are still doing "it" but now "it" means holding meetings of powerful leaders, shaping the world's agenda, critically evaluating and demanding better leadership, and becoming high-level leaders themselves. Why? Because now, like men, women have both the financial resources and leadership positions to do so.

Think Oprah, billionaire, using her money to educate girls. Sheila Johnson, billionaire, bringing powerful women to her home in Middleburg VA to end global poverty and empower women; or Swanee Hunt, heir to the Hunt silver fortune, tirelessly using her resources to make women's voices vital in the mainstream and to include women in waging peace.

And it is not just economic strength. There is also political power to be had. Running a country is always a sure bet, and more women are doing just that. They're not shying away from taking that political capital and spending it on issues about which women feel most strongly.

There's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female President in Africa. She and Tarja Halonen, President of Finland, will convene powerful women from around the globe at a 2009 International Colloquium on Women's Empowerment & Leadership in Liberia. As world leaders, they have the power to unite and capture global attention. This is no garden party. These are leaders to be reckoned with.

Han Myung-Sook, the first woman Prime Minister of South Korea, now running for President, is also bringing together the highest level of women leaders in South Korea in September 2007 to use their power collectively.

For Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada, this high-level political power means co-hosting an important and timely summit on a fresh perspective as to what global security must include. Backed by the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands in partnership with three women-led organizations- the Women Leaders Intercultural Forum, the White House Project and the Council of Women World Leaders -- these two women are using their convening power -- because they can.

Oprah Winfrey, Mary Robinson, Kim Campbell, Johnson-Sirleaf and Sheila Johnson aren't waiting for the United Nations, or some "enlightened" male leader to fix problems of particular impact for women and girls. They've got the political and financial power and they are using it.

Melinda Gates is a hybrid woman of power. Money made by her husband, Bill Gates of Microsoft, but she's taking control of its agenda and direction and focusing on girls health with her power.

It is not new for women to use their assets to make their voices heard. But historically, those assets have been limited. In Lysistrata, the famous Greek play, women withheld the only prize they had to get men's attention, to protest male ways and change behavior -- they threatened to withhold sex.

Or another approach, such as when in 1975, Icelandic women held a "Women's Strike"- collectively agreeing to stop working for a day. That action dropped the country to its knees when among other things, the secretaries weren't there to facilitate their male bosses' business lives.

Women have often been more likely to support a service or activity than to put their economic resources into buildings named for themselves. In the past, that support was limited because women's financial resources and leadership positions were limited. Now women can buy large scale. They can think, and do things in a big way! Just as men have always felt empowered to do. Women are beginning to use the same power that men have always used - position and wealth. Why? Because they can. They now too have the resources and the power to play on the world's playing fields. And now that they are on the playing field- they've discovered that it's a mess.

What concerns women of power today? They are interested in righting wrongs, eliminating inequities, leveling those playing fields, thinking more holistically, embracing the world beyond the notion of war/non-war states. They want it known that women see the world differently than men and maybe, just maybe, that is a good thing. The status quo, is no longer acceptable and that new viewpoints need to become the norm. Like men have always spoken for humanity -- women feel entitled to speak for humanity.

Take global security. The way Mary Robinson, Kim Campbell and other women leaders see it, global security isn't just 'hard' security with weapons, IEDs, armed conflicts, rogue states, balances of power, terrorists. Global security needs a new normative that includes issues of migration, economic inequality, access to education and health, and climate change. And they are inviting those who potentially think like them to come together and loudly make that point. Current and former women presidents and prime ministers, along with top civil society groups, business women and international organizations will make their collective voice known this November. This issue, they feel, requires a vigorous recasting of the debate because if society keeps doing what we are currently doing, we will continue getting the same ineffective and deadly results.

These aren't the women's networking groups of the 80's and 90's. These are power gatherings with all the trappings and prerogatives that come with holding high positions.

Now, when women don't get invited to the table, they seat powerful people around their own table.

It's no longer about persuading men to come to women's aid. It's not even about waiting for the (leaky) pipeline to fill to get a critical mass of women. It is a realization that the glass ceiling is in fact just a thick layer of men - and women can afford to buy a different ceiling.

For those who have ordered the question of "whether feminism," this phenomenon of power is part of the answer. In some ways this is the natural evolution of power, women have historically been engaged and involved at the grass roots -- remember the fifty thousand women who attended the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995? The price of admission at the grass roots is not as high as the treetops, but today women of wealth and resources can choose their entry points.

Laura Liswood is Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, composed of presidents and prime ministers. More information about the Council can be found at www.cwwl.org