Reflections on the ‘Women in the World Summit’
Making a spectacle of American self-absorption

Tina Brown and Angelina Jolie at the Women in the World Summit, March 8, 2012


But when House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi spoke, she had nothing to say about the plight of women in the developing world except that their example could inspire American women in our struggle against oppression. “This is our moment,” said an impassioned Pelosi. The “moment” in question was created by congressional Republicans who are opposed to the federal government’s requiring religious organizations to fund birth control, and by Rush Limbaugh’s vulgar tirade against Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University reproductive-rights activist. Pelosi urged her American sisters to “have the courage of the suffragists and all that they did . . . and of the women who took part in the Arab Spring.” Expect the worst, she warned. “Whatever the arena is, it is stacked against us.” Her interviewer, journalist Pat Mitchell, concurred and described the current environment in the United States as a “nightmare.”

Over and over again, the conference morphed into a super-charged political rally for the reelection of Barack Obama. Prominent American Democrats stole the show from the valiant unknowns battling violent oppression of women in far-off lands. Beside Pelosi, speakers included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, U.S. ambassador on global women’s issues Melanne Verveer, State Department chief of staff Cheryl Mills, and former Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman, now president of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Harman quipped that that there is no glass ceiling — “just a thick layer of men.” The image so delighted the audience that she said it again the next day.

When Madeleine Albright took the stage, she recited some standard “women are wonderful” bromides about how we outshine men when it comes to “consensus building” and “operating well with others.” Her interviewer, Charlie Rose, asked her why there are still so few women in power in the United States. Before he could finish the question she blurted out “men!” A surprised Rose replied, “It’s us?” The audience loved it. Ms. Albright continued, “There is a real question among American women whether or not there should be quotas as to how many women are elected to their legislatures.” She acknowledged that quotas for political office are not popular in the United States, but implied that strong and unpopular measures may be needed. “People say there are not enough ‘qualified’ women. That is one of the biggest bull**** things I have ever heard,” Albright explained. “There are men who do not want to see women in power.”

No doubt there are such men, but a new study from the Women and Politics Institute at American University confirms what previous research has shown: Men are not the problem. When women run for office, they are just as likely to win as men. Taken as a group, their success at fundraising and getting out the vote is equal to that of men. “The fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office,” the authors conclude, “There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it; and women don’t.”

Ms. Albright ended her session by saying, “There is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.” But her misdiagnosis was all about censuring men, not helping women.

The crowd’s most passionate reaction came during an interview with American war photojournalist Lynsey Addario. Addario is a talented and brave photographer who often finds herself in harm’s way. While covering the Libyan uprising, she was kidnapped, physically and sexually assaulted, and told by her captors that she was going to be killed. Newsweek editor Christopher Dickey, the interviewer, unwittingly asked a forbidden question: “You have a ten-week old baby. Are you going to keep doing this?” Addario’s jaw dropped, anger flashed across her face, and she shot back, “Do you ask men that question?” The audience reacted to this brilliant repost with deafening applause, cheering, whistling, catcalls, and stomping. Poor Dickey: In his natural solicitude for a new mother, he had shown himself to be part of the thick layer of men.