By Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In her new book "Moment of Lift," Melinda Gates chronicles the unpaid labor that women statistically shoulder in American households. That labor includes caring for children or aging parents, housework and everyday tasks required to keep a family running.
Melinda Gates' new book, "The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World," ends with a love story.
Anna and Sanare live in Tanzania, where they work as farmers. When they were first married, Anna moved from her part of the country to Sanara's region, where they lived together in a goat hut. Anna walked 12 miles each way, daily, to the nearest well to fetch water.
After their first child was born, Anna could no longer make the daily trips. Sanare came home from the fields one day and found Anna on their doorstep, bags packed, ready to move back to her mother's house, where she could care for their baby and access water more easily and not burden her husband.
Sanare was heartbroken. He asked how he could get her to stay.
"Go fetch the water," Anna told him. "So I can nurse our son."
It broke his culture's tradition and he was roundly ridiculed and mocked for doing women's work, but Sanare fetched the water.
Men said he was bewitched. He ignored them, knowing his wife and son needed him to take on this new role. He purchased a bike to cut down on his travel time.
After a while, other men gave up taunting Sanare and joined him to fetch water.
After a while, they too grew tired of walking or biking 24 miles each day.
And, after a while, they decided to build catchment areas to collect rainwater closer to the village.
The entire village benefited from Anna and Sanare's willingness to question a norm.
"You can either turn away from each other or you can turn toward each other and say, 'Wait a minute. Let's change this," Gates told me when I interviewed her recently about the book. Anna and Sanare's story, she said, is one of her favorites.
"It's in that turning toward one another," she said, "and walking in each other's shoes and understanding one another's situations that we then change things in a society and make different decisions and role-model the way things should be."
"Moment of Lift" is a call to action for all of us to turn toward each other and say, "Wait a minute. Let's change this." It's informed by Gates' travels to nearly every corner of the world, as co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the largest private foundation in the world, with around $50 billion in assets), and it's informed by her own experiences living and working and parenting in America.
"It's definitely the most personal piece I've ever written, in long- or short-form," Gates said. "I never expected, when I went out in the world, that I would feel so connected to these women I would meet in such different circumstances, by the well in Northern India or sitting in a rural village on a mat that a woman set out for me, and yet, the more women I met, the more I saw how alike we are."
She recites gut-wrenching encounters she's witnessed: Girls who are forced into marriage by age 10 and raped and beaten by their husbands; young women suffering from painful, deadly obstetric fistulas caused by obstructive labor (usually because a mother's body is too small to deliver) and consequently kicked out by their husbands; young girls undergoing genital mutilation.
She calls on us to care.
"If you can't bear the pain of your neighbor's suffering, then in one way or another, you're going to push that person to the margins," she writes.
Far too often, girls and women are the ones pushed to the margins.
"It's a clear choice, challenge the biases or perpetuate them," she writes. "Politically, it's a tricky question. Morally, it's easy: Do you submit to the old culture that keeps women down, of do you create a new culture that lifts women up?"
She turns her lens inward as well, toward the United States, broadly, and her own family, specifically.
"We're quick to criticize gender injustice when we see it around the world," she writes. "We also need to see it where most of us feel it and can do something about it."
She calls our absence of paid maternity leave "an embarrassing sign of a society that does not value families and does not listen to women."
She chronicles the unpaid labor that women, statistically, shoulder in American households, the bulk of the caring for children or aging parents, the bulk of the housework, the bulk of the tasks required to keep a family running.
She talks about finding the courage to speak up and insist on a more equitable marriage, which can lead the way for others to do the same. She takes credit for getting more dads to do drop-off at her daughter's school.
"When we saw Bill driving," a fellow mom told her, "we went home and said to our husbands, 'Bill Gates is driving his child to school; you can too.' "
(Bill Gates, of course, is the principal founder of Microsoft and the second richest person in the world.)
"Exposing gender bias is a stunning experience for people who suddenly see their own blind spots," Gates writes. "It doesn't matter where on Earth you live."
I asked Gates how those of us without billions of dollars and a charitable foundation can help.
"Start where your passion is," she said. "If your passion is helping someone on the other side of the world, go online and buy a $10 bed net for a pregnant mom that will protect her from Malaria. If you want to focus on the United States and you believe we ought to have paid family leave, use your voice. Write to your congressperson. Join an organization like Moms Rising."
Creating change doesn't require a lot of money as much as it requires will.
I asked her how she views the role of philanthropy versus the role of government to care for its people. (How many times do you get to talk to Melinda Gates? I had to throw it all out there.)
"Bill and I think about this a lot," she said. "Philanthropy can be a catalytic wedge. It can experiment with things. It can try things and fail, where a government can't. Philanthropy's job is to take some risks, show models, collect data, refine it, show it either works or doesn't. Government's job is to scale those things to uphold the values of a democratic society."
She's careful, in her book and in talking about her book, to make clear that power is not a zero-sum game. Boys and men don't lose when girls and women gain.
"This is not about bringing women in and leaving others out," she writes. "It's about bringing women in as a way to bring everyone in. Women must leave the margins and take our place, not above men or below them, but beside them, at the center of society, adding our voices and making the decisions we are qualified and entitled to make. There will be plenty of resistance, but lasting progress will not come from a power struggle; it will come from a moral appeal."
Her book is just that: a moral appeal, imploring each of us who reads it to look around, at our own families, our own workplaces, our own place in a gigantic, but highly connected, world, and get to work making it more equal.
Melinda Gates will appear at Chicago Humanities Festival at 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 27, at UIC's Dorin Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Road. The event is sold out. To be added to a wait list, call the box office at 312-605-8444.