The United State of Women: “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds”

Long treated as a “special interest,” women are increasingly recognized as the major driver of progress that benefits everyone.

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That’s my takeaway from last month’s White House Summit on the United State of Women, where the refrain from men as well as women, and across government, corporate and philanthropic sectors, was, “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

Starting with the Vice President, centering on the President and closing with the First Lady, the roughly 5,000 participants heard the clearest statement to date of the central importance of women’s full participation in American life to the future of the United States.

For once, the rhetoric about “women’s empowerment” actually matches our reality: women in America today are almost half of the workforce, more than half of the electorate, own half of all investable assets and are the country’s number one consumers.

No less a market soothsayer than Warren Buffett, a backer of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women initiative, said America had accomplished a lot in its first 200-plus years. “But we have in fact been doing it with one hand tied behind our back,” Buffett said. “Imagine what we can concoct and accomplish if our entire pool of talent is engaged.”

Buffett had lofty company in his bullish sentiments. “I may be a little bit greyer than I was eight years ago,” President Obama told the Summit’s overwhelmingly female participants, “but this is what a feminist looks like.”

It was an unprecedented proclamation by an American president, and the place went absolutely wild. People surged toward the stage, screaming, cat calling, cheering.

Even as a veteran of thousands of conferences about the status of women, I just couldn’t help myself: I clapped and screamed and whistled alongside everyone else. It felt like a watershed moment. In the eyes of the most powerful man in the world, women and girls rock.

The President wasn’t just preaching to the converted. Yes, the participants in the invitation-only event included many of the “usual suspects” from the Girl Scouts to Planned Parenthood, from Lilly Ledbetter to Gloria Steinem.

But the Summit’s message disrupted the familiar narrow focus on so-called “women’s issues,” such as abortion, pay inequity and violence. Instead, it reframed these concerns as common to all Americans, or at least to all of us interested in the long-term health of the American economy, democracy and society.

That’s a thread that goes back at least to the extension of the franchise to women in the 1920s; through our mass entry into the workforce in the 1940s and 50s; through the birth of institutions like the National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Law Center and the Ms. and other women’s Funds in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

By the end of the 20th century, the entrance of women of all races into higher education; the widening access to reproductive healthcare, a somewhat less favorable legal environment for harassment, discrimination and violence. By now, the role of women and girls of color is fueling the modern American economy and women’s voting power means women are not just fighting for women, they’re fighting for everybody.

To be sure, many structural barriers to women’s safety, health and equality persist. But the work in these areas has been so effective that there’s been an exponential increase in women’s capacity to fully participate.

A new narrative is emerging that portrays barriers to women’s advancement as a threat, not only to women, but to American progress and even its national security. Using the example of sexual and physical violence against women, a scourge that affects one in three women worldwide, the President noted that terrorist groups like ISIS are characterized by their abysmal treatment of women and girls. In appalling testament to this link between personal and national security, the shooter in the recent Orlando massacre appears to have a prior history of domestic violence.

It’s not just the President who finally “get’s it,” to use a catch phrase dating from the era when an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by then-Sen. Biden, grilled Anita Hill during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas. Nor is it only Vice-President Biden who has changed his tune.

The Summit abounded with apparent feminist converts including Tom Perez, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Walter Isaacson, the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, one of the nation’s leading think tanks, and Darren Walker the president of the Ford Foundation, one of its most established charities.

It’s of course possible that these newly-minted feminists haven’t undergone any lasting conversion regarding the value of women and girls to economic, political and social progress writ large. Perhaps they are just making nice during an election year that prominently features a female nominee for America’s highest office. There were moments, like when House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi took the stage to call for upping the number of women in elected office, when the otherwise carefully nonpartisan programme felt like a de facto Hillary rally.

Still, any suspicions I may harbor, and I harbor quite a few, about whether all of this high-level hype around women and girls will translate into increased investment on par with our potential influence, it won’t be because the argument for such a scale-up in “gender lens investing” lacks substance.

Exhibitors at the Summit were all peddling more or less the same notion: investing in women and girls today is a vital insurance policy against the prospect of an inequitable, anti-democratic and unsustainable America tomorrow.

It is now possible for companies – and countries – to measure gender risk in much the same way they measure climate risk. Perhaps even more importantly, they can measure opportunity. And impact.

Between the 1970s and now, the women’s movement emphasized the disempowerment of women and for good reasons. But that resolute anti-abuse mantra had an unforeseen side effect: it re-enforced the notion that women were victims, women were oppressed, women were multiply oppressed, women were marginal, women were subordinate, women were “a particularly vulnerable group.”

The Summit signaled a significant shift in this lopsided narrative and advanced the public understanding that, alongside boys, girls represent an enormous pool of potential for long-term and sustainable transformation in the United States. As First Lady Michelle Obama reminded the event’s closing audience, “life is hard; but life is long.”

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