Editor’s Note: Swanee Hunt, former US ambassador to Austria, is founder of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and founder of Seismic Shift, an initiative dedicated to increasing the number of women in high political office. She is also the author of “Rwandan Women Rising.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
History can be told only in stories. Here are a few of mine.
The purpose of sharing these accounts – particularly during Women’s History Month – is to show that women, like men, can grow from bumbling neophytes to competent leaders. For me, that has meant losing my balance and losing my way. Occasionally, I’ve floated gracefully in a grand jeté, then sprinted the last mile of a marathon. But most of the time I’ve plodded along, often stumbling, then catching myself, on the journey.
In the last four decades, I’ve encountered admirers (sweet) and critics (more important). I’ve been blessed with patient, and not so patient, instructors. They’ve passed on tough lessons: branch out, speak for others, take nothing for granted, claim the obvious, listen and learn, plain old bluff. As their student, I’m continuing to unearth a simple formula for a complex world.
I could wrap my stories in self-deprecation, soft-pedaling my accomplishments in the way women are trained to. Or, I could just tell you about them, with all the fumbles, guts and glory – like men would – and hope you’ll delight in what a woman can do to shape history.
In 1993, I stepped onto the world stage as President Bill Clinton’s US Ambassador to Austria. I brought my feminism with me – not as I had in earlier years, searching for ways to elevate women qua women, but now to stop a war, stabilize a wounded economic region, and turn a behemoth diplomatic institution toward gender fairness.
I believed, and still do, that having women in multiple leadership positions would affect the ravages of unimaginable genocides, the collapse of post-communist states and the ossification of the tentacled State Department. However, as had my champion Hillary Clinton, I held back on women’s advocacy until I had established the bona fides central to my job description. As ambassador I was tasked with cultivating political relationships. I needed to support a sustainable regional strategy and advance NATO expansion. With no foreign policy experience, that meant some serious branching out.
Yet that assuredness was warped by the post-communist disintegration of neighboring Yugoslavia. Tens of thousands of refugees were streaming into Austria, fleeing terror, rape, massacres and starvation.
At the time of the Bosnian war, I discovered that women had formed dozens of local cross-ethnic groups – doing everything they possibly could to protect their communities and stand up to terrifying evil. In a cold, dank room, at times lit with the eerie glow of candles and cigarette lighters, I connected with Zena 21, the Union of Women’s Organizations. I was their only connection to US policymakers, and I could have been their conduit to influence.
I had access not only to the US Embassy in Sarajevo, but also in Washington to the heads of the CIA, Departments of Defense, State and to the Oval Office, but I failed to use my connections to amplify their message: This was not a religious nor ethnic war, as outsiders believed. It was a power grab, they insisted, by President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, and we had to stop him. Their voices never made it through the shell blasts and sniper fire, and nearly 100,000 people died before the United States dropped bombs that stopped the carnage.
After letting down those good, brave – and ignored – women, I committed myself to taking the initiative to speak for the voiceless.
In time, I traveled across Central and Eastern Europe, hearing from women destabilized by loss of status and support brought on by the fall of the Soviet Union. I started bringing to Vienna delegations from the region; the elegant silk sofas of the ambassador’s residence were covered with flip charts as they devised plans to push themselves and each other into leadership.
By 1997, as my diplomatic tenure was winding down, I had hosted about a thousand women, in their own countries or in my home. Out of those meetings, we selected 320 from 39 nations for “Vital Voices: Women in Democracy” – a three-day meeting of “East meets West,” keynoted by the first lady (by then a good friend), and focused on empowering women in political, judicial and economic spheres.
Many in the State Department applauded the idea, but others were appalled that I was flagrantly overstepping my boundaries (figuratively, but also literally, since diplomats are prohibited from roaming out of the country to which they are assigned). I kept moving forward, despite the efforts of some high-level officials to stop me. (The first lady and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would subsequently adopt Vital Voices as their own White House/State Department initiative. It was then spun off as a powerful nonprofit that invests in women’s leadership worldwide.)
What would I say to my detractors? Thank you, gentlemen. You taught me to practice in front of a mirror, then bluff.
Joseph Nye, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, had taken note of my convening – and maybe my bluffing, too. Nye invited me to come to Cambridge and create the Women and Public Policy Program.
I told him what I’d learned from hundreds of hours spent with the women of Eastern Europe. They are a key element of “soft power,” the concept he’d pioneered, which held that diplomacy and attraction are often more powerful than bombs and bullets. “Women’s voices are absolutely a necessity,” I said. “Follow that idea,” he advised.
When, despite arduous efforts, my next initiative – Women Waging Peace – was deemed by higher-ups to be “too activist” for the university (another failure moment), we spun it out. The initiative became an institute, DC-based “Inclusive Security,” intent on persuading policymakers worldwide to appoint women to key positions in order to stop violent conflict. Although I have taught at Harvard for 20 years, my early defeat forced me to redesign my work and go out on a limb with untested approaches.
Another lesson was in the making. Among other war-town countries, I became involved in Liberia, ravaged by a horrific 14-year civil war that ended only after an intervention of courageous local women (chronicled in Gini Reticker and Abby Disney’s documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”). President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who assumed power at the end of the bloody war, urged me to come to destroyed Monrovia (the capital) to help resurrect the country’s moribund civil society network. I accepted an invitation to speak at the newly reopened University of Liberia, a magnet of progress across West Africa, which was training the next generation of leaders. But where were the women?
Were they a small group of the population? No. Less qualified? No. Incumbered with other responsibilities? No. Finally the chancellor explained that the school had no toilets. That might not stop men, but it would women.
My thought at that time: Take nothing for granted.
Fast forward. I’ve worked in well over 60 countries and have stories of magnificent women from each: Afghanistan, China, Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya, Korea, Kosovo, Mexico, Rwanda, South Africa – and beyond. One of my favorite stories is when the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, declared a Women’s Night. While their wives danced in the streets, men were instructed to stay home and tend the children. The tale is richly textured, but with the predictable punch line. That night, there were no rapes, no theft, and no brawls.
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Sisters, let’s not overthink this: Claim the obvious.
We in the United States are woefully unaware of our pitiful standing in worldwide gender indices. Our country needs a push more than many. But even that is changing. Our Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017 mandates that the United States integrate women into all aspects of stopping conflict. Women’s Marches, the #MeToo movement, the tsunami of women at last November’s polls – all signify the seismic shift rocking our culture.
Still, wise women abroad have endless lessons to teach us. Let’s listen and learn – then, fortified by their wisdom, act.