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What Do Women Want? Power, Please

14 July 2010 One Comment

Mary Liepold, photo by Kyi May Kaung

by Mary Liston Liepold, Editor in Chief

A long time ago, when I was young and foolish, I heard a pretty woman say, “Oh, I’m not political.” I thought that sounded rather sweet, so I tried it out the next time the subject of politics came up in a group.

The woman next to me was (relatively) old and wise. She said. “Politics is about who has power. Power shapes what happens in the world, and to whom. Do you mean you don’t care?”

I did care, of course. It’s just that I was used to thinking at the level of stories rather than systems. Chaucer’s 14th century Wife of Bath and the even-older Arthurian legends both recount stories of a knight’s quest to find out what women want. The answer, in both versions: To choose for themselves. Women, like men, want the power to shape their own lives. If they’ve evolved even a little, they want that for others too.

Self-determination is the groundspring ideal of democracy. We here in the United States believe that democracy is the best form of government. Our nation even wages wars to force other nations into the democratic mold. Some of us find that as undemocratic as it is unpeaceful, but that’s a conversation for another day. Right now, we have good news to share.

UN Women: New This Month!
On Friday, July 2, after years of debate and pressure by women and women’s advocates, the UN General Assembly created a single, more powerful new agency to represent the women of the world: the UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, or UN Women. This agency consolidates the four older women’s agencies:

The US$500-million budget of the new agency, though it’s less than the US spends on one day in its two wars, will more than double the combined budgets of these four programs. Its work will be framed by the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which marked its 30th anniversary in 2009. Its shape will emerge over the next few weeks and months. An Undersecretary General will be chosen to head it.

I asked several women who I admire for their take on the new agency.

>“I have been through a cycle of responses to the news about the new gender architecture at the UN,” says Peace X Peace Executive Director Molly Mayfield Barbee. “Years ago, when it was first being promoted in international women’s advocacy circles, I was thrilled to hear that there could be a UN agency for women with status approximately equal to UNICEF’s. What a breakthrough that would be! My hopes flagged a bit as colleagues lamented the added layers of bureaucracy and red tape they felt sure would come with the new architecture. Today, I’m keeping an open mind. The Secretary General is a man I respect very much. I would like to believe that with his commitment, and the hard work of so many women’s advocates in the UN and other international organizations, this new agency will be a source of consolidated and focused power for women and for addressing women’s issues. It’s up to all of us to make the best of it.”

Founder Patricia Smith Melton adds: “Women are the transformative power. Supporting women is the most direct way to heal communities, create viable incomes, and build peaceful cultures. UN Women could become the most effective arm of the UN for substantive social good.”

Deborah Hines, JD

Peace X Peace member Debbie Hines, a Washington, DC attorney, added this comment:

“As an African American woman living in the US, I am greatly moved by the injustices occurring against women in parts of Africa, Afghanistan and other places in the world. Women are victims of violence for no other reason other than they’re women. UN Women is one step in the right direction, towards a more just world for women.  It will take many more steps in the process.  It is too early to judge the impact UN Women will have in eradicating injustices against women, yet we all must do more to alert the world about violence, rape and murder against women. The funding of UN Women is critical in this process.”

Now, as the Huairou Commission reminds us, is time for us to ask ourselves how we can keep grassroots women at the core of its agenda. What styles of leadership, formal structures, and methods of operation will that require? How will the new organization work with existing networks? How will it combine the benefits of centralized and decentralized operation?

GEAR (Gender Equality Architecture Reform) the network of over 300 women’s, human rights, and social justice groups that advocated tirelessly for four years for this new UN entity, is now turning its attention to ensuring that UN Women has the human and financial resources and the input it needs to succeed.

The resolution confirming UN Women’s existence explicitly states that the new entity must have increased operational presence at the country level, including engagement with women’s groups and other civil society organizations.

That means YOU!

The GEAR Campaign’s global, regional, and national networks will be contacting UN representatives at all levels to make sure they connect with organizations on the ground during the transition process.

If you or your organization would like to get involved with this process, contact the GEAR Campaign at For the GEAR Campaign in Anglophone Africa, contact FEMNET at For the Campaign in Latin America, contact

The Status Quo: Not Even Halfway to Parity
In round numbers―the kind I remember best―women now head governments in 10% of UN member countries (15), and hold 20% of elected appointments at lower levels. Only 28 countries (again, roughly 20%) have achieved the 30% target for women in decision-making positions set in the early 1990s. These figures come from the website for UN Women.

The US ranks 85th worldwide in the proportion of women who hold elected office, with our figures falling close to the global averages. According to Jennifer Lawless, Executive Director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University here in DC, women make up 25% of statewide officials and state legislators and 17% of the US Congress. Of the 100 largest US cities, 11 (just under 10%) have men as mayors. Out of 50 states, 6 (just over 10%) have women governors.

Considering that there were only three female heads of state worldwide in 1975―and that women are making their way three times faster in government than in business, according to Deloitte Forbes―this is progress to celebrate. Considering that we’re half the human race, it’s short shrift. The challenges UN Women note include negative stereotypes both genders hold about women’s leadership roles (in US studies, men are 66% more likely than women to deem themselves qualified for public office), lack of commitment by political parties, inadequate funding and training for women candidates and officials, and high levels of violence and intimidation against women in public office. In Rwanda, where quotas and women’s activism led to the world’s highest proportion of women in office, now 56%, acting head of state Agathe Uwilingiyimana was assassinated in 1994.

Indira Gandhi, image credit BollywoodSargam

For some, the policies of another assassinated woman leader, India’s Indira Gandhi, are evidence that women in office don’t always advance other women or promote peace with justice. Some cite Britain’s Margaret Thatcher (nicknamed “Iron Mags”) to the same effect. Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, whose state made world news for its harsh policy toward immigrants, is a contemporary example.

We all agree that sustainable peace requires women’s perspectives and expertise. That’s a Peace X Peace Principle―the first, in fact. Our expertise is needed at least as much in governance as in other areas. As citizens under the social contract, we willingly cede some part of our autonomy to our governments, as well as some of our wealth in the form of taxes. Right now, many governments use our mandate and our resources to make war their top priority. (Our own recently passed the trillion-dollar mark for its two wars.) Will those choices shift when the gender balance shifts? I’m eager to find out. Aren’t you?

Please think about the questions below and discuss them with friends online and in person. Share your answers, further questions, and new ideas in the Comments section.

Questions to Consider

  • Does electing women automatically translate to more peace and justice in a given country or the world?
  • Are quotas for women office-holders the key to better representation?
  • Polls show most people believe women are less prone to political corruption. What do you think? (Here’s a fascinating discussion on the topic:
  • Do you think women are as qualified to lead as men?
  • What are your hopes for UN Women?
  • Does your country have quotas? Does it make a difference?
  • Do you yourself want to run for political office? Why or why not?

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email
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One Comments to “What Do Women Want? Power, Please”
  1. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for writing this.

    Thanks for using the photo I took after you interviewed me.

    I am still working on painting it.


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