Full disclosure: I grew up with a mom who gave me book after book about powerful women. She was intent on cultivating my feminism (and love of historical books) from an early age. It worked. I love historical and inspirational books about women. And I spend my days working at an international nonprofit focused on reproductive health…way to go mom!
But I can’t remember the last time I was this excited to read (or to have just finished) so many books. With International Women’s Day coming up on Friday, here’s a hit list of three kick-ass must-reads (and two oldies but goodies).
Mary Robinson, Everybody Matters
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, starts her new memoir, Everybody Matters, with a wonderful quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, “Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home…” And so Mary Robinson’s quest for human rights began, in a small town, in a “small country on the western periphery of Europe.”
The only girl of five children, she was poised to become a nun before she found her true calling: an activist on behalf of those who need it most. As a lawyer, she won landmark cases advancing the causes of women and marginalized people. She started to make an impact and become recognized for her impressive work. In 1990, she became president of Ireland, the first female to hold that role. After her presidency, she continued her work as a global advocate in 1997 when she became the UN high commissioner for human rights. She now crisscrosses the world as a member of The Elders, a group of independent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela to work on peace and human rights issues.
Although I have yet to read Everybody Matters, I am eagerly anticipating cracking it open over a steaming cup of Irish Breakfast tea this coming weekend. From what I’ve heard from a fellow Pathfinder colleague, it is well-written, interesting and ultimately inspiring. Her story reminds women to keep fighting for a change and to break down any barriers they might be facing.
Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In
A few years ago, Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” ignited the internet. Her candor in discussing the challenges women face in gaining access to America’s leadership positions (and particularly business leadership) has sparked a range of debate. Her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, continues that conversation.
Recently, her book has received a bit of backlash (most of which I’ve noticed is from people who haven’t read it) – making it all the more intriguing to read.
I was fortunate to get an early copy of the book, and I confess: I could not put it down. It is, in many ways, a feminist manifesto for our generation—a generation that wants to lead, and change the world. A generation that follows those like my mom, who told me that I could ‘have it all.’ Sheryl’s argument is that women must “lean in” to their ambitions (and have the support to do so).
She then lays out barriers that exist to both women and men being able to fully have choices in their lives and careers. Her focus is straightforward: “More women in power” because as she writes, “conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”
I couldn’t agree more. And as a younger-ish professional struggling with some of the very issues Sheryl mentions, I found myself doing a range of fist-pumping and saying ‘yes!’ out loud as I voraciously read it on a plane ride (people were really curious about what I was reading).
The focus of Lean In is unabashedly educated women the United States and developed world, but its message is applicable in a range of settings. Sheryl writes, “The shift to a more equal world will happen person by person. We move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in.” And she’s quick to point to having more men support women, and changes to structural issues, as well.
I believe we will change the status of women everywhere when we can have frank conversations about the issues Sheryl raises without tearing each other down with accusations about whether arguments are “feminist-enough.” Lean In is the start a conversation that needs to continue. And I look forward to many others sitting at the table and “leaning in” to discuss it.
Cathleen Miller, Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik
Two weeks ago I had the honor of interviewing Nafis Sadik as one of Pathfinder’s “Women Who Dare” series. And I have now had the pleasure of reading Cathleen Miller’s new biography of her and can report: it’s a great read about a powerful woman.
Champion of Choice tells the story of how Nafis, born into a prominent Indian family in 1929, emerged as the world’s foremost advocate for women’s health and reproductive rights. She was the first female director of a United Nations agency (UNFPA) and The London Times called her “one of the most powerful women in the world.”
Cathleen circled the globe, interviewing a range of sources to get full story of Nafis’ dramatic and inspirational personal history. Cathleen includes short stories of women who share powerful perspectives and unique experiences related to child marriage, violence against women, female genital cutting, and other human rights violations Nafis has fought against.
At 400+ pages, Champion of Choice is a commitment, but one that’s well worth it, particuarly for those of us passionate about what’s happening for women around the world.
And two slight oldies, but goodies:
Nick and Sheryl do an incredible job sharing stories from around the world about what women still face in reaching equality—from stories of sex trafficking to maternal death. And they also feature ways in which we can all take action to make a difference – which is a great reminder with International Women’s Day right around the corner. The book was also recently turned into a PBS documentary.
For those passionate about reproductive rights, Michelle Goldberg writes eloquently in The Means of Reproduction about the trajectory of international reproductive health care over the past several decades. Her journalistic lens brings to light previously untold stories that are informative, engaging, and inspiring.
For International Women’s Day, Pathfinder International (where I work) is honoring “Women Who Dare” by sharing stories of incredible women at all levels who are working to change women’s lives. Check them out and share other stories of women you know who are daring!