Moment of Life: How Empowering Women Changes the World

Review by Sarah White

You want to do good. But how do you figure out how to do good, well?

That is, how do you ensure you make your contributions in ways that actually achieve positive results? I believe that is the question that set Melinda Gates on the path to writing The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.

Melinda Gates, 2019, Flatiron Books, 273 pages

I am a member of the advisory committee of A Fund for Women, an endowment fund that raised money and makes grants in the hopes of  transforming Dane County to a place where all women and girls thrive. Our work as grant decision-makers requires that we be well-informed about community needs and be strategic about our charitable giving. That is why we assigned ourselves the task of reading Melinda Gates’ philanthropic manifesto. We’ll be discussing it at our yearly planning retreat later this month.

What kind of book is this? A call to action that whispers to the heart, rather than reasons with the brain or throws a punch to the gut.

Melinda Gates writes from who she is and where she finds herself—a shy Catholic girl who grew into a supporter of women’s rights that includes abortion rights and contraception access, and still a practicing Catholic. on her own terms. Her women’s spirituality infuses the book.

Melinda finds herself working for an equal-partners marriage with her tech-giant husband Bill and an equal-partners role in their philanthropic foundation. In my opinion, she does an excellent job of weaving the personal difficulties of that work into the book’s main thrust—lessons learned from personal contact with women in the charities and NGOs that the Gates Foundation has funded.

The book is organized into nine chapters that make the case for lifting women and girls through maternal and newborn health, family planning, education, reducing the inequality of unpaid work, eliminating child marriage, and helping women in agriculture and in the workplace.

Here I share some takeaways, through the lens of AFFW’s grantmaking focus: economic empowerment for women, and for girls who bear adult responsibilities.

About maternal and newborn health:

“Poverty is not being able to protect your family….And because the strongest instinct of a mother is to protect her children, poverty is the most disempowering force. Help mothers protect their children.”

“When people are not getting healthcare that most others get, the problem is by definition one of poverty… that’s what it means to be poor. They’re on the margins… Poverty is created by barriers; we have to get around or break down those barriers to deliver solutions. The more I saw our work in the field, the more I realized that delivery needs to shape strategies.”

About girls in schools:

“The most transforming force of education for women and girls is changing the self-image of the girl who goes to school. That’s where the lift is. If her self-image doesn’t change, then going to school will not change the culture, because she will be using her skills to serve the social norms that keep her down.”

On women’s unpaid work:

“…It is paid work that elevates women toward equality with men and gives them power and independence….The Unpaid work a woman does in the home is a barrier to the activities that can advance her….Unequal unpaid work blocks a woman’s path to empowerment.”

Beginning about midway through the book, Melinda reveals more of her dilemma as someone who came to running a foundation as a self-described “rich, inexperienced donor.” She speaks of three ways “American billionaires” create problems for the organizations they try to help: funding the wrong ideas, failing to measure progress, and assuming their financial success equals expertise in anything and everything. These mistakes kill off good ideas, keep funding ideas that don’t work, and lead to bad decisions with big impact.

Melinda writes of the need to be a learning organization, to be able to pivot when you stumble on something more effective than what you were doing.

These are thoughts I’ll bring to the AFFW book discussion, and thoughts I’ll review as we prepare for our annual grant decision-making next July.

The Moment of Lift may never be great literature, but it is written with honesty, self-reflection, and compassion. NPR reviewer Lily Meyer writes, “Gates goes long on heartwarming anecdotes, short on argument. She writes often about lifting women up, but it can be difficult to tell how she expects readers without tech fortunes to do so.” Well, volunteering with something like A Fund for Women or one of our grantee agencies would be a start. Or you could contribute to our endowment fund. Grant requests typically total more than $300,000. Our yearly funding capacity runs a little more than $100,000. Every charitable gift shifts that equation for the better.

If you seek to understand how our system discourages economic empowerment for women and girls, read The Moment of Lift.Then take a look at your own community. Where could you invest your time or treasure to improve lives locally, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing globally?

© 2019 Sarah White

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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