It seems I am not alone in approaching Melinda Gates, one half of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropic trust, with a bit of scepticism. Early on in the book, Gates recounts her first meeting with Hans Rosling, the trailblazing professor of international health who would become a close friend and mentor.
“He was less taken with me than I was with him,” she writes. “He was thinking, American billionaires giving away money will mess everything up!”
Gates concedes that Rosling was right to be concerned, suggesting that she has commendable insight into why some might view her motives with suspicion – would she prove just another well-meaning but incompetent and self-indulgent rich do-gooder with more interest in accolades than impact?
As a result, Gates devotes a fair bit of her book to proving her would-be critics (reasonably convincingly, I might add) wrong and demonstrating that she has both the desire and the capacity to do the unglamorous work of listening to and learning from the experts — as well as, and even more importantly, the very people, particularly women, she seeks to lift out of poverty or “empower”. (The latter, she appreciates, is a rather loaded term in the context of wealthy, Western women working in the developing world.)
“If you think you’re super smart and you don’t listen to people, you can reach into areas outside your expertise and make bad decisions with big impact,” she writes. Yes indeed.
My personal prejudices aside, I also appreciate others may have been lured into reading Gates’ book by the prospect of a glimpse into the tightly guarded personal life of Melinda and her husband, Bill. And there’s a good reason for that: the personal details of their journey to an “equal partnership” or “domestic democracy”, for example, and how Melinda managed to get Bill, the tech titan, to do the washing up and drive the kids to school featured prominently in the book’s advance publicity.
“What is your secret Melinda?”, I can hear the female masses wonder as they put down their dog-eared copy of “Fed Up: Navigating and Redefining Emotional Labour for Good”, Gemma Hartley’s recent best-selling book on the unequal distribution of “emotional labour”, and look for another weighty tome to provide some solutions. But in that regard, “The Moment of Lift”, again, defies expectations.
The book is so much more than a self-indulgent manifesto from a “billionaires” running amok playing at philanthropy or a series of juicy vignettes about the Gates’ personal life. It is both a blueprint for the Gates’ (particularly Melinda’s) philosophy of philanthropy, which given the Foundation’s considerable footprint (they alone have nearly succeeded in ridding the world of Polio) is well worth exploring, and, more interestingly, a chronicle of Melinda’s evolution as a feminist.
A thread that weaves throughout the various chapters on everything from maternal and infant health to child marriage is Gates’ personal journey from someone who struggled to put herself forward in the male dominated corporate world at Microsoft in the early days of her career (and certainly would never claim the feminist mantel) to someone who now loudly, and proudly, proclaims her feminist beliefs.
It’s an interesting story that generously features many of Gates’ “teachers” prominently, who are themselves among some of the world’s most inspiring men and women working at the forefront of international development and the global fight for gender equality, including Jose Gomez de Leon, Marilyn Waring, Mabel van Oranje and Molly Melching.
The book also features the incredibly powerful stories of the many women Gates has encountered throughout the world whose experiences of gender inequality have most effectively transformed her.
In the first few chapters of “The Moment of Lift”, I found a lack of feminist fire in Gates’ belly somewhat frustrating. I worried her tendency towards feel good Pollyannish platitudes about the world as she would like it to be blinded her to the world as it is. And that, I worried, rendered her, and all those billions she and her foundation are spending to promote gender equality, ultimately ineffective.
It is in the later chapters, particularly as she chronicles how she became a passionate advocate for birth control and family planning, even over the objectives of the Pope and despite the fact that she still identifies as a practicing Catholic, that Gates really comes into her own. (She has said she will not, yet, take a public stand on abortion, a position I find disappointing.)
As she writes about how she set out to “change the conversation around family planning”, Gates does not hide her contempt for those, mainly men, who have traditionally sought to control women’s body’s and the misogyny that underpins that desire. “Across cultures, the opposition to contraceptives shares an underlying hostility to women,” she writes.
Of the judge who convicted Margaret Sanger, a legendary American 19th century birth control activist, Gates writes, “The judge … said that women did not have ‘the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.’” She later observes that this “won’t be the first or the last time the male dominated judiciary expresses an anti-woman bias”.
Gates is also candid about the fact that the Foundation was slow to take a gendered approach to its’ work, something she clearly regrets, and she is a persuasive advocate to others in the philanthropic sector to learn from their mistake. (For those in Australia looking for resources on how to apply a gender lens to philanthropy, I recommend looking at the work of the Australian Women’s Donor’s Network).
Coupled with an interview with Gates that just dropped on Netflix as part of the latest series of David Letterman’s programme, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction”, Gates proves herself to be an important – albeit measured and somewhat soft spoken – feminist voice.
I suspect, given Gates’ capacity to recognise injustice where she sees it and do whatever is within her (considerable) power to address it, that voice will only get louder in the years to come. I hope it does.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica