Author and philanthropist Melinda Gates had to overcome my doubt about her relevance
I have to admit I didn’t have huge expectations of Melinda Gates’ book The Moment of Lift.
I couldn’t help noticing the book when it came out in April, 2019. I admire Gates for her philanthropic focus, and I was attracted to her book’s title and premise — that the world will be better off when women are lifted out of the low status afforded to them in many cultures around the world.
But I wasn’t sure Gates’ story was relevant to my current reading interests. Maybe I was influenced by my experience of reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In a few years ago. I didn’t relate to Sandberg’s version of corporate feminism. I didn’t think I wanted to read another book on a similar topic by a white woman from the tech industry.
I was wrong. I did enjoy this book, and I learned a bit about intersectional feminism from it, too.
Gates’ LinkedIn posts in advance of her book’s release first captured my attention. She did some skillful social branding by publishing an excerpt as a LinkedIn article. The topic of the excerpt was the value and cost of unpaid labour by women. It’s a worthy topic and an important chapter of a book about the role of women in social change.
But what I liked about the excerpt was that it included a few important paragraphs about Gates’ privilege. I thought it was no coincidence that the section Gates chose for her LinkedIn post included an acknowledgement of her own straightness, whiteness, marital status, and wealth.
White women writers can learn from Gates’ example. I certainly did. Her choice of this excerpt reminded me how important it is to be conscious of privilege every time I speak up on social media or stand in front of a group of people. This is how to be an intersectional feminist.
Acknowledging white privilege
Gates writes: “If I tried to read the minds of my readers here, I would worry that some of you might be thinking, Oh, no — the privileged lady is tired of being the last one in the kitchen all by herself. But she doesn’t have to get up before the sun. Her kids don’t have to take the bus. Her childcare support is reliable. She has a partner who is willing to drive the kids and do the dishes. I know. I know. I’m describing my own scene not because it’s a problem but because it’s my vantage point on the problem.”
Gates knows she has a platform to speak because of her privilege. And she knows that comes with the responsibility to give voice to women who would otherwise not be heard. This is more than her personal story.
The Moment of Lift is most compelling where Gates shares stories about women who suffer under a global patriarchy, millions of whom don’t have a platform to talk about their hardship. Their stories are ones we don’t often hear in our everyday lives, and they are what make this book interesting.
For example, she introduces us to Meena, a woman from Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states. On a visit to a maternal health clinic the Gates foundation had funded, Gates asked Meena, who had just given birth, if she wanted to have more children.
The answer was devastating.
“We’re very poor. My husband works hard, but we’re just extremely poor. I don’t know how I’m going to feed this child. I have no hopes for educating him. In fact, I have no hopes for this child’s future at all.”
Contraception is key to empowerment
The woman begged Gates to take the child home with her.
Gates was shaken, and the experience of meeting Meena put contraception firmly at the front of her work.
It’s admirable that Gates is using her voice to lift women of all races and circumstances with this book. It’s a kind of feminism I can relate to and admire.
And while she takes a bird’s eye view of the globe while examining some of the systemic problems that are holding women back today, she focuses more of her attention on the issue of contraceptive rights than on any other issue.
I respect her commitment to the issue, and my understanding of its importance was deepened by this book. I came to see how, in countries where many women have had access to birth control for more than one generation, it’s easy to take it for granted.
Gates’ gives a passionate and vulnerable description of why she and her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, have worked so hard to bring family planning education and birth control to the millions of women around the world who lack consistent access.
Again, Gates cops to her privilege, noting that she herself used birth control, despite her status as a Roman Catholic, to make her own life more livable. She spaced her children out to make her life easier, and eventually stopped having children so she could return to work.
Reconciling Catholic beliefs
She also describes her inner struggle to reconcile the teachings of her church with her work in contraception. Gates writes:
“So yes, there is a Church teaching against contraceptives–but there is another Church teaching, which is love of neighbor. When a woman who wants her children to thrive asks me for contraceptives, her plea puts these two teachings into conflict, and my conscience tells me to support the woman’s desire to keep her children alive. To me, that aligns with Christ’s teaching to love my neighbor.”
I was impressed with Gates’ clear eyed assessment of how the Catholic Church prevents women from succeeding. She isn’t afraid to point the finger at religion.
“One of the weightiest moral questions facing male-dominated religions today is how long they will keep clinging to male dominance and claiming it’s the will of God.”
She pulls no punches when it comes to religion. But I was less than impressed with what seemed like soft-pedalling when it comes to politics. Gates waves her hand at the discriminatory policies of the current U.S. administration, but she fails to point the finger.
Perhaps she doesn’t want to turn off readers who might otherwise ignore her book if she takes a stand that aligns with Democratic views. I mean, “let’s find common ground on a divisive issue” is a legit approach. But Gates barely mentions the issue’s current politicization and I find that an oversight.
Still, there’s lots to like about this book. I connected with Gates’ stories about living with a famous genius who works a lot. She and Bill, parents to three children, had to struggle and experiment to find an equal relationship. I relate to that struggle. In my own marriage, the balance of power is always being negotiated, and I am constantly reminding myself that my husband is not the enemy, even when he has unknowingly internalized the norms of the patriarchy. He needs compassionate education, not lectures.
How men can help
Men are an important part of the struggle, Gates suggests. She ends her book with a story about a Tanzanian couple named Anna and Sanare. When Anna had a newborn child at home, Sanare took on the women’s work of walking to the well to get water. His choice to hear her request for help and support her in practical ways had ripple effects on their whole community.
Eventually, other men in Anna and Sanare’s traditional Maasai community decided to join Sanare in assuming responsibility for collecting water. It wasn’t long before they got tired of travelling 24 miles to get water. They decided to collect rainwater instead and worked together to create a system.
Overcoming the ways in which we accept outdated and harmful beliefs about gender is necessarily a community effort. S
o, I really hope that men will read this book. I’ll be leaving it on my husband’s bedside table. I think he’ll find in it inspiration for supporting the empowerment of women in their lives and in their world.
And, as Gates makes clear in this book, working together is an essential factor in creating the kind of world we need right now.
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