Editors’ Note: Kathleen D. McCarthy reviews Melinda Gates’s The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World (New York: Flatiron Books, 2019).
Melinda Gates’s The Moment of Lift, is a feminist Gospel of Wealth for the 21st century. While Andrew Carnegie’s much-cited 1889 essay, “Gospel of Wealth,” issued a clarion call to his fellow millionaires to build institutions such as universities and medical schools, Gates focuses instead on changing values. And while Carnegie used his gifts to institutionalize cadres of male managerial elites, Gates focuses on empowering women and girls to “crack the patterns of history.” As she explains, “When you lift up women, you lift up humanity” (2).
Her memoir-cum-manifesto is strung along a three-tier track. Part of it is cast in a highly personal, strikingly self-effacing idiom, detailing her quest to build a companionate marriage with her high-powered spouse, and her own campaign to have her voice and her priorities listened to. Gates goes on to describe how her own career led her to fund technical education for girls in the U.S. and family planning overseas, and how gingerly she had to tread even within her own foundation to get people to listen to experts about the benefits of funding women and girls. Much of this material is deeply personal, sometimes almost discomfortingly so. Some readers no doubt will find portions of Chapter 9, “Let Your Heart Break,” such as her description of how her four-year-old daughter offered up her “special blankets” for the poor particularly treacly (241). But Gates is savvy enough to know that women have often had to soften their ambition to be heard. As she explains, women who show “confidence without empathy or altruism” or who fail to bow to conventional gender norms risk a personal and professional backlash. “There is social approval for women who …show self-doubt,” which she does throughout the book (230).
A second track focuses on the need for women’s empowerment. In a book whose title—The Moment of Lift—nods to Gates’s father’s work for NASA and the moment when space rockets take off, Gates argues that supporting women provides the fuel to accelerate development and the push for social justice around the world, sparking a “moment of lift” for the entire population.
Gates has done her homework, and many of her arguments are familiar, from the benefits of educating for girls to the social costs of patriarchy. What is new is that she has decided to use her position as a megaphone for amplifying women’s voices, including her own. Voice is a central theme, not only for Gates, but for generations of female reformers before her who struggled to be heard and taken seriously. Indeed, the importance of her commentary is not that it is new, but that Melinda Gates is broadcasting it to policymakers and popular audiences in her own name, backed by her recent billion dollar pledge to promote women’s empowerment. Even as late as the 1990s, women of wealth were reluctant to publicly fund women’s causes in their own names, which is why the Ms. Foundation created the Gloria Awards to honor the few who did. That began to change in 2007, when members of Women Moving Millions began giving $1 million-plus gifts to women’s funds, a major milestone. But programs for women and girls still capture only a fraction of foundation grants, reaching a scant 7.9% in 2009, despite the fact that many of the nation’s largest grantmakers have had female presidents.
Gates is a proudly self-professed feminist, and her book shows just how much the world has changed in the past thirty years, and even in the past decade. While Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book urged women to adapt to corporate constraints by “leaning in” and creating mentoring networks, Gates argues for more female-centric workplaces and more equitable marriages. Sandberg (another Giving Pledge billionaire) sought to help women cope; Gates seeks to reshape the world in their image.
But Gates, like Sandberg, is also a realist who is keenly attuned to the nuances of power and working in a hierarchical universe where men are the final arbiters. Perhaps as a result, she endorses global policymaking and social change through women’s advancement, not simply as a matter of social justice, but of men’s self-interest. Her credo is partnership over patriarchy. Toward that end, she underscores the benefits that men receive if they pay attention to women’s agendas, from more companionate marriages and better sex to better data and more realistic philanthropic programs. Her book threads this argument through a variety of fields, from family planning and education to enhanced child survival rates and crop yields Gates is also a powerful advocate for more equitably shared household duties and childcare. As she explains,
Men who share caregiving duties are happier. They have better relationships. They have happier children. When fathers take on at least 40 percent of the childcare responsibilities, they are at lower risk for depression and drug abuse, and their kids have higher test scores, stronger self-esteem, and fewer behavioral problems (129-130).
In effect, when women win, the whole family wins.
The book’s third track mixes the insights of female researchers, activists, and women in impoverished villages to show how NGOs that build on local women’s priorities have unleashed fundamental cultural shifts. Gates describes how her encounters with women in rural villages broadened her perspective from a narrow focus on family planning to more comprehensive initiatives including everything from educating girls to maternal and child health. In Gates’s telling, they are the true experts.
Her voice changes when she discusses social justice, becoming critical, loud and clear. A Catholic, she was roundly criticized by the Vatican for pushing family planning. She responds in kind with a scathing attack on the Church’s crusade against women’s right to choose, with a passion worthy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible (1895, 1898). She also notes how politically underrepresented women are in the U.S., as well as in other parts of the world, and criticizes the practice of men legislating against women who can’t fight back as “bullying” (87). Gates attacks the tools of patriarchy head on, castigating everything from ridicule and shaming to violence:
gender–based violence is one of the most common human rights abuses in the world. It’s also the most obvious and aggressive way men try to control women – whether it’s rape as a tool of war, or a husband beating his wife, or men in workplaces using sexual violence of bullying to belittle women who are gaining power (162).
Her book is a barometer for how dramatically the world of philanthropy has changed since the First Gilded Age, beyond the fact of a woman making a billion dollar pledge for women’s advancement. Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 Gospel ushered in the era of big giving, redefining U.S. philanthropy as massive donations rather than more modest gifts of money and time. An apostle of Herbert Spencer, Carnegie believed that he embodied the notion of survival of the fittest, and by virtue of his business success, he was qualified and entitled to redistribute the riches he gained by breaking unions and underpaying his workmen in order to build institutions to benefit communities and the country as a whole. If Carnegie looked to centralized, hierarchical, male-dominated institutions such as universities and research institutes, Gates highlights women’s priorities and perceptions at the grassroots, reflecting the more inclusive definitions of expertise of the past half century.
She brings an enormous depth of social, as well as financial capital to her task. Carnegie often felt that he was howling at the wind, discouraged that so few fellow-millionaires followed his lead. Gates is the co-founder of the Giving Pledge, a network of fellow billionaires who agree to give at least half a major share of their wealth to philanthropic causes. As a result, she has a ready-made network that Carnegie lacked, the richest of the donor communities that have become emblems of the Second Gilded Age.
The authority conferred by massive wealth changed dramatically between the First and Second Gilded Ages as well. Carnegie was an avid advocate for global peace, both as an individual and through the creation of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His publications and his wealth gave him a good deal of access to U.S. and European leaders, but to little avail. His dreams shattered with the First World War, leaving him a broken man. Although foundations still allocate only a fraction of their donations for international grant making, a few have exercised outsized power. George Soros unabashedly used his Open Society Foundations to foster “democratic regime change,” and “laid the groundwork for an open society” in the countries in which they operated. George Soros– the bubble of American Supremacy. The Gates Foundation also has an extraordinary global presence. Years ago, I was stopped in my tracks while reading Olivier Zunz’s fine history of 20th century philanthropy, Philanthropy in America (2011). The passage that startled me noted that President Obama had launched a Global Agricultural and Food Security Program with four countries – the United States, Canada, South Korea and Spain – plus “the Gates Foundation…in effect another state” (206). Zunz mentioned it in passing, but it was shocking. Should private wealth be placed on a par with sovereign states in global policymaking? Even Carnegie’s most ambitious plans never envisioned foundations having influence on a par with sovereign nations.
Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All (2018) casts wealthy individuals’ efforts to do good as a sham, arguing that billionaires like Gates use their philanthropy to nibble at the edges of social change, rather than fundamentally revamping the social and economic structures that made them rich. Melinda Gates’ book does have some of the “win-win” thinking that Giridharadas criticizes, especially when she discusses how women’s empowerment will benefit men. But social change cannot come from women alone in a world in which men still fill the governments in disproportionate numbers and make the rules, something that Gates wants to change. Her efforts to deal with that reality by demonstrating that women’s empowerment is not a zero sum game are important, and necessary for implementing the kinds of reforms she’s endorsing. Nor is she simply championing cosmetic changes in an increasingly stratified world. Shifting the balance of power, ending child marriage, and reallocating household responsibilities in more equitable ways all constitute change at the most fundamental level.
Change on this scale entails a delicate balancing act, especially overseas. When a Western woman announces that “When I talk to women in low-income countries I see very little difference in what we women all want for ourselves and our children,”(57), hackles begin to rise. Culture matters, and this is an extraordinarily broad-brushed approach. It can also be utterly presumptuous, however well intentioned. Western feminists, including Gates, have often been horrified by traditional practices such as genital cutting. Yet many African women defend their right to continue these practices. It is often difficult for outsiders to distinguish between an acceptable cultural good and what is off limits. As Marcel Mauss noted in The Gift (1954), a gift is a relationship that allows the larger donor to dominate, and the magnitude of the Gates’s gifts amplifies that power exponentially, making cultural change a particularly loaded issue. Gates is clearly aware of the problem, and quick to point out her deference to local women’s authority. But the question of ‘Who Elected You?’ still hovers over many of the agendas of philanthropists acting in foreign cultures.
Caveats notwithstanding, The Moment of Lift is a major contribution to contemporary debates about the great fortunes of the Second Gilded Age, and to the history of U.S. philanthropy. No woman has previously had philanthropic resources of this magnitude at her command, and no other female billionaire has publicly promoted a feminist agenda this sweeping, or this emphatically. By pledging $1 billion toward women’s empowerment in the United States, Gates has definitively found her voice, in her own name, and on her own terms. It will be interesting to see how many policymakers and other donors actually listen.
-Kathleen D. McCarthy
Kathleen D. McCarthy is Professor of History and Director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is a past-president of ARNOVA, and the former treasurer of the International Society for Third Sector Research. Her books include, among others, Women’s Culture: American Philanthropy and Art, 1830-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); and American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700-1865 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). She is currently working on a history of “Women, Power and Money from the First Gilded Age to the Second.”
Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (New York: Knopf, 2018).
Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000; Orig. publ. 1954).
Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013).
George Soros, The Bubble of American Supremacy: Correcting the Misuse of American Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).
Olivier Zunz, Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).