Melinda Gates grew up in midcentury Dallas as a self-described “good Catholic girl, who sits in the front row and gets good grades,” and was the kind of student who “always raised her hand before speaking out answers.”
Today she’s one of the wealthiest women in the world, with billions of dollars of resources to alter many millions of lives as the co-chair — with her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates — of the world’s largest private philanthropic foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
It’s a fair guess that back in Dallas, young Melinda never considered she’d one day proudly pronounce herself an “ardent feminist” or boldly and publicly oppose a core teaching of her church — on contraception — all while calling out that institution’s male hierarchy who once put and now keeps it in place. Yet in her potent and laudable book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” that’s precisely what she does. “For all of history, women and girls have been relegated to the margins, denied an equal chance to learn, lead, earn, thrive, and rise. Even today, there is nowhere on earth where women have achieved true equality.”
She continues: “Being a feminist means believing that every woman should be able to use her voice and pursue her potential, and that women and men should all work together to take down the barriers and end the biases that sill hold women back.”
Gates explains how, through her own private revelations, she’s come to believe that access to contraception and family planning for all women across the world is the key component to that missing moment of “uplift” in women’s lives. (Her father worked on the Apollo mission and “moment of lift” is a phrase taken from her youthful experiences watching NASA rockets take off.)
“When women [are] able to time and space their pregnancies,” she writes early in the book, “they [are] more likely to advance their education, earn an income, raise healthy children, and have the time and money to give each child the food, care, and education needed to thrive. When children reach their potential, they don’t end up poor. This is how families and countries get out of poverty. In fact, no country in the last fifty years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives.”
She’s a keenly appealing narrator and in many ways the book is a graceful account of her own personal consciousness-raising as a woman, especially as the only female in the first class of MBAs hired by Microsoft in 1987, a then testosterone-addled environment. Her evolution continued in her quest to become an equal partner in her marriage to, as one of her friends put it, “a strong voice” like Bill Gates. (In the book he sounds like a champion of women, having witnessed a strong and equity-partnered mother in his parents’ marriage).
We see how the couple’s American middle-class upbringings set the foundation’s value system: Each human life is of equal worth. While at first blush this might not seem revolutionary, note how many of the top 10 world’s wealthiest people — and philanthropists — are from this niche class category: Did robber barons or wealthy aristocracy believe this?
We also see the hard work of philanthropy at this level, so much of it about copious amounts travel, empathy, listening, research, study and importantly asking the very best questions. Gates does ask these tough asks of both herself and the foundation; humble empathy and good questions appear to be her A-level skills.
Gates shares the lives of the many women she’s met all over the world, giving voice to their mostly intense and lonely struggles while combating stifling discrimination and barriers via child marriage, over-pregnancy, lack of education, low-pay and non-paid work. (On average, she says, women do seven years more of unpaid work than men over their lifetimes, which is about the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.)
Gates makes it clear she’s not just about lifting women up for their sake — though that’s absolutely important — but for the world’s sake. “I’ve never held the view that women are better than men, or that the best way to improve the world is for women to gain more power than men,” she states. “When a culture of dominance is broken, it activates power in all of us.”
Flatiron Books, 288 pp., $26.99
Kinosian is a longtime Los Angeles Times contributor and the author of “The Well-Rested Woman.”