Vital Voices President and CEO Alyse Nelson reflects on the 25th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women – the progress made since, the movement it inspired and the need for women’s leadership around the world.
September 5, 2020 – One of the things I’ve learned along the way is that a person’s path to leadership is rarely planned out perfectly – it’s an experience that begins with a conviction to do something. For me, that experience came twenty-five years ago today. I was twenty-one years old, coming of age in an increasingly interconnected world, and desperate to understand my place in it. I heard that the United Nations was planning its Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. It was predicted to be the largest-ever gathering of women leaders and activist in history. I had to go.
On September 5th, 1995 then-First Lady Hillary Clinton forged her way to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and took the stage – despite the cacophony of opposition to her attendance – to declare once and for all that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” Even in a pre-social media era, her message spread like wildfire. She sparked a new wave of activism around gender equality — inspiring those of us who were in Beijing to hear her momentous speech, and far beyond. Watching Clinton use her voice, her platform and her power to empower other women was a call to action for me, and countless others.
As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of her history-making speech, we look ahead to the changemakers who will lead progress in the next 25 years, and beyond. Today, we are proud to launch Vital Voices: 100 Women Using Their Power to Empower, an unprecedented collection of first-person narratives and original portraits by artist Gayle Kabaker celebrating 100 of the most influential and insightful women in the world.
From healthcare workers to community organizers and heads of state, 2020 has shown us countless examples of women leading with courage and compassion, helping communities cope in crisis and galvanizing movements for racial justice.
For far too long, women — especially women of color — have been sidelined and undervalued for the very reason we need them most in this moment: women lead differently, and that difference is sorely needed in the world today.
This book is not only a celebration of women leaders, it’s a glimpse at what’s possible if we elevate and expand women’s leadership around the globe. And in our own backyards. More relevant now than ever before, their powerful words illustrate the empathy, perseverance, collaboration and ingenuity that make women’s leadership transformative. These remarkable leaders are getting us closer to a more equitable world. The wisdom and solutions they share in this book are a call to action, urging us to imagine the world anew and emerge stronger, more compassionate, and resolved to keep striving until every voice is heard.
These are extraordinary times, but the momentum we’ve built up in the last 25 years — as a movement and as an organization — is anything but stalled. In the midst of crisis, we must remember that the most trying moments of our shared history have also been the ones that led us — often out of necessity — to breakthrough change. We have no choice but to do things differently. And I have never been more certain that women leaders are the difference we need.
Vital Voices: 100 Women Using their Power to Empower is edited by Alyse Nelson, paintings by Gayle Kabaker, published by Assouline. When you donate $95 or more to Vital Voices, we’ll send you your copy as a thank you!