Melinda Gates—philanthropist, author, women’s rights activist, and, oh yeah, wife of Bill,—ended her book tour on May 9 with an appearance at McCaw Hall, where an ecstatic, mostly-female crowd gathered to hear insights from one of the world’s wealthiest women about what she has learned traveling the world and talking to women in some of the world’s poorest places. In a surprise appearance (and with an assist from former President Obama, who made a videotaped cameo), Gates’ husband introduced her.
Gates’ book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, marks a departure for the somewhat private philanthropist. It is, she noted Thursday in her onstage interview with LinkedIn senior editor at large Jessi Hemphel, the first time she has written extensively about her own life and family; the first time she has articulated, at great length, her belief that contraception is a critical tool for women’s equality around the world; and the first time she has talked openly about the unpaid, unrecognized work performed by women around the world, including in the United States.
Gates’ embrace of contraception as a tool for controlling fertility didn’t come easily; a lifelong Catholic who “went to Mass five times a week” as a child, she was reluctant to defy the Church’s teachings publicly for a long time. But as she traveled to remote villages around the world, meeting women who couldn’t afford to have more children, or whose bodies couldn’t withstand another pregnancy, “I kept coming back to [the fact that my] religion also says, ‘Love thy neighbor.’ How can you let a woman die in childbirth because of a tool we won’t deliver?” Condoms—which health clinics in developing countries tend to have in abundance because of the AIDS epidemic—didn’t work for women in Malawi, where husbands would assume their wives had been unfaithful, Gates continued. They needed access to long-acting birth control shots and “new reproductive health tools” to help them space their pregnancies in a way that works in their culture, she said.
Gates’ embrace of birth control isn’t total; in her book, she talks about contraception primarily as a tool for mothers to plan the size of their families, rather than a way for women—including unmarried women—to avoid pregnancy altogether. Her approach to redistributing the burden of unpaid labor—the cooking, cleaning, organizing, planning, and caregiving responsibilities that fall primarily to women and go uncounted in every international measure of economic productivity—is similarly gentle. In The Moment of Lift, she writes about her own marriage, noting that she was taking her three kids to school and picking them up every day; she asked Bill to take them to school two days a week. Soon after, Bill started noticing other dads doing the same. It’s by this kind of negotiated discussion, Gates suggests, that women can start achieving parity in their families. “Look in your home and think about how to reorient” the division of labor, she said.
But policy, she noted Thursday, is critical as well. Around the world, women spend about seven additional years of their lives—long enough to get a diploma and a graduate degree, and then some—on unpaid labor. In the U.S., the extra work women do amounts to 90 minutes a day. “We are asking women to do something untenable,” she said. “Forty-seven percent of the U.S. workforce is women,” yet we women are to do the majority of the chores, caregiving, and childrearing without any additional compensation. Only 17 percent of the U.S. workforce has paid family leave, a policy that won’t change until there are more leaders, including women in Congress, who are willing to make it a priority. “In your communities, make sure you vote for [candidates] who share your values,” she said.
Though Gates didn’t come out and say it, there’s little doubt that her book is a rebuke to the Trump Administration, which has been busy dismantling the safety net that helps women, including low-income women, survive and thrive in the U.S. and around the world. Title X, the family-planning program that serves four million low-income women every year, is being dismantled by the current administration, she writes, along with international family planning and funding for groups (like Planned Parenthood) that provide abortion or even mention abortion as an option.
“Most of the work I do lifts me up, some of it breaks my heart, but this just makes me angry,” she writes in Lift. “These policies pick on poor women. …Women who are well off won’t be harmed, and women with a stable income have options. But poor women are trapped. They will suffer the most from these changes and can do the least to stop them. When politicians target people who can’t fight back, that’s bullying.”