On March 8, International Women's Day, I was lucky enough to meet Wangari Maathai, who in 2004 won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the women of the Green Belt Movement (www.greenbeltmovement.org) planting trees in Kenya and elsewhere. She was luminous in blue and silver for this final event after weeks of traveling, about to give her last speech before leaving New York City that night in a wet snowstorm to return to Nairobi. And she was gracious when I felt compelled to brag to her that Utne magazine had covered her work in 1992.
Wangari spoke from the same podium in Manhattan's Cooper Union that Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass spoke from, right down the hall from where Susan B. Anthony had her office and where the NAACP got its start. She is the first environmentalist and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, but she believes the significance of this award is farther reaching. She uses the metaphor of the three-legged African stool to explain: One leg is democracy, which encompasses respect for human rights; the second leg is sustainable management of resources and equitable distribution; and the third leg is peace and security. If you're missing any of the legs, you will fall -- and that's true for countries as well as individuals.
'If a clean and healthy environment is a right, you cannot gain this right unless you have a democratic government that respects and acknowledges rights,' she explains. 'If we do not have citizens who acknowledge these rights, and also assume their responsibilities, we're not going to have a clean and good environment. If people struggle over resources, you're going to have conflicts, not peace.'
While waiting to meet Wangari, I chatted with her daughter, Wanjira, and Anna Lappe, co-author with her mother, Frances Moore Lappe, of Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002). Frankie Lappe, who wrote Diet for a Small Planet more than 30 years ago and went on to win the Right Livelihood Award, is one of my personal heroines. I saw Anna make her first keynote speech several years ago, to 3,000 people at the Bioneers Conference, and last year Wanjira addressed the same audience. The two of them laughed warmly about the mixed blessing of being involved with the passionate work of their powerful mothers.
Two other women I met that week in New York are Dr. Moussada Jalal and Roshanak Ameli-Tehrani. Jalal is the medical doctor who ran for president of Afhganistan against Hamid Karzai and 15 other men and came in second; she is now the minister of women's affairs. Her young daughters both plan to be doctors (and presidents) when they grow up. Ameli-Tehrani, who moved to the United States from Iran when she was 6, after her father was killed, now goes back to Iran to write what she calls 'dispatches from the mothership' and is working to launch Iran's first large-scale microfinance initiative.
These women are the embodiment of a new feminine leadership. Thinking of the laugh between Anna and Wanjira, of Dr. Jalal's daughters, of Iranian women helping each other, of new generations of daughters -- and sons -- nurtured by powerful mothers gives me a feeling of giddy optimism. Anything is possible when the qualities of the feminine -- compassion, generativity, fierce love -- are celebrated in both men and women.
In her Nobel acceptance speech, Wangari said: 'We are called to assist the earth, to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own -- indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder.' Spoken like a woman we can all call our own.
P.S. If you are a woman who is interested in developing leadership skills, read about our rEVOLUTIONary Women's event on page 85.