By Helen Redmond
The Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women is an obscenely wealthy international sisterhood of politicians, celebrities and billionaires who crashed through the glass ceiling. Forbes describes them as “the women who matter most.”
How is it that Irene Rosenfeld, the CEO of Kraft, whom Forbes lauds for “announcing the divorce between the brands Oreos and Mac ’N Cheese,” matters most? Deciding the fate of cookies and carbs defines power?
Why does Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, art patron and trust fund progeny with a penchant for collecting expensive oil paintings (she paid $4.9 million for Norman Rockwell’s canvas “Rosie the Riveter”), matter most? The woman never worked a day in her life. Walton’s fortune of $21 billion was made off the backs of millions of female workers at Wal-Mart who are discriminated against in pay and promotions.
(Forbes explains on its website that it chooses these women from a predetermined list of 200, which is then narrowed down on the basis of “three metrics: dollars, a traditional and social media component, and power base points,” whatever those are.)
No. The women on the Forbes list are not the ones who matter most. They use their power in the pursuit of profit for themselves and for shareholders to sustain a global system of economic and social inequality.
I’ve compiled an alternate list of women and contrasted them with some of Forbes’ picks from politics and government. The FORUS women use power for social and economic justice. You might not know some of them, but they are the women who matter most.
FORBES: Michelle Obama, first lady and attorney.
She’s listed because “the first lady keeps a high profile with her mission to end childhood obesity and her stylish fashion picks.” You are what you wear and Obama has the ability to make or break fashion trends and designers. Now that is power! She heads the anti-obesity campaign Let’s Move.
Obama spoke to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and stated, “We are living today in a time where we’re decades beyond slavery, we are decades beyond Jim Crow, when one of the greatest risks to our children’s future is their own health.” She blames obesity on individuals and the family. In a lecture worthy of Bill Cosby, Obama chastised the NAACP audience: “Our parents made us get up and play outside. … Kids nowadays don’t even know how to jump double-dutch!” She added, “Shoot, I can’t tell Malia and Sasha to eat their vegetables if I’m sitting around eating French fries. … And I can’t tell them to go run around outside if I’m spending all my free time on the couch watching TV.” Really? The high rate of obesity in the black community isn’t caused by the racism that’s plunged 4 million black children, more than 1 in 3, into poverty? Since her husband took office, child poverty has increased by 10 percent. It’s not the stunning racial disparities in health care or that more than 20 percent of African-Americans are uninsured? Obama avoids those issues and doesn’t tackle the interconnectedness of racism, poverty and poor health outcomes. That would require going up against her husband’s record, which has favored military spending, bank bailouts and tax cuts for the rich at the expense of social programs for the poor. Instead, Obama wants folks to plant organic gardens full of arugula and Japanese eggplant. Obama is working on a book about the White House garden tentatively titled “The Audacity of Organic.”
FORUS: Michelle Alexander, attorney and author.
Alexander argues that the United States is not “decades beyond Jim Crow.” This Michelle isn’t afraid to use the “R” word: Racism. In her brilliant book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” she takes a scalpel to the criminal justice system and cuts through layers of lies and myths. Alexander documents, in a way that only a legal scholar and a former attorney for the ACLU can, the endemic and vindictive racism that is entrenched in the American justice system. Who is incarcerated in the world’s greatest democracy? One million black people. How did the majority get behind bars? The War on Drugs. Alexander catalogs how SWAT team drug raids invade black neighborhoods and cast a wide dragnet, and then the system “lock ’ems up” and throws away the key for decades using racist mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Alexander exposes the hidden and devastating plight of ex-prisoners with felony convictions. She unapologetically defends felons—no one defends felons in tough-on-crime America. That matters. Her book documents how the scarlet “F” permanently strips millions of African-Americans of basic rights and creates a racial caste of second-class citizens. The new, old Jim Crow.
In part because of Alexander’s uncompromising, won’t-back-down advocacy, the NAACP has officially called for an end to the War on Drugs. “Driving over the speed limit puts more people at risk than smoking marijuana in the privacy of your own home,” Alexander asserts. Hallelujah!
FORBES: Hillary Clinton, secretary of state.
She’s chosen because “in her second year on the job, Hillary Clinton continues to earn high marks for advancing U.S. interests and policies overseas and pushing women’s issues, development and education to the top of the foreign policy agenda.”
She has also gained a reputation as an enthusiastic hawk who often favors the stick over the carrot.
The job description for secretary of state never changes: Defend U.S. interests abroad by any means necessary. Use secret back channels to bully and berate enemies, spin on behalf of targeted assassinations and, as we know from the State Department cables published by WikiLeaks, lie. A lot.
The Arab Spring was Clinton’s biggest test. She was flabbergasted and flummoxed. She flunked. In 2009, the secretary said, “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” For decades her “friends” reigned over a vicious and corrupt police state that used torture and violence to thwart democracy. As for women’s rights, not so much. Clinton’s sisterhood didn’t extend to the millions of oppressed Egyptian women who lived under the misogynistic and murderous Mubarak regime or to the women who endured humiliating “virginity” tests at the hands of the military during the revolution. Not an indignant word from the secretary about that. Clinton visited Tahrir Square post-revolution and remarked, “It’s just a great reminder of the power of the human spirit and universal desire for freedom and human rights and democracy.”
FORUS: Malalai Joya, Afghan activist and author.
Joya’s speech in the loya jirga (national assembly) in 2003 rocked the world. For two minutes she ripped into the warlords responsible for murdering and raping thousands of civilians. Two minutes changed Joya’s life irrevocably. The 23-year-old was physically and verbally attacked after she left the microphone and has been living underground with bodyguards ever since. She survived five attempts on her life. But Joya won’t stop. She relentlessly condemns the corrupt government of Hamid Karzai and the U.S. military occupation.
The State Department denied Joya a visa to enter the United States to promote her book, “A Woman Among Warlords.” Hillary Clinton’s State Department doesn’t feel very sisterly toward Joya, because she argues publicly that 10 years of U.S. bombs and night raids haven’t liberated Afghan women.
A national campaign eventually got Joya into the country. Her speeches at packed meetings were emotional and electrifying. She excoriated Clinton and President Obama for broken promises and lies. Recently, a senior Obama administration official, when asked about the plight of Afghan women, answered, “Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities. ... There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.” Afghan women’s lives are just “pet rocks” to be pitched out like so much garbage. Joya knows how these things go, but her political activism to free her country from war and oppression will continue no matter what.
FORBES: Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security.
Forbes reminds us that Napolitano is “the first female head of the Department of Homeland Security, a position she took after serving as the first female governor of Arizona from 2003-2009.” As governor, Napolitano’s priorities were sealing the border between Arizona and Mexico, scapegoating and exploiting Mexican immigrants and deporting as many as possible. During her governorship, the number of men, women and children who died in the Sonoran Desert skyrocketed—more than 200 in 2007 alone. Napolitano wants to keep everyone out, including those fleeing natural disasters. She warned Haitians caught trying to enter the United States after the devastating earthquake in 2010 that they would be detained and deported right back to Haiti.
Napolitano’s job is domestic counterterrorism. In other words: spying on, investigating, arresting, incarcerating and deporting Mexicans and Muslims. In 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents deported a record 400,000 people.
Napolitano’s mantra is “if you see something, say something.” But if you see that the Department of Homeland Security is a threat to your privacy and civil rights and say something, watch out. “Big Sis,” as she is nicknamed, is coming for you.
FORUS: Carla Navoa, a 21-year-old undocumented student, stood up to Napolitano, the caza-inmigrante (immigrant hunter).
In Chicago, Navoa, along with five other students, sat down in the street surrounded by hundreds of supporters and got arrested. She was protesting Secure Communities, a federal program to deport immigrants with criminal records. Navoa said, “I decided to do the action to get other youth and immigrant families to face their fears and stand up to the tyranny of the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I’ve had enough of hearing stories about friends and community members losing family who have committed no serious crime. I’m not going to be bullied or accept anyone being terrorized by ICE. ... I was and am enraged.”
Navoa and hundreds of activists around the country forced the Obama administration to back down. They won a victory when the government announced that undocumented students will no longer be deportation targets. That is power that matters. The slogan of the movement to stop deportations is “undocumented and unafraid.” The students’ civil disobedience, their courage is sí se puede (yes we can) in action and an example to the undocumented who are still afraid that change is possible.
FORBES: Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services.
Sebelius championed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the 2,000-page incomprehensible piece of legislation better known as Obamacare. The legislation mandates everyone buy insurance (except the undocumented—they’re left out entirely), discriminates against women by restricting abortion coverage, and still leaves 23 million people uninsured. Advocates of single-payer were shut out of the health care debate, and Sebelius worked overtime to assure Republicans that single-payer wasn’t on the table. She told a reporter, “This is not a trick. This is not single-payer. That’s not what anyone is talking about—mostly because the president feels strongly, as I do, that dismantling private health coverage for the 180 million Americans that have it, discouraging more employers from coming into the marketplace, is really bad ... is a bad direction to go in.”
Sebelius presides over the deepening health care crisis—a record 50 million people are uninsured. In February, she gave the green light to Arizona to cut 250,000 recipients off of Medicaid and told state officials they could circumvent the requirement in the patient protection act that prohibits reductions in eligibility.
FORUS: Dr. Ida Hellander, executive director of Physicians for a National Health Program.
Hellander has fought for single-payer health care for 17 years. Hellander is the superglue and the policy guru that holds together Physicians for a National Health Program, an organization that has grown to 18,000 members. Hellander knew Obama when as an Illinois senator he was an advocate of single-payer, and she wasn’t surprised when as president, Obama dumped single-payer and refused the physicians program group a seat at the health care reform table. She is all too familiar with inside-the-beltway betrayals. When liberal organizations and progressive, single-payer Democrats went down like dominoes—John Conyers, Dennis Kucinich and Independent Bernie Sanders—and supported the public option and then the patient protection act, Hellander said hell no! The pressure on the physicians program group to compromise was enormous but it stood strong against blistering criticism from all quarters. Hellander believes in her bones that health care is a human right and it’s a crime that 45,000 people die in America every year because they lack access to it. Recently she wrote, “The best way to control costs is to cover everyone kicking out the private insurance middlemen and creating a single-payer health care system.” Hellander’s unshakable moral compass is the physicians program organization slogan: “everybody in, nobody out.” Access to health care matters.
FORBES: Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
There’s something untoward about the first female head of the IMF getting the job on the heels of ex-managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s forced resignation amid (now-dismissed) accusations of sexual assault.
In an interview, Lagarde talked testosterone. “Gender-dominated environments are not good ... particularly in the financial sector where there are too few women,” she said. “In gender-dominated environments, men have a tendency to show how hairy chested they are. ... I honestly think that there should never be too much testosterone in one room.”
Lagarde, a former finance minister in France, was hated there almost as much as President Nicolas Sarkozy. She wants French workers to toil like Americans—fewer vacation days and benefits and more grueling workweeks. As head of the IMF, Lagarde will bail out governments and in return insist on harsh austerity programs that drive down working-class living standards, cut vital health and social services, and destroy the lives of millions. The usual IMF shock doctrine.
Reportedly, the IMF chief has a favorite drawing. It depicts her as a dominatrix in fishnet stockings, whipping a banker. If only she was whipping the bottoms of bankers who crashed the world financial system. Instead, Mistress de Sade will punish the most vulnerable, a disproportionate number of them women and children. For decades, IMF officials have inflicted pain around the globe through austerity and “structural adjustment” programs. Lagarde stands in that sick tradition.
FORUS: Asmaa Mahfouz, a founder and organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt.
Mahfouz helped spark the revolution that ended in the spectacle of Hosni Mubarak lying on a stretcher in a cage in civilian court. The 26-year-old was fed up with the hopelessness and fear that dominated the lives of Egyptians. The tech-savvy Mahfouz made a video that went viral. In the video she asked people to protest in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25. She cajoled, “Talk to your family and friends. ... Bring five people or 10 people. Never say there’s no hope. Hope disappears only when you say there is no hope. So long as you come down with us there will be hope. Demand your rights. ...” Mahfouz held up a sign: “No to corruption, no to this regime.” Thousands of people heeded the call in what turned into a national day of rage. That’s power that matters.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the brutal military body that has ruled since Mubarak’s ouster, has forced Mahfouz to continue the struggle. She was arrested after posting this on Twitter: “If the justice system does not give us our rights, nobody should be upset if armed groups emerge and carry out assassinations. As long as there is no law, there is no justice. ...” The Supreme Council, which tries protesters in military courts, dropped the charges against Mahfouz, explaining that she and a co-defendant were “in a revolutionary condition, which had an impact on their performance in public and political arenas.” Exactly right.
Helen Redmond is a writer and freelance journalist. She writes about health care, the War on Drugs in the United States, Mexico and Afghanistan. She can be reached at redmondmadrid at yahoo dot com.
AP / Rodrigo Abd
Female Afghan lawmaker Malalai Joya stands for justice in the face of death threats.