A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

The power of women coming together

Melinda Gates sits with a group of women who formed a self-help group in Indea
Photo by Prashant Panjiar | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
I wrote this piece in 2017 about the power women have when we come together. In the nearly three years since then, we've seen so many demonstrations of that power that today I have even more conviction behind these words than when I wrote them.

So what’s changed? It’s not that women are demanding progress; we've been doing that for a very long time. What's changed is that the world is finally listening.

I've changed, too. I've grown even more committed to playing a role in advancing gender equality, and I'm working with more partners than ever to make that a reality. Most recently I committed $1 billion to expanding women's power and influence in the United States. But I firmly believe you don't need to write a big check to contribute to progress. As I wrote in this piece, sometimes all you need is other women.

When women come together, change happens.

I think I’ve always known this intuitively, but I really started paying attention 15 years ago, when I visited a village in the foothills of the Himalayas. I spent most of my day with the village chief, and I could tell he was giving me the “official” tour. Eventually, though, some of the women gave me their own tour. They told me their kids were dying from diarrhea, so sanitation was their most important priority, but they couldn’t get the chief interested. Finally, after a lot of strategizing, they agreed to take a different tack. They convinced him that a toilet was a status symbol, so he finally bought one. Then they outsmarted him again by putting it right near his house, where they knew it would be kept clean.

This isn’t just a story about cleverness, though these women were very clever. It’s a story about the nature of progress. Sometimes, change comes from the top down. Other times, it comes from the bottom up, when ordinary people come together, think up extraordinary ideas, and insist on being heard.
We exercise power through the communities we create.
Women have always been masters of this kind of grassroots change. Because we’ve had to be. We don’t always have equal access to formal authority — not yet — so we exercise power through the communities we create. Now, no matter where I visit, when I see women chatting around the well or girls sitting together in a high school cafeteria, I know there’s often serious politics and movement-building happening.

The reason I decided to make access to contraceptives one of my top priorities is that I heard so many women around the world talking about how much it would change their lives if they could decide if and when to get pregnant. The stories they shared were so personal and so powerful that they shifted the way I thought about the work we were doing at the Gates Foundation. What started as informal conversations with women became my formal agenda.

Women want the world to get better. For us, for everybody. That’s our dream, and we mobilize each other to make those dreams come true.
Women at the Women's March hold up a poster showing portraits of strong women
Protestors holds up a sign during the January 19, 2019 Women's March in Philadelphia
Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers | Getty Images
The evidence is all around us and all through history.

Take the example of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which made Martin Luther King Jr. famous. You know the name Rosa Parks, but she was one of many women who made the boycott happen. A local black women’s group had been complaining to the city government about the bus system for years, because its members were sick and tired of taking abuse during their commute. When Mrs. Parks was arrested, the women’s group organized a one-day boycott. It wasn’t until after that boycott succeeded that Dr. King got involved.
Or take the lasting peace in Liberia after years of war. In 2003, a group called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, led by the Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, began to meet daily in Monrovia’s fish market to sing, pray, and bring attention to the push for peace. Then they declared a sex strike. Once they persuaded the warring parties to begin peace talks, they held a sit-in at the Presidential Palace to make sure they succeeded.

But we don’t have to look long ago or far away for examples of the way in which women, working together, have spurred change. Just over a month ago, millions of people around the world joined the Women’s March to demand equality for all. The March, planned by women across the globe, marks the continuation of the work of many women before — of the Liberian women in 2003, Himalayan women in 2001, and Alabamian women in 1955.

To me, the Women’s March wasn’t just about the issues or the slogans marchers put on the signs they carried. It was also about how change is made and who gets to make change.

The reality is, “We do, by coming together.”