All three are high achievers and they have launched a movement to empower young girls
Are Michelle Obama, Amal Clooney and Melinda French Gates the three most influential feminist figures in the world? After they joined together to launch the Get Her There movement, to advance the empowerment of girls worldwide, many saw the trio as dazzling icons for female achievement.
They are all prominent philanthropists and their campaign to support girls globally is an excellent endeavour – advancing equality and halting child marriage. Mrs Obama, Mrs Clooney and Ms French Gates (as they have called themselves) are admirable global personalities who are great role models for aspiring girls and young women growing up today.
Michelle Obama is also a dazzlingly successful author – her first book, Becoming, sold almost 17 million copies worldwide. Her new book just out, The Light We Carry, has an
initial print run in North America of 2.75 million copies. She has repeatedly been voted “the most admired woman in America” and has become a guru for young women.
All three women are high achievers. As a computer scientist and philanthropist, Melinda French Gates has been garlanded with awards for her accomplishments and was nominated by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful and influential women on the planet.
Amal Clooney is a distinguished international human rights lawyer, an outstanding Oxford graduate and co-founder, with her husband, George – of movie fame – of the Clooney Foundation for Justice.
Another common denominator of these three remarkable women is that all three married rich, powerful or successful men and had children within marriage. True, Melinda divorced her spouse of 27 years, Bill Gates, and received, in recognition of her contribution to the professional success they had enjoyed together, some $2bn worth of stocks.
Many moons ago, my mother would say that the best route to worldly success and even happiness for any woman was to marry a rich or successful man. Naturally, I scorned this advice.
I was a young feminist. I had read Simone de Beauvoir, who insisted that marriage was slavery and motherhood was bondage. I had absorbed Gloria Steinem’s sarcastic adage that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. Feminism meant women becoming independent – not linked to some old-style patriarchy where a successful husband was a necessary appendage.
But now it turns out, as with Michelle, Melinda and Amal, that you can be admired as a feminist and a woman of power while also being – or having been – a wife. All three have used the title “Mrs”. All three have taken their husband’s name, although after her divorce Melinda Gates added her maiden name, French, to her nomenclature.
All three are clever and attractive individuals in their own right and they probably would have got to the top in their fields anyway. When they first met, Michelle was a more successful lawyer than Barack; Amal was a more serious figure than George; and the Gates couple were equally brilliant in Microsoft innovation.
Granted that the women would have been high achievers anyway – even so, marriage enhanced their reputation, influence and power, and in Michelle Obama’s case, it propelled her into the White House and a global profile that she’d hardly have had as a Chicago lawyer.
As women whose paths in life were an interwoven mixture of career, marriage and motherhood, the three can surely be seen as beacons of aspiration for young girls – perhaps especially for those in countries where gender equality is seldom practised.
As a side point, they are also evidence that the law and technology are shrewd career choices, and likely to generate rather more revenue than those fields girls have too often chosen in the past – the arts and the caring professions.
But it’s significant, too, that these paragons of female empowerment also chose to be married – in an age when matrimony itself is falling in developed countries. Just recently, a British social think-tank, Civitas, published a report tracking the decline of marriage – predicting that within 50 years, matrimony will be rare.
And yet, studies repeatedly show that marriage is better for children, and better, too, for career-building and financial resilience. A team of two can often perform better than a lone operator.
It is nice to be able to demonstrate, by the power of example, that women like this trio have found fulfilment through their work, as well as through married partnership and motherhood.
My mother’s generation exalted marriage as a woman’s best destiny rather too much; some feminists then too robustly rejected it. Yet Ma wasn’t entirely wrong in thinking that “Mr Right” could be a real benefit in life. And some would add Meghan Markle – about to receive a prestigious human rights award from the Robert F Kennedy Foundation – as another candidate for advancement through a fortunate spousal choice.