Q&A: Melanne Verveer on Her New Book and Women’s Issues

The former ambassador for global women's issues speaks tonight at Politics & Prose.
Kim Azzarelli and Melanne Verveer, authors of Fast Forward: How Women Can Achieve Power and Purpose. Photo courtesy of Rubenstein Communications, Inc.

Melanne Verveer has an impressive resume, from serving in the Clinton administration, to serving as the United States’s first ambassador for global women’s issues. Together with co-author Kim K. Azzarelli, she has written Fast Forward: How Women Can Achieve Power and Purpose. She chatted with Washingtonian about the book and her the influences behind it before she speaks at Politics & Prose tonight.

President Obama nominated you as ambassador for global women’s issues in 2009. Tell me about your experience as the first person in that position, and how it influenced your book.

My main charge was to integrate women’s issues [into the State Department]. These are issues that apply directly to women, but are really about all of us and the kinds of societies we want. And the goal in the job was to ensure that the perspectives of women and their participation affected the work that we were doing in the State Department. And so, the job was about this kind of focus, and the book includes a lot of the perspectives about just the empirical case today for women. It does include many of my experiences as ambassador.

How do you define women’s issues?

Women’s issues directly focus on women inasmuch as it’s about ensuring that women enjoy all of the same rights that men do. Women are human. Enjoy all of the same rights to an education, to health care, to legal rights, the right to participate fully in the economy and the political lives of our society, and in so doing, women obviously are able to realize their potential. But at the same time, as women do that, they are lifting up all of society.

What were your main objectives?

The job was about integrating these issues across the work of the State Department. We know today from all of the evidence-based cases that women grow economies. Their economic participation grows economies, creates jobs, creates inclusive prosperity. There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t want to achieve that. And we know that any country that writes off half of its population—its women—is going to be a country that is held back. Women entrepreneurs the world over face obstacles to getting the capital they need to start or grow a business. They face obstacles to the kind of markets they can access. They face obstacles to training and to mentors, and so a number of the ways we try to address those obstacles was to engage in international platforms, where the United States is a major player.

What in your life sparked an interest in women’s issues and how does your background shape your work?

I was reminded by my high school classmates—I went to a girls’ boarding school—that when we made our junior-class trip to Washington, I saw the spires of Georgetown and I said, “that’s where I’m going to school.” Now, that’s kind of a preposterous statement, but I was determined to come to Washington because I had the sense of really wanting to make a difference. And then when the Clinton administration came into being, I joined the administration.

Probably the most significant event was this conference that took place in Beijing. It was a United Nations conference. It included 187 nations’ governments, and there were NGO representatives, people who had been on the front lines of change. [Hillary Clinton] stood up there in front of all these people and talked about human rights as women’s rights, and women’s rights as humans’ rights, and went into the kinds of things that were happening around the world—you know, human trafficking of women, girls not even having a chance because they were born girls, the issue of rape as a tool of war, of domestic violence, in some parts of the world dealing with dowry burnings—just, a whole slew of these horrors. It was an eye-opener in many, many ways.

The book includes interviews with over 70 women. Do you have any that stuck out to you for any particular reason?

We interviewed people at the top, women like [International Monetary Fund chief] Christine Lagarde. Even in that position, she has generated a number of studies on why women’s economic participation matters for the world. We have the stories of young women who started organizations. Reshma [Saujani] started Girls Who Code, enabling girls in this country to have accessibility to technology, to the internet, to be able to code, and wants to reach at least a million girls in the next few years.

So it’s stories of all kinds. But the common denominator in all of these stories is how women are using their power wherever they find themselves for purpose. And also the good men. Men are a big part of the solution. We talk about many men, from the CEOs of companies, to the heads of major, multilateral banks who get it, who understand that this is a critical way that we must proceed in our decision-making, in our investments, one to make a difference for women, but also to create greater progress in terms of economic prosperity and in terms of what this means for them. It’s a lot of stories of how people did it, and then the book has a toolkit at the end. It’s a way for the reader, whoever she is, to understand different ways that she can assess and understand the power that she has wherever she finds herself. We mean for it to be a practical tool.

Melanne Verveer is the executive director of the Institute for Women, Peace, and Security at Georgetown University. Catch her tonight at Politics & Prose at 7 PM.

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