Imagine More: JDC Global Women’s Summit

September 18, 2019

Good morning! 

It’s wonderful to be here with you today. And I am truly honored to be speaking at JDC’s first-ever global women’s summit.

A big thank you to JDC board member Dena Boronkay Rashes—Wellesley class of 1996 (I just have to say that!)—who first introduced me to JDC’s work. 

Thanks, too, to the event co-chairs, Jayne Lipman, Michele Rosen, Susan K. Stern, and to everyone else who has made today possible. 

* * * 

When I first fell in love with my husband, one of the things that most touched me was his deep commitment to other people—his kindness, his compassion, his eagerness to go the extra mile. 

We’ve now been married for 30 years—yesterday was our anniversary—and I now know that these qualities are deeply bound up with Judaism and his Jewish values, values that we both share. The concept of tikkun olam. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. These are at the heart of the life we’ve built, from our family to our communities to our professions. 

They are also, of course, at the heart of JDC. Through your work across some 70 countries, you are living out these values in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. You are showing us the meaning—and power—of collective responsibility. I am awed and inspired and so very glad to be here. 

* * * 

Looking over the summit schedule, I was struck by these words: Undaunted. Unapologetic. Unstoppable. They brought to mind a talk I gave to an extraordinary group of women in India last winter. In it, I called for defiance. Defiance on behalf of women’s health and women’s education. Defiance on behalf of women’s right to flourish in every way. 

Now, defiance isn’t a quality that you are likely to find on a list of feminine virtues. Humility and kindness: yes. Defiance: no. 

Yet defiance may well be what the world most needs from us right now. I’m not talking about childish defiance—rebellion for rebellion’s sake. Rather, I am talking about defiance as a moral stance. Defiance as an act of service. Defiance as an act of faith. 

At its best, defiance constitutes an act of leadership. Defiance is visionary. It signals a refusal to accept the status quo. It also clearly speaks to our conference theme: “To create a just and prosperous world, we will need the boldness to imagine more.”

This is what I think of as practical dreaming. 

Now to some, this may sound like an oxymoron but—as I suspect you would agree—it is nothing of the sort. Indeed, the world’s greatest achievements begin with dreams. In the words of Gloria Steinem, “Dreams are a form of planning.” 

Today, I want to share some thoughts on what this means. On how we can imagine and build a world that reflects our deepest values. A world built on the recognition that “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” to quote Hillary Clinton at the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. This was back in 1995. Yet almost a quarter century later, that goal remains elusive. 

Each one of you likely has your own thoughts about how we move towards it. But for all our differences, I suspect certain strategies are universal. Among these, perhaps the most important is leading with powerful questions. 

One of my greatest strokes of luck was having an early mentor who modeled this sort of questioning and instilled in me the confidence to follow in her footsteps. Her name was Ruth Hubbard, and she was the first female biology professor to be awarded tenure at Harvard University. A truly pathbreaking researcher, Ruth became a powerful feminist voice in and for science. She passed away three years ago, at the age of 92. 

It was spring of freshman year when I enrolled in Ruth’s now-legendary Bio 109—Biology and Women’s Issues. In her teaching, she made explicit something that others had known but not articulated: that science had made men the norm, both their bodies and their ideas. And that much of what was deemed scientific truth was socially constructed. 

Ruth didn’t set out to train disciples. Rather, she taught us to approach the world in the same spirit that she did—to explore the larger forces that shaped scientific work. 

One especially memorable experience was an independent study with Ruth and the late Stephen Jay Gould. It took place my junior year. At the time, a new field known as sociobiology was fast becoming an orthodoxy of sorts, going virtually unquestioned in many quarters. Ruth and Stephen challenged this—and pushed me to challenge it. This lesson extended far beyond academic debate. Most importantly, it taught me that I had a duty to question accepted beliefs. That this was not only my right but also my responsibility. 

Four decades later, I can still trace a direct line from what went on in Ruth Hubbard’s classes to my life today. Throughout, I have carried her voice with me, urging me to question established beliefs that feel wrong or incomplete, reminding me that assumptions often blind us to the truth. 

It was this perspective that ultimately led me to found the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, where I also relaunched the Division of Women’s Health. More recently, it brought me to the presidency of Wellesley College—I’ll get to that a bit later. 

So how did this evolution take place? And where do the questions come in? Let me set the stage: 

Back when I began my medical career, women were rarely included in clinical trials—and in most of medical research for that matter. Investigators operated on the assumption that what was true for men would hold true for women for most conditions. That male biology was typical and women’s was, well, not. 

There was just one problem with this approach: It was 100 percent wrong—totally at odds with science. We now know that women and men are different down to the cellular and molecular levels. It is not just our sex organs, but our brains, hearts, lungs, and joints that are different. Simply put, to quote a 2001 report from the Institute of Medicine, “Every cell has a sex.” 

The implications are enormous—all-encompassing. Men and women differ genetically, and these genetic differences are compounded by hormonal and reproductive changes across a woman’s lifespan. 

We now know that the circumstances of women’s lives impact their health in unique ways—even changing their genetics. We know that the same disease often looks quite different in a man than it does in a woman. And, shockingly, we know that violence experienced by women in their early years is the single most powerful predictor of chronic disease as they age. When we fail to take such realities into account, we leave women’s health to chance. This is dangerous, unfair, and all too often deadly. 

So, here’s the question—the question that propelled my work, and that of so many others committed to women’s health: How could we ignore over 50 percent of the population? Why on earth would we assume that their symptoms are atypical—and make those of the other near 50 percent the universal norm?

It’s a simple and obvious question, right? And yet, for the most part, it went unasked until the 1990s. 

This finally started to change after the elections of 1992, which led to an influx of women into the Senate in the wake of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. This was known as “The Year of the Woman” and was, in many ways, a time not unlike our own, a moment when women were waking up to injustices and demanding action. 

A turning point came the following year, when Congress passed a historic measure mandating the inclusion of women and minorities in phase 3 clinical trials conducted by the National Institutes of Health. Slowly, the medical research community began to shift. 

Yet even today, we are far from where we should be. Consider that the majority of federally funded studies still do not report sex-specific findings, even if women were included in the research population. 

Think about what that means: When you give an average as a result, that’s not really good for women or men. It doesn’t give the right answer for either of them. I’m reminded of this quip from the 4-foot-11-inch former Labor Secretary Robert Reich: “Shaquille O’Neal and I have average height of 6 feet, 2 inches.”

There’s an irony here: Even though we are on the cusp of the personalized medicine revolution, there is astonishingly little awareness of the impact of sex, the most basic genetic difference that we know of. 

So why is this taking so long? Much of it has to do with who is asking the questions and making the decisions—with who is at the table. 

Back in the 1990s, former U.S. congresswoman Patricia Schroeder summed it up this way: “You fund what you fear. When you have a male-dominated group of researchers, they are more worried about prostate cancer than breast cancer.” 

Now, prostate cancer is important! And so is breast cancer. Which brings me to a critical point: Diversity is essential if we’re to have excellence. 

It is not a PC add on—trendy window dressing. Rather, it goes to the core of where our commitments lie. It shapes the questions that we ask and how we move forward. What can be imagined depends on who is doing the imagining.

I often hear that empathy is “the answer”—and there is some truth in this. Empathy is a wonderful thing, the first critical step to connecting across difference. Yet, empathy also has its limits. We can never fully imagine someone else’s reality. Empathy is not a proxy for diversity.

Of course, this is nothing new to you here in this room. At JDC, this awareness infuses everything you do, as exemplified in your partnerships with women seeking to raise up their own communities. 

Which brings me to another important point: What someone sees goes far to shape what they can imagine. When women take the lead, girls can imagine more.

Last June, Wellesley College had the honor of hosting both Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright for their class reunions. Secretary Albright is class of 1959, and Secretary Clinton is class of 1969. 

It was tremendously exciting to have them with us—two of the three women who have served as U.S. secretary of state. Pathbreakers. History makers. Listening to them on stage together, we were all in awe.

But one person has been notably less impressed—and that’s Madeleine Albright’s young granddaughter, who asked: “So what’s the big deal about Grandma Maddie being secretary of state? Only girls are secretary of state.” 

Think about it: Between 1997 and 2013, only one man—Colin Powell—held the post, and only for four years. Before him came Madeleine Albright, and he was followed by Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

Now this is a funny story—but it points to a profound truth. What we see shapes our sense of what is possible. 

This is also borne out by research—including a compelling study out of India. A 1993 constitutional amendment had randomly reserved certain village council positions for women. Researchers seized the opportunity—what we scientists sometimes call a “natural experiment.” How would the councils with reservations compare to those without? 

Here’s what they found: In villages with female leaders for two election cycles, parents had higher career and educational aspirations for their daughters, and girls had higher aspirations for themselves. Specifically, the gender gap in aspirations closed by 20 percent in parents and 32 percent in adolescents. The educational gap between girls and boys was completely erased, and girls spent less time on household chores. 

While this is just one study, it highlights a reality we see every day: the power of role models and the power of diversity. 

* * * 

As president of an eminent women’s college, I think a lot about such things. When I left the Connors Center for Women’s Health—the organization that I’d founded and to which I’d dedicated more than 20 years—some were quite surprised. They saw my move to Wellesley College as an abrupt shift. But for me, the move to women’s education could not have been more natural. 

Let me explain: During my career, I have been spurred on by a number of powerful questions. Yet, ultimately, all were facets of a single inquiry: How do we create the conditions for women to flourish and reach their full potential—both in service to them and in service to the world?

This is the question that propelled my work in medicine and women’s health. More recently, it’s the same question that propelled me to Wellesley College. Because here are two things I know for sure: The surest way to change the world is by empowering women—and the most effective way to empower women is through education. 

Let me be clear: My commitment to women’s health is as strong as ever—indeed, it is central to my vision for women’s education. At a time when our students face huge stressors, we need to help them grow as strong as they can possibly be. This will only happen if we attend to their well-being. 

This is a core responsibility, no less than scholarship and intellectual growth. Indeed, I would argue, the two go hand in hand. A culture of education is also a culture of health.

In creating this campus culture, we serve not only current students but also the larger world. We do so by providing a beacon for what a community can be. And we do so by preparing students to make a difference on a larger stage—preparing them to both take strong stands and to bridge divides. 

Tomorrow, the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University is expected to release a report looking at student voter turnout on more than 1,000 campuses. We have reason to think that Wellesley College will make a very strong showing. 

But it isn’t just the numbers themselves. Equally important is what they suggest about our campus. A while back, the institute sought to determine what campus characteristics correlate with student voting. Among their intriguing initial findings: Student well-being was itself tied to high voter turnout, as was a school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. In other words: A healthy democracy goes hand in hand with healthy students.

The researchers further found that student well-being didn’t come about by happenstance. Rather, it was intentionally cultivated. It grew through strong trusting relationships, both with classmates and with faculty members. 

I found this fascinating—if not surprising. 

This is why Wellesley is developing what I’ve come to call a Curriculum of Connection—an approach to learning that pervades every aspect of campus life. As a residential college, I believe that we are uniquely positioned to model, teach, and cultivate the capacity to talk across difference—and that doing so is central to our purpose. It is both an essential tool for life and the foundation of democracy. It is how we start to answer this momentous question from writer Claudia Rankine: “How can I say this so we can stay in this car together?” 

Right now, few questions feel more urgent. 

All of the world’s greatest challenges—from the environment to education, from poverty to pandemics to shoring up democratic institutions—will require us to come together as never before, across disciplines, across interests, across nations and identities. 

Yet, this won’t happen automatically. It requires skills and strategies that must be learned and practiced. 

In this, I have found great inspiration in JDC. As I prepared for this talk, I read about the Women’s Health Empowerment Program, active in Bosnia and Hungary—a partnership between JDC and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. It works through peer support—women who have had breast cancer are trained to educate and support those who have been diagnosed. This itself is tremendous work. But the program also does something more—something extraordinary. Amidst the region’s ethnic and religious polarization, it brings women together to combat a common foe. 

It unites them in their shared experience—and humanity. You might say it is women’s health as diplomacy. 

With this project—and so many others—JDC is harnessing the power of connection. In doing so, it’s become a beacon for all of us. 

* * * 

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to spend some time on Martha’s Vineyard. As always, I drew sustenance from the sea and sky, from long walks, star-filled nights, time with dear friends and family. 

But this year, something was different. For all the beauty of these days, I sensed an engulfing darkness—the growing shadow of the world’s ongoing crises.

For women, these loom especially large. I think of chilling attacks on women’s health care and reproductive rights—attacks that all too often bring to mind The Handmaid’s Tale. I think of the persistent pay gap between women and men—one that has the greatest impact on women who already struggle. I think of growing nativism and xenophobia—of a president’s telling four congresswomen of color to go back where they came from. And I think of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination—of the evils fueling the #MeToo movement and other activism. 

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that—more and more—people are stepping up. With each of these attacks has come a surge of energy. All of you are a part of this—and for that I want to thank you. 

In these harrowing times, JDC stands as a reminder of the power we have, together. Of the power of collective action and collective responsibility. Of the vast power to be unleashed through connecting and empowering women. 

Thank you for refusing to accept the status quo—for having both the courage of your convictions, and the courage of your questions. 

Thank you for your vision, your boldness, your defiance. 

Thank you for having the courage to Imagine MORE.