White House Project examines, honors the role of innovative women in culture

Jill Scott, Kiran Bedi, and other women who work to change cultural perceptions highlighted the White House Project event.

By , Correspondent

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    Actress Jill Scott was honored for her role in “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”
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The culture is getting a much-needed make-over as storytelling pioneers begin to transform the prevailing image of women. Vivid narratives of steely, enterprising female leaders enable women and girls to envision these roles for themselves and help society accept more women at the top of their fields.

That’s the message 400 people – mostly women from foundations, corporations, and women’s leadership groups – heard at an awards dinner hosted by The White House Project on April 7. “You can’t be what you can’t see, and where the problem is is in the culture,” said Marie Wilson, the group’s founder and president, in an interview with the Monitor at the event. “The image of women as wife and mother hasn’t changed in America.”

Her organization sought out a solution: highlight people who are upending this traditional image through their creative works whether it’s in books, television, cinema, or theater because popular culture has proven power. It is part of the nonprofit’s effort to put more women in leadership positions across America.
Interestingly, this year many of the subjects are international women making their way in new and different leadership roles. Typically, those revealing their stories are women, too.

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Meryl Streep, a two-time Academy Award-winning actress, presented an award to Kiran Bedi, the first woman in the Indian police force, who starred in the documentary “Yes Madam, Sir.” Directed by Megan Doneman, the film was shot in India over six years as it chronicled Bedi’s trailblazing career.

Bedi first drew attention for fighting back hundreds of Sikh protesters wielding swords while she was a newbie in the Indian Police Service in the 1970s. She irked politicians to the point that she was shipped off to run Tihar Jail, the largest and most corrupt prison in Asia. Gangsters and guards proved to be no match for her humanitarian spirit as she was able to institute spiritual and educational programs that lifted up prisoners’ living conditions. The reforms earned her the Asia Nobel Prize.

Actress Jill Scott was honored for her portrayal of another first among females. Scott plays Precious Ramotswe, the first woman private detective in Botswana, in “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” on HBO.

Journalist Sheryl Wu Dunn received an award as an author of the bestselling book “Half the Sky,” which she wrote with her husband Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist. Guided by a Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky,” the book describes that the brutalization of women is the signature story of our time, and investing in women is essential to lift countries out of poverty. The authors paint portraits of innovative women in the developing world who have overcome oppression to create new lives by starting schools, hospitals, and small businesses.

Prominent leaders of major American media were among the presenters, including Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times; Geraldine Laybourne, founder of Oxygen Media; and Susan Taylor, editor emerita of Essence Magazine.

The program included a preview of Abby Disney’s upcoming PBS series “Women, War & Peace,” emphasizing women’s role in the post-cold-war period as casualties of war and necessary partners for peace.

It is the seventh time The White House Project has celebrated Emerging Leaders in Culture. This event comes after the nonprofit’s report, “Benchmarking Women’s Leadership,” from November 2009, which showed that women account for only 18 percent of leadership positions across 10 sectors, including business, politics, and media. Events focused on culture are an opportunity to promote the message about the importance of women’s leadership to a wider audience, Wilson said.

The next step it seems would be to bring along more men.

Ari Pinkus is a graduate student in management at New York University.

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