How the hell did they do it?
How did Brazil, Ireland, Burundi, Ecuador, Philippines, Finland, Liberia, Argentina, Kyrgyzstan and so many other countries managed to put a woman in the president's seat? And the U.S., one of the most wealthy and developed democracies on the planet hasn’t? Why?
That's the question Heather Arnet, CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation in Southwest Pa., was determined to find an answer to in Brazil, which elected its first female president, Dilma Rousseff, in 2010. Ms. Arnet wanted to know, so she went, she asked, and then created a documentary about her quest.
The first audience for Arnet’s film was, fittingly, the Women and Girls Foundation (WGF) gala held in the August Wilson Center on Saturday. The event celebrated women of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania who brought the world to Pittsburgh, and put Pittsburgh on the map for people from all over the world. Among those in attendance were many accomplished, inspiring, and smart, women who could be candidates for the presidency themselves. By the end of the evening it seemed like Heather Arnet's question echoed in all their minds; all wondering the same, "Why haven't we had a Madame President yet?"
Many of the 18 women honored that night -- educators who made Pittsburgh an attractive place to study, business leaders that attracted global investors to the city, Pittsburgh doctors who saved lives here and fought cancer on the frontiers of Latin America and Africa, female leaders helping disaster-stricken and war-torn communities in Haiti and Afghanistan, empowering girls in Zimbabwe and Liberia -- have been trailblazers and living role models for women in their professions.
There were exemplary young women on the stage too: Laila Al-Soulaiman, who after having lost 15 family members in Syrian Civil War, has been working to bring awareness of the violence happening in Syria. There was Sarah Pesi, who after being harassed by a man at age 13, discovered that she could not obtain a restraining order in Pennsylvania because to do so "she had to be related to or have dated the man," and since neither described her case, she took it upon herself to push anti-stalking legislation.
Each of their life stories was humbling and breathtaking. I, for one, kept wondering, how the hell did they do it? It was clear that these women weren’t working on these issues because they earned a living from it, rather, they worked to enrich the world with achievement and hope, to serve as examples of what’s possible and one day (perhaps) be able to tell their daughters and granddaughters, "One day you too can become the U.S. president."
But the loud trumpets heralding the women and girls' achievements in Pittsburgh and the world could not drown out the sour notes of reality: In Pennsylvania's General Assembly, out of 253 members, only 45 of them are women. Many Pennsylvania companies and institutions have never had a female chief executive, and policies and efforts designed to limit girls' and women's freedoms and opportunities abound.
Take, for example, birth control. In her documentary, Heather Arnet interviewed a young woman from Brazil, who recently moved to the United States. She told a story of how she went to a pharmacy in the U.S. to get birth control pills over the counter only to find out that they were not available without a prescription, and then for only one month at a time. In her native Brazil, she was able to buy enough for a year without any prescription, no questions asked.
There were more examples in the film which highlighted the gap between the United States and other countries where women are equal partners in policy design, law-making and leadership roles. They all lead to one conclusion: we are lagging far, far behind.
The crowd of inspiring women who gathered at the August Wilson on Saturday proves through their actions every day that a lot has been accomplished. But Ms. Arnet’s film is a reminder that there is still a lot to be done.
Let’s answer the question: How the hell will we do it, ladies?