Kavita Ramdas talks about Princeton and global women's issues
by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
I got an email a few days ago that I really couldn't believe - a friend, who coordinates events at Princeton's Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, had sent out an invitation to an informal brunch with Kavita Ramdas, the president and CEO of the Global Women's Fund. The Global Women's Fund is the largest grant-making foundation in the world focused exclusively on women, and during Ramdas' tenure, the foundation has more than tripled its assets and the countries in which it has made grants. It turns out that Ramdas attended Princeton for grad school (she has an MPA from the Woodrow Wilson School), and is now on the board of trustees. I probably should have known this, but I've always made the (perhaps unfair) assumption that the board of trustees is entirely composed of old white men. Sorry, Princeton, for jumping to conclusions. Maybe some things are changing.
The brunch was this morning, and it was one of the most pleasant and interesting meals I have had in a long time. Ramdas is incredibly charming and articulate, and she talked a lot about both her experiences at Princeton for graduate school and her work with the Global Women's Fund. As a feminist activist at Princeton, I have a lot of trouble with the fact that people seem much more willing to attend a fundraiser for microfinance in Asia than to engage in honest conversation about sexism on our own campus (why, for example, all of the eating club presidents this year are male). This unwillingness or inability to critically engage with the shortcomings of our own culture is something that I wrote about when the New York Times published its issue on women, an article that was problematic because it seemed like a crusade - save those poor third-world women from abusive third-world men! - when in fact helping women in developing countries is far more complicated. Ramdas brought up many of these issues, including her thoughts on Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's new book, Half the Sky, which I'm about to start reading.
She talked openly and honestly about some of the challenges of working with a foundation, including the ethical gray area surrounding where one gets money (is there a point at which the funds become "dirty" - can you justify taking money from a company that engages in environmental destruction, for example?). And she pointed out the essential hypocrisy of putting on a superhero cape and flying to save women in the developing world when maternal mortality is still an issue in the United States (and black women are 3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women). One of the central tenets of the Global Women's Fund is that women hold many of the solutions to problems of global poverty and environmental destruction. But it doesn't help to look at women in the developing world as an "other" - or to pity them, which amounts to the same thing. Instead, we have to accept that our culture isn't perfect, and work to continue to fight gender-based injustice within our own country, while treating women in other countries as partners and equals.