Symbols and Strength: Women in the World

Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images

When Hillary Clinton travels around the world as secretary of state, she is a global celebrity of the first rank. But that’s not how she felt when she went to Burma for the first time in 2011 to meet with the heroic Aung San Suu Kyi. One of the greatest living human-rights campaigners, Suu Kyi had chosen to endure—for the sake of the Burmese people—the daily threat of death and 15 years of house arrest, cut off from her husband and children. “It was, ‘Oh, my God, I cannot believe I am with Aung San Suu Kyi,” Ambassador Melanne Verveer told me of Clinton’s emotion on her two-hour talk with Suu Kyi in the house of her long captivity.

How does a great moral symbol transition into a working politician, burdened with people’s tawdry demands and irrepressible expectations? That’s the new hazard for Suu Kyi. As Burma inches toward its first taste of democracy after years under a merciless junta, she is running for Parliament in April. Can she preserve her stature as an icon, as Nelson Mandela did when he became South Africa’s first black president? Or as, to a lesser degree, did Václav Havel (with whom Suu Kyi corresponded during her years of confinement).

Neither Suu Kyi nor, for that matter, Clinton is content to be a symbol. There are too many other women depending on them for change. Women like 36-year-old Zin Mar Aung, who endured 11 years in jail for her pro--democracy student activism. The sacrifices they make are inconceivable as we take our Western freedoms for granted—and steel us not to do so. Last year, in a move targeting Planned Parenthood, the Texas Legislature slashed family-planning funding by two thirds. Now the Texas Taliban is on the verge of eliminating -reproductive-health care for 130,000 poor women who don’t meet narrow Medicaid requirements. It’s almost as if the paradigm has -shifted, so strenuous are the efforts now to delegitimize rights settled by the Supreme Court in 1965 and seamlessly absorbed into American life. It is ironic that American women now need to be fortified by the inspiration of the women of the Arab Spring, who risked so much to win basic human rights.

It was to hear the inspiring stories of women like these that, in 2010, we started our now--annual three-day Women in the World Summit (March 8–10 at New York’s Lincoln Center). Our focus is on women who live between the lines of the news—be it the tumult of Tahrir Square, the overheated materialism of China, or the refugee camps of Somalia. It’s an occasion when the more celebrated women on stage are not the stars but are there to bring attention to the women who have a harder time getting heard.

All of us at Newsweek who worked on choosing the 150 fearless women starting on page 50 have one face we especially love. Mine is of the legendary war correspondent Marie Colvin, insouciant in the black eye patch she wore after shrapnel removed her left eye in Sri Lanka, head thrown back, savoring a cigarette in some hangout in the hellhole of Baghdad. Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey, a friend and reporting colleague of hers, related on The Daily Beast how she risked her life time and again to tell us the truths she saw, a perpetual and dedicated quest ended only by the targeted artillery shells of the Assad regime in Syria. Her goal, she always said, was simply to “get the information out.”

It’s a mission that we, in our own way, embrace at Newsweek—and with Women in the World.