The below interview is with Women Thrive’s new President, Patricia T. Morris, Ph.D. Read more about her background »
What’s your first memory of experiencing gender differences?
When I was 4 years old I told my mother that I wanted a fire truck with lights and sound for Christmas. I had seen one somewhere and was filled with anticipation and excitement at the thought of owning my own fire truck. On Christmas day I received a doll instead of a fire truck and was terribly disappointed. In fact, my resulting tantrum was so severe my mother had to get my godfather to search high and low around the island (St. Croix) to find the fire truck I had my heart set on.
I often say my Christmas day tantrum is proof I was a feminist at an early age. I’ll concede I was too young to truly understand notions of women’s rights and female empowerment or the cultural and political factors that sustain gender inequality. What I did know was my voice was not heard and to get what I wanted I needed to be heard. Voice and agency are fundamental to female empowerment and they are key on both the personal and global levels.
When did you decide you wanted to dedicate your career to promoting women’s rights?
I went to university intent on studying law. Then I took my first Latin American politics course and immediately changed my major to International Affairs. I was keen on becoming the second Virgin Islander (and first female Virgin Islander) join the U.S. Foreign Service and ambassador rank. When I attended a lecture by Robin Morgan who had just published Sisterhood Is Global, a seminal piece of work on global women’s studies, I knew I wanted to work in this area.
This was easier said than done because, when I was in graduate school, global women’s studies or gender and development were nascent at best. This meant I had to find ways and carve space for my interests and to take advantage of opportunities as they arose.
My career as a women’s rights activist and gender expert is more a function of choices than a career plan. I’ve been fortunate to do work I believe in and that I believe makes a difference.
What’s been your toughest career moment?
Several years ago I was visiting a nutrition program at an IDP camp just outside Khartoum in Sudan. I met a mother and her infant son who had participated in the nutrition program, but for a host of reasons the child’s malnutrition persisted and the child was expected to die in a few days. I was distraught at my inability to do something to save this child. I was angry, sick, and sad and I did not understand why this child could not be saved. It was a tough moment, and there are too many tough moments in the world today: war rape and gender-based violence in the DRC; kidnapping of school girls in Nigeria; sex trafficking of women and girls in India and other countries in East Asia; global pandemics like HIV/AIDS, malaria, Ebola and severe poverty with people living on less than $2 a day.
And your proudest career moment?
I am most proud of the work I did to develop InterAction’s Gender Audit, an organizational gender assessment and action planning tool for organizational transformation. The gender audit has been used widely by relief and development organizations and USAID missions to assess, plan, and meet institutional gender policy goals.
In your view, what is today’s most urgent issue for women and girls?
From where I stand, the most urgent issues for women and girls are (1) violence against women and girls, (2) economic participation, and (3) political participation.
Can we achieve real equality for women and girls in this lifetime? What’s that going to take?
Yes! We absolutely can. It will take political will from leaders and decision makers and persistent advocacy and mobilization from the grassroots.
I’m fortunate to work with women and men around the globe who are dedicated to seeing equality achieved. The women’s rights movement here in the United States and around the world has made great strides. There’s much more work to do, of course, and now is the time. We will see full equality for women and girls. A bright future—peace, security, sustainable development—depend on it.
What makes an effective champion for women and girls?
Someone who listens to women and girls, places their preferences and perspectives at the center of collaborative advocacy, and never gives up the struggle for gender equality.