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The Arc of the Moral Universe

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. —Martin Luther King

The Double X Economy panel: from left, Melanne Verveer, me, Helena Morrissey, and Caroline Anstey.

Oxford Analytica is a political and economic think tank founded in Oxford during the 1980s.  It is now an international organization, publishing daily briefs on a worldwide range of topics for a highly placed, well connected, and fully resourced base of subscribers.  Early weekday mornings, a cadre of about 15 experts sits around a table in the office near Christ Church in Oxford to debrief the past 24 hours from every corner of the planet.  This morning coffee ritual has an oddly Zen quality, with the early light coming in the windows as reports intone the status of the world by region.

Until last year, however, Oxford Analytica had not given a great deal of notice to women’s issues. I can tell you from experience that their subscribers puzzle to see a connection between “women” and “economics.” But when I gave my inaugural lecture on The Double X Economy, Stephanie Hare, Oxford Analytica’s senior analyst on Western Europe, convinced their managing director, Graham Hutchings, to come along.  They introduced themselves to me at the reception following and kindly invited me to the famous morning coffee.  I remember Graham telling me that mine had been the most frightening speech he had ever heard, which I took to mean I had presented a dramatically different perspective—which was great!

During the next six months, I went along to coffee a few times and I wrote a couple of briefs for them on topics like equal pay and women on boards.  In September 2012, I was invited to appear on one of the small panels at their annual Global Horizons conference, an intellectually tony gathering that draws people from all over the world to Oxford.  I was a bit of a shoehorn into a panel on growth in the global economy. The others on my panel talked about the future of China’s currency and the mess in the Eurozone. These topic panels are repeated throughout the conference, so the panelists  perhaps even memorize one another’s spiels by the time the sun sets on the event. I admit I felt myself the “odd man out” every time I began my piece on gender economics:  the startled faces in the audience, followed by the astonished silence, showed me just how jarring the topic of women was in a setting dedicated to global economics.

Melanne Verveer, former Global Ambassador for Women, speaking at the Oxford Analytica dinner at Christ Church college.

The feedback must have been OK, though, because at last week’s Global Horizons, Oxford Analytica offered a large thematic session dedicated to “The Double X Economy.” A member of the panel for that session, Melanne Verveer, former Global Ambassador for Women under US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also gave the keynote address at Christ Church college on opening night.  I sat at one of the long, candlelit tables in the dining hall on which Harry Potter’s Hogwarts was modeled and felt I was witnessing history.  I am sure that the content of her speech was news to most everyone there: it was all about the potential represented by empowering women to create growth and prosperity.

After the speech, Verveer took questions from the audience.  One man asked whether a bureaucracy dominated by women would be any more efficient than one dominated by men.  She zinged back that we really did not have the experience on which to make a judgment.  After that, all the questions came from women.  The last one was predictable:  “Given that power is never surrendered voluntarily, what is in it for men to cede position to women?”  As in every other question she answered that evening and at the panel the following morning, Verveer refused to be drawn into the usual traps.  There are data to show that empowering women economically reduces risks of all sorts and brings many benefits to all members of a community.  In other words, there is something in it for men, something very concrete and measurable.

Next morning, I was to moderate the session with Verveer, as well as Helena Morrissey and Caroline Anstey.  Helena Morrissey is founder of the 30 Percent Club, which lobbies for women’s inclusion on boards.  Caroline Anstey is head of the gender programs at the World Bank.  After the opening remarks, questions came briskly, leading the discussion to range from the role of legislation in lifting economic restrictions on women to the difficulty of balancing other political imperatives with the need to support women in places like Afghanistan.  There will be a video posted later by Oxford Analytica and I will provide a link.  It went well. Again, Verveer was asked a question that presented a typical, but false, dichotomy:  “Shouldn’t we be working on women’s rights instead of worrying about economics, especially if it means we have to work with the likes of Coca-Cola and Walmart?”  Once more, she simply refused to be sucked into this antique polarization of issues and actors:  she crisply explained the need to extend the resources of governments with sustainable systems—the kind of thing that can best be done by business.  Caroline Anstey jumped in with eloquent observations about the way economic empowerment gives women a voice.

Here we are just before the dinner, standing in front of the palace. Note shoes and coat! Can't wear these when it is raining.

The Global Horizons conference always ends with a formal dinner at Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the Duke of Marlborough and the place where Winston Churchill grew up.  I have been there as a tourist and was very impressed with the grandeur of the party possibilities (which is not usually the case with these often shabby and stiff European homes). Last year, I had to fly off to China before the Blenheim Palace event, so this year I was determined to go.

It was a beautiful night. I got to wear my velvet coat and sparkly sandals, neither of which can stand up to the usual evening-out weather in Oxford.  The entrance hall was glamorous, full of waiters running about with flutes of champagne.  Jim and I skulked around taking pictures of each other:  Jim with Winston Churchill’s toy army and me with the portrait and bust of Consuelo Vanderbilt.

The marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborough is known in England to have saved Blenheim Palace.  In the United States, hers was the glitziest among a stream of weddings that injected American fortunes into faltering aristocratic families around the turn of the 20th century.  I would have followed this wedding for Fresh Lipstick anyway, because Vogue was chock-full of the details, but there was another, more important connection. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s mother was Alva Belmont, a woman who had caused the biggest scandal in the Society of her time by divorcing Consuelo’s father, but then achieved the greatest social glory of her time by marrying her daughter to the very top of the British nobility.  Alva had remarried, this time to the fabulously wealthy Oliver Belmont.  When Belmont died, he left her one of the richest women in America.

This bust of Consuelo Vanderbilt reminded me of the leadership of her mother, Alva Belmont--the "Bengal tiger" of the American women's movement.

Alva Belmont used her wealth and her social power to further the rights of women.  She was a radical thinker and activist, supporting causes, like the Women’s Trade Union League, that would seem to contradict her social position.  She was the sponsor of the scholastic suffragists, led by Alice Paul.  The history of American feminism owes a great deal to the woman known behind her back as “the Bengal tiger.”

So there I sat, in the grand hall restored by Alva and Consuelo’s money, with its huge organ and glittering chandeliers, all the while rubbing elbows with the interesting and powerful people who come to Oxford Analytica’s event.  And, for the first time, women had featured as an economic topic. It was a cool moment on which to reflect.

Oxford Analytica dinner at Blenheim Palace.

At the end of the meal, OA’s founder, David Young, spoke of the spirit that infuses his organization, the desire to create good and justice in the world through the propagation of high quality information to key decision makers.  At several points in the speech, Young quoted Martin Luther King.  One of these resonated with the historical tableaux taking place in my mind:  “The arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice.”

It is a long arc indeed that goes from Alva Belmont to Melanne Verveer.  With each generation, we proceed a bit farther, but leave some work undone.  So it will be on this go-round, as it has been each time women have pushed their case forward to the conscious mind of history.  Nevertheless, I feel that this time has widened the scope to the world, has reached the most powerful as well as the least, and will set a new frontier that will mean new freedoms for millions.  The arc does seem, at this moment, to bend toward justice.



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