Fighting To End Gender Discrimination


By Masha Leon

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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At the International Women’s Health Coalition’s January 19 gala dinner, held at Cipriani 42nd Street, board chair Kati Marton said: “We have one foot on the ground in countries such as India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru… helping women… secure equal rights through grants that we give. Our other foot is in the corridors of power… from Congress and the World Bank to the United Nations…. Since 2001, we know that AIDS has a woman’s face… yet AIDS leaders, donors and policymakers alike still seem stuck in an old groove, attacking AIDS as if it were largely a disease that strikes gay men, drug users and sex workers…. We must declare zero tolerance for sexual coercion… child-marriage practices that are raising the rates of infection in girls and women around the world.”

Gala corporate chair Paul Fribourg, chairman and CEO of ContiGroup Companies, introduced keynote speaker James Wolfensohn — banker, philanthropist and two-term president of the World Bank. “When Jim got the call to head the World Bank, I told him, ‘The Israelis are going to hate you; the Palestinians are going to hate you; the international community is going to hate you.’ He took it on [and] got the job done…. Jim is a huge supporter of Israel… but he put himself in the shoes of the Palestinians. And he won them over.”

“It was my first speech in September 1995,” an avuncular Wolfensohn said of his Beijing trip to the Conference of Women. “Bella Abzug gave a 15-minute speech about my deficiencies…. She tore into me [and into] the World Bank… that we did not understand the issues of women. That we… didn’t understand anything…. But it had the effect of making sure that I never forgot women’s issues…. If Bella is somewhere in this room, thank you, because you changed my life… changed to a degree the issues the World Bank was addressing…. To me, the issue of the health and equality of women is at the core of peace and development.”

Glenn Close, actress-activist and dinner emcee, introduced New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. “The dominant moral challenge in the 19th century was to defeat slavery; in the 20th, to overcome totalitarianism; in this century, to address the gender discrimination in the developing world. That is what Mukhtaran Bibi is all about…. I met [her] in the middle of nowhere in eastern Pakistan. A village tribunal had tried to punish her younger brother for supposedly having an affair by ordering her to be gang raped…. [She was] forced to walk home nearly naked… her family shamed for life… the only option she had was to kill herself.… Well, [she] found incredible courage to live. She prosecuted her attackers, sent them to prison and used compensation money to start schools in her village. She was illiterate… but profoundly believed that the way to overcome the traditional brutality was through education…. She was feted at the White House. Today she rang the closing bell at NASDAQ and wrote her name in Urdu. [Despite constant] death threats, she is [returning] to her village.” With the help of a translator, a beautiful young Bibi read a poem that ended, “In the light of tomorrow’s morning, we will have to save our mothers, sisters, daughters.” Among the dinner guests were Kofi and Nane Annan, Betsy and Victor Gotbaum, Richard Holbrooke (Marton’s husband and a former assistant secretary of state), coalition President Adrienne Germain, Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker and New Jersey congressman Rush Holt, of whom Marton said “[He] always votes on the right side — that is, our side.”

* * *

Chelsea Clinton, Allison Aston and Jill Kargman were the junior chairmen at a January 18 party held at Bloomingdale’s to celebrate the upcoming February 15 School of American Ballet’s Winter Ballet Ball, held at The Allen Room, Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The evening also highlighted the school’s new partnership with Waterford Wedgewood USA, Inc., which launched its ballet collection of stemware and china. A percentage of the sales will benefit the SAB. Peter Martins, SAB’s artistic director and faculty chairman — who for the past 23 years has continued George Balanchine’s legacy at the New York City Ballet, with which the SAB is affiliated — “jetéd” between the 100 champagne-sipping guests and tutu-clad SAB students. Each year, the SAB auditions 2,400 applicants and accepts students from 30 states and 10 foreign countries. It has a 20% minority representation.

* * *

On January 31, at the Center for Jewish History, I heard handbag designer extraordinaire Judith Leiber speak about her life and work. (One of her handbags is featured in Yeshiva University Museum’s not-to-be-missed exhibit, A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry 1860-1960.) In her biographical overview of Leiber, YUM director Sylvia Herskowitz recounted how in Budapest, 18-year-old “Judith… was the first woman to be accepted into the Hungarian handbag guild, where she learned how to design and fashion a fine handbag…. Leiber bags reflect the intellect of their creator… their innovative design… exquisite workmanship… in fact, many are on display in vitrines in private collections.” Leiber spoke of how appalled she was to find that in America bags were made in stages by different people. “In 1947 there were 500 manufacturers, suppliers and contractors…. all within a few blocks of the Empire State Building, [and] people did not know of a ‘nice Jewish girl’ in [an all-male] business…. I went to [designer] Nettie Rosenstein, worked there for 14 years.” Then, with a little capital, she created her own signature. “I learned Yiddish from my workers… the political outlook was socialist with a smattering of communist…. There were Italians, Germans.… We sold to Neiman Marcus, I. Magnin, Saks…. One year the plating on a shipment from France was so poor, we beaded the bad areas with rhinestones… and the beaded bag was born! In 1957, I made a bag for Mrs. [Lyndon] Johnson; in 1960, one for Mamie Eisenhower, [then] Mrs. Nixon… Barbara Bush. Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush….. But competition from postwar Europe was the death knell.” In 1993, Leiber sold the business. “Do you regret it?” someone in the audience asked. “Not at all!” What she does regret is not owning some of her bags that are now in collectors’ private hands.

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