Thirty-some years ago, women out to make a difference in the world sought justice and equality in terms of personal gain. But a process of maturation, nuanced by urgent new waves of globalization and communications technologies, has marked the transition from ‘I’ to ‘we’ causes, from political to media strategies. Women are fighting threats that are global and diffuse — viruses, poverty, planetary warming, and genocide— and those on the front-lines of change today are using stories as their weapons, not to fight so much as to win hearts and minds to their causes. Words, photographs, and images: these are the puppet strings of power.
Just how powerful are stories? A friend visiting Manhattan years ago reached the end of a long day of business meetings with her colleagues. She had her young son in tow and the question of where to have dinner came up. The boy remembered a terrific duck restaurant he’d been to before. Neither he nor his mother could recall the name of the restaurant, but the child, conjuring the ambrosial tastes and smells, felt sure he could find it. So five ravenous adults bundled into their coats and followed one child up and down the wind-whipped streets of Midtown for an hour until, exhausted, cold, and starving, they reluctantly settled for a table at the Olive Garden, the vision of duck still vivid in their heads. This is how human voices wake us: the one with the desire always leads, even more than the person with the sensible plans and the logical mapped-out strategies. In this case, the child had more desire than any of the adults, and moved them with the story of succulent duck.
That some of today’s most effective storytellers in the arena of cause advocacy are women is no coincidence: Many of them have had to be. For decades, women didn’t have the most powerful corporate positions or dominate the major seats of government. They are only now starting to earn their own mega-wealth, and with that new leverage, are learning to put their money where their minds and hearts are. Our four storytellers represent different generational voices and storytelling strategies, from the ground-level actions of a Millennial in her twenties to a Boomer with an eagle-eye view of the art of the imagination.
Like the boy who cried “duck,” they move crowds to follow their passions.
Harriet Rubin writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, (Doubleday, 1997), and Dante in Love (Simon & Schuster, 2005), among other books.