Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee kicked off the 2018 Women in the World Summit in New York on Thursday evening with an all-encompassing worldview on how to effect social change, bringing the wisdom she gained from helping to topple a dictator and end a civil war in Liberia to the social movements sweeping the United States today.
“It’s time for you to stop being politely angry,” Gbowee told CBS news anchor Norah O’Donnell in a sweeping conversation that moved from her native Liberia to the women’s marches in the United States last year to the young activists who have emerged in the aftermath of the shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Gbowee is best known for starting a movement in Liberia a decade ago that united Muslim and Christian women across the country to stand up to Charles Taylor, the notorious warlord who was then the president. She organized massive marches of women dressed all in white, as a symbolic contrast to their militarized society. Later, the women organized a sex strike, essentially refusing sex until the war came to an end. In part as a result of their activism, Taylor resigned and was later convicted of war crimes; he is now serving a 50-year prison sentence.
Gbowee said interfaith partnerships were crucial to the success of the women’s movement in Liberia, which included as many as sixty different ethnic and religious groups. Though Muslim women are stereotyped as “very calm, cool, collected,” she said, they were the ones who conceived of a sex strike. The women who started the movement agreed that when it came to being a victim of rape, there was no distinction between religion or ethnicity: If a man came into a roomful of women with the intention to rape, he would not discriminate among his victims based on religious or ethnic grounds.
In addition to interfaith unity, Gbowee said, putting names and faces to a movement is essential to a successful revolution. She stood in front of Taylor and demanded change. She was quite literally at the forefront of every march, the first to arrive and the last to leave. By putting her face, her name and her body on the movement, she forced the government, news organizations and others to address her personally.
Gbowee lamented the armchair activism of people who sit behind computers, hiding behind avatars and fake names. “In this country [the United States] today, it’s not difficult to start a movement,” she said. “[But] people are still sleeping in their beds comfortably. They’re still talking to the TV.”
That said, she found inspiration in both the women’s movement and the activism of the students from Parkland. When her daughter, who lives in the United States, worried that the march on Washington wouldn’t translate into actual change, Gbowee reminded her that change is incremental. “We are moving steps,” she said. “We are out here, protesting, wearing the pussy hats. Ten years later, my daughter, you won’t have to do it because you will be writing policies.”
Gbowee found even more cause for celebration in the efforts of the Parkland students to hold the government accountable for gun control policy. When she first heard about the shooting, as a mother of eight, her first reaction was simply to cry. But once she saw the students using social media to organize while also standing up and putting their voices and faces to their message, she did a twirling dance of excitement.
“When adults are still talking politics, there’s a group of young people who don’t sit behind the computer and don’t use pseudonyms. That is what revolution is about,” Gbowee said. “What those young people have done is show the adults of this country that we can no longer afford to be polite.”
Above watch highlights and the complete panel from the 2018 Women in the World Summit.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Nikolchev.