Leymah Gbowee is the bravest woman I know. Starting eight years ago, in the midst of the brutal civil wars that threatened to annihilate her native Liberia, she had the guts to stand up to the warlords with little more than a dream and a white T-shirt. Gbowee (pronounced BEAU-ee) persuaded Monrovia’s market women—a largely uneducated, totally unarmed group of moms and merchants—to stage daily sit-ins demanding peace. She promoted their own Lysistrata moment, convincing the women to deny sex to their husbands until the fighting ended. And one day she faced down the murderous Charles Taylor himself, announcing, “We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children, because we believe as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’”
“Peace is important, but any society that discriminates against women is not a peaceful society.”
I first learned her story in the award-winning film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which documents Liberia’s unlikely road to peace. When I later met her in Monrovia, she was honored as a hero. Today, at 36, she continues to defy the odds as a founder of the Ghana-based organization, Women’s Peace and Security Network Africa.
“Our biggest concern is policymaking,” she tells me this week, “so our daughters will not have to do the work we are doing right now. Yes, peace is important, but any society that discriminates against women is not a peaceful society.”
She ticks off some of the injustices women are still suffering on just one continent. In Nigeria, where an “indecent-dressing bill seeks to ask every woman to cover up regardless of her religion.” In Uganda, where an anti-gay bill threatens civil rights. In Liberia, where “maternal mortality is the worst in the world.” Across Africa, “parents who laugh at little girls who want to finish high school instead of getting married. I am now in a position where I can help change some of these dynamics,” she says.
Gbowee was raised in Monrovia by unusually enlightened parents, who urged her and her four sisters to speak their minds. At university, she studied social work—more useful in wartime, she thought, than pediatrics. “I wanted to be a peace builder,” she recalls. Her study of conflict resolution—especially Gandhi and King—informed her strategy in Liberia, which she constantly re-examines today.
“We realize there was a huge gap between the market women [in their late 20s to 70s] and the younger generation,” she explains, “so we’ve started training young women in leadership. Two of our students are presidents of their high schools in rural communities—they ran against boys!” She also realized that she and her colleagues were “always talking about peace, and never charting a political course for women”—a plan of action. So they are working now to get women into leadership positions, especially in the security sector. “One of our successes is the appointment of the first female brigadier general in the Sierra Leone army,” she boasts.
As the mother of six children, aged nine months to 17 years, Gbowee is especially interested in changing the political landscape, starting with the elimination of domestic violence. That begins at home. “I told my two sons, when they get married, I will give each of their wives a cane,” she says, meaning it. “And if they ever hit their wives, I’ll get them with the cane.” She herself was beaten by the father of her first three children. “It was a tough life.”
She worries that her new fame—largely as a result of the film—could compromise her principles. Among her many awards she has received was one presented last year by Caroline Kennedy at the JFK Library in Boston. “I pray not to be in that celebrity situation,” she says. “I constantly remind myself of where I came from.” How does she stay grounded? “By going back into the communities to work. They keep my feet planted.”
As for the broader landscape, the 2005 election of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, has inspired her. Yes, she will definitely run for office. “But not right away, maybe in two years,” she says carefully. “I’m still learning. I think it’s important for me to stay out there now and learn from other women, and get other women to learn from me. Because going into parliament is a huge thing, and I don’t want to go there until I’m well schooled in the issues that concern us.”
Did I say brave? Add to that, brilliant.
Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.