Tina Brown aims to fire up the women’s empowerment movement

April 1
Tina Brown (Photo by Jin Lee/Bloomberg)
Tina Brown (Photo by Jin Lee/Bloomberg)

NEW YORK – Tina Brown has never been a wallflower. She’s always been in the thick of it, even when things get tough, in her long, rollercoaster career. After announcing her break with the Daily Beast-Newsweek hybrid a few months ago, she unveiled her new invention, Tina Brown Live Media, with an eye to take the Women in the World platform she built five years ago and expand it across the nation and in the world.

Now, at 60, the famous editor is making herself over as a global women’s leader and a self-name brand, taking her show to Davos, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington and leading the drum beat to the 5th Annual Women in the World Summit on April 3-5 in New York City.

“This is what you’ve been seeing, Women in the World going on the road, and it’s very successful,” she told me earlier this month.

A hyper organizer and lavish spender, Brown produces a perfect alchemy, mixing glamour and razzle-dazzle (Angelina Jolie! Meryl Streep! Pussy Riot!) with the gravitas of world figures like Hillary Clinton (who has launched her own women’s empowerment initiative), Christine Lagarde and Samantha Power, and the courage of unheralded activists. That high-gloss format draws to Women in the World the sort of media attention few other groups enjoy. It is also a magnet for international corporations like Toyota, Merck, Bank of America, AT&T, Dove, the Coca-Cola Co., Walmart and JW Marriott, all opening their checkbooks to help raise their own profiles among women.

For Tina Brown and her team, all this works to advance the fight for impoverished, abused and oppressed women and girls whose hard lives and wrenching stories Brown brings to the Women in the World audience of thousands at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center and, beyond that, to the wider world.

“We’ve been alive for five years,’’ she says, “and yet all those people are attending, participating. And it’s really because it has grown in a very authentic way to be sort of the premiere women’s global platform for the dissemination of major people and ideas.”

Not everyone agrees. Brown has legions of admirers, but she also has legions of detractors in the media world where she has lived and mostly thrived since her early 20s. They poke fun at Brown’s grandiose ambitions, her capricious temperament and her ability to gloss over the millions of dollars she has lost running publications. Last September, the New Republic published a stinging parody of a flattering article about Brown in the Financial Times. The New Republic column mocked the pro-Brown article and countered with unfavorable published comments about her, like this one from Michael Wolff in the Guardian: “Her final Newsweek covers, of which heaven being real was one, were a desperate attempt to revive the buzz she was once famous for.” And a longtime critic, the British columnist Toby Young, said in The Spectator: “I would conservatively estimate she’s lost her backers a quarter of a billion dollars.” He accuses Brown of spinning her business failures as a success and calls her attitude “galactic chutzpah.”

Others question her on-the-ground effectiveness beyond the flashy production of Women in the World events. Last fall, trying to streamline a rapidly growing and unwieldy project, Brown asked the Washington-based Vital Voices to take over the Women in the World Foundation, a charity that raised $2.6 million since 2011 and made grants of $1.1 million, according to Brown. When the partnership was announced, Alyse Nelson, the president and chief executive of Vital Voices, told me: “Women in the World gets tremendous media attention. It’s one of the most, or the most, amazing gathering of women from around the world.”

Indeed, Women in the World exemplifies the achievements of a growing crop of women’s empowerment organizations in America and abroad. This spring, we’ve got annual galas, conferences, award dinners and other events celebrating, honoring and heralding women. The annual Catalyst dinner at the Waldorf Astoria on Wednesday, sponsored by Alcoa Foundation and Shell Oil, will bring together more than 100 CEOs and 1,500 business leaders to promote programs that have made a change for women and business. There’s Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinki’s “Thrive: A Third Metric Live Event” at the New York City Center on April 24-25, a tie-in to Huffington’s new book “Thrive” and featuring Katie Couric and Julianne Moore. There’s the annual Vital Voices gala at the John F. Kennedy Center in June, and the London-based Trust Women will hold its conference, sponsored by Thomson Reuters, in November. And there are smaller groups and solo acts that catch fire, like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which is a movement in and of itself.

Is there a danger of a glut? Don’t these groups appeal mostly to the same elitist demographic: pro-abortion rights, professional, feminist, activist? Are the program headliners overlapping from one conference to another? Are too many groups drinking at the same trough? Are too many pulling in different directions? Is there overkill?

“No. We can’t possibly talk about having too much,” says Jess McIntosh, the national communications director of Emily’s List, which recruits, trains and funds pro-abortion-rights female Democrats. Barriers women face worldwide are too big and numerous, and there can’t be too many groups working on behalf of female advancement, she says. Emily’s List shook off the mid-2000s doldrums and has since doubled its membership twice to 3 million people now. It has raised $27 million so far in the 2014 cycle, which is more than $5 million than it had raised at this point last year, and has added 30,000 new donors (27 percent male) to their rolls.

“I love it that we’re having these conversations,’’ McIntosh says over the phone from Washington, referring to the multiple organizations and projects for women. “We can’t have too many.”

The condition of women is the “transcendental global development problem” of our time and affects the “future health of our planet,” says an executive of a Washington nonprofit who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not speaking officially. She points at three major challenges facing women’s groups: One, men must be encouraged to be part of the solution; two, all the ideas and groups need to be placed under one big tent despite their differences; and three, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or UN Women, must get more financial support. “It can play a tremendous role.”

Small women’s groups like the conservative Independent Women’s Forum and the progressive Women’s Campaign Fund, both in Washington, may feel the big-foot shadow of Vital Voices and Women in the World. But no one is calling for fewer women’s groups.

Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, who recently stepped down as CEO of the Women’s Campaign Fund to plan her campaign for mayor of Allentown, Pa., has a quick two-step answer: “Women’s advancement is still very much a challenge. No wonder well-intentioned groups keep springing up. Solution? Coordinate which facet each will tackle and have at it!”

The Independent Women’s Forum, which focuses on women in business, has neither the clout nor the money of its progressive counterparts. Its $1.2 million annual budget is puny compared to, say, the New York-based Catalyst research organization, which tries to put more women in leadership positions and spent more than $12 million on programs and grants in 2012, according to Sabrina Schaeffer, the IWF executive director. “We are out-spent, out-numbered, out-researched,” she says. But she doesn’t believe there should be fewer women-centered groups. “If there is an audience, then there are not too many.”

For her part, Tina Brown seems unfazed by the bumper crop of fellow groups and draws a distinction, if not a distance, between Women in the World and the others.

“Women in the World is a global brand,” she says. “It’s a global platform, which is all about seeing the world through the eyes of women, and really bringing alive what I call women who live behind the lines of the news. It is not about wringing your hands about not getting the corner office or feeling that men are mean to you or feeling that people don’t treat you right at work. It’s not about that. It’s much more about how do I become a global leader, how do I impact my community, how do I lift all boats and in the process lift myself?”

“I think some of the success that Women in the World has had is actually encouraging others to try to do the same,” Brown says. “And the difference, as I’ve said, is that we are both a news platform” – telling women’s stories – “and a global platform. And most of these other women’s events are what I call empowerment conversations. It’s the whole question of how do I get ahead? And that is really not the formula at all for Women in the World.”

She sums up why she believes Women in the World has succeeded – from 300 people at the first gathering in 2009 to 2,500 now, in addition to millions of people worldwide tuned in via live stream, Twitter and other social media.

“I feel that in America now we’re becoming more and more insular, looking at ourselves,’’ Brown says. “And there’s something enormously enlarging and motivating to hear about the kind of challenges that women elsewhere are facing. Oddly enough, a kind of very interesting emotional exchange happens between the audience and the women on the stage. And they go out from our events saying: ‘Those women are so incredible. They’ve moved me so much. I’m asking myself, what am I doing? Should I be doing something? Should I be running for office? Should I be helping more? What can I do?’ ’’ 

That, Brown says, is “really is an amazing thing. I mean, I hear it again and again and again. That is really the power, I think, of Women in the World.”

Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, a former editor at the New York Times, is a magazine writer, columnist and author, most recently of “Before the Rain: A Memoir of Love & Revolution.” She lives in New York City.

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