The female zealot

In a revealing interview, Harvard's Swanee Hunt explains why women should be more politically active and what she learned from her infamous oil tycoon father.

Ruthie Ackerman
November 15, 2006 5:28PM (UTC)

Whether working with mothers in war-scarred Bosnia or bringing together the world's brightest students as the director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, Swanee Hunt has devoted her life to increasing the participation of women in politics and peace activism around the globe. In her new memoir, "Half-Life of a Zealot," Hunt retraces the steps -- from her Southern Baptist upbringing in Texas, through the trials of her first marriage, to her life in diplomacy -- that shaped her as a woman, a leader and a mother, and drove her to politics.

The daughter of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, Hunt grew up with everything money could buy. But she realized young that in order to move out of her emotionally absent father's shadow -- and away from the scandals and intrigues that punctuated his life -- she would have to find a mission of her own. Hunt's father's money and notoriety -- as a conservative businessman and ardent anti-communist with suspected ties to the JFK assassination -- may have paved her way early in life, but she was unafraid to forge a divergent path, becoming a philanthropist and later an ambassador to Austria, from 1993 to 1997, under former President Bill Clinton. But though often intimate and revealing, "Half-Life of a Zealot" also looks past Hunt's own life to confront the challenges facing the world's women today -- from the global perils of poverty and poor healthcare to the more personal challenges that come with juggling kids and a demanding career. Through it all, Hunt's abiding hope is to engage women in the political process. Her message: Think big, ask a lot of questions, and know that you have a place at the table.


Despite the progress women like her friend, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi have made in the political arena, Hunt still worries whether America will be ready for a woman in the White House by 2008. But the sweeping changes of the recent midterm elections and the record numbers of women now serving in U.S. government give her faith that women will soon have more opportunity to positively influence international events than ever before. And even if it takes a revolution to change women's place in the world, Hunt is ready to lead it.

"Zealot," is usually a word we associate with fanaticism -- Why did you choose it for the title of your book?

I knew the word could be provocative. But I also wanted to make the point that we need to reclaim zeal. There are absolutely causes that we should be zealots over. We ought to be zealots over ending poverty. We ought to be zealots about having clean drinking water. We ought to be zealots about the fact that 30,000 children are going to die today.

I have huge admiration for people who sacrifice more than I do -- I really don't consider myself a model of sacrifice. I live a very, very, very comfortable life. On the other hand, if we could get everyone to do 10 percent more than they're doing right now we wouldn't have the problems we have. Our problems are not that there is not enough food and clean water in the world -- the problem is distribution. So really it is incumbent upon those of us who live such privileged lives to create the bridge between effort and results. Because there are hundreds of millions of people who put out effort and don't see results.

Have you seen any of the projects you've been involved in really bring about change?

Rwanda, which has a population of 10,000,000, endured a harrowing genocide in which one-tenth of the population was slaughtered. But today Rwanda is stable. What a turnaround. Its constitution demands that women be at least 30 percent of decision makers in every political structure. In October of 2003, women earned almost 49 percent of seats in Rwanda's lower house of parliament. Having achieved near parity in its legislature, that small African country is first among all nations in terms of women's political representation. And it is at the forefront of two international trends: the leadership of women in stopping war, and the use of quotas to boost women's representation. More than 90 percent of countries in the world have some kind of set-aside provision for women. Our work has been to document the Rwandan successes and challenges to use as a model for other countries.


You're friends with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the president of Liberia. How do you feel about the fact that a nation in Africa has elected a female president before the United States?

I am sad about it, but maybe it can serve as an encouragement. I believe it will happen here in the next decade -- even now, it's happening in Europe and Asia too.

Helping women has a cascading effect: Healthcare improves when you give them education -- and then the number of children goes down, which means there is less deforestation because the population uses fewer trees. Which means you don't have as much runoff and environmental degradation. All those problems are so interrelated -- and that's great news. Because it means you can attack the problem cycle from 20 different ways.

So getting women active in politics -- that will be the lever that decides everything else. Once you get women into political office in a certain percentage, they change the budgets of their countries. They take money out of defense and put it into education and health. The only question is, how long will that take? Because a lot of human suffering will go on until we get to that point. The U.S. is 67th in the world in terms of representation of women in Congress and parliament.


What advice do you have for young women?

There seems to be something in women's makeup that makes them devalue themselves and their abilities. I am not sure what the culprit is: Is it hormonal? Is it learned socially? Is it the way our brains are made? But women don't put their hands up in class at Harvard. They won't go to the microphone during our biggest assemblies, when there are three or four men beside every microphone. And these are the smartest women in the world!

So my advice to women is to be excruciatingly conscious of that tendency -- and to push past it. I know that may not be the way every single woman acts in comparison to every single man, but I think it is a majority. So know it doesn't mean you're a bad person if you have self-doubt -- and that it isn't only about you.


Do you think that behavior has affected women's position in the world today?

Well, if you take that and you apply it to women in politics and women in Fortune 500 companies, you notice we are so much more comfortable with the smaller things than we are with the big. And that may have to do with our illusions of ourselves. By far the biggest growth in the U.S. economy in the past 15 to 20 years has come from women-owned small businesses. So why are there only something like six women heading Fortune 500 companies? Small businesses are great, but there is something wrong with that. Why is it that across denominations the women are doing the work while the men are being messiahs, standing up there with the bread and the wine? The biggest challenge is thinking too small.

You grew up as a Southern Baptist. Does religion play a role in your life now?


I reject the idea of God as only relating to a chosen group and the idea of exclusivity in a religious faith. I think religion is used as a way to say that we have arrived, that we have somehow saved you from sins, that we have let you see the light. Something in that doesn't work for me.

You talk in your book about the challenge of balancing career and family with your daughter's illness and the difficulty of working to rebuild the lives of women after the Balkan war. Do you think you were ultimately successful at juggling a career and motherhood?

If anyone tells you they don't have doubts, they are probably lying. But maybe we ask ourselves the wrong questions. Maybe it's not: Did I balance it right? Maybe it's: Do the people around me feel loved? Do they feel like I care? Not perfectly loved, but are they secure in my love?

Every second of every day is a sacrifice. You talk to your best friend. You write in your journal. You tell everyone how sorry you are when they tell you how hurt they are that you weren't there at that particular moment when they really, really, really needed you. You're never going to get it completely right. So you have to give up on that need for perfection.


Is that what part of your journey has been about?

Absolutely. I was so judgmental toward my mother for not being there enough. But our lives are very different, my mother's and mine. Now I realize the time and effort I spent being judgmental doesn't help anybody. And the time I spend being anxious, wondering, "Am I doing this right?" -- that doesn't help anybody either. Guilt may be a very useful emotion, so let's not aim for a guilt-free life. But you can't obsess about it either. Figuring out how to bring yourself to terms, to say, "I'm sorry how I let you down," and to feel contrition and move on -- I think that's the journey.

You talk a lot about how wise your daughter has become after living with the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. What have you learned from her?

Over time, my daughter has gotten through the rage of adolescence, which is really hard when you're bipolar. The chemical imbalance makes everything feel more intense: You're not afraid, you're terrified; you're not angry, you're enraged.


But a few years ago, Lillian called me and said, "Mom, I know I told you you were a failure and that you were a bad mother." And she said, "Ma, you weren't a bad mother. You did what you needed to do. You lived your own life. What I will say is that because you gave yourself to other people, didn't mean you weren't giving yourself to me. You made a lot of decisions that I wouldn't have made. But you didn't do it because you were mean and you didn't do it because you didn't care. You did it because you were you and you were trying to be faithful to who you were, and be faithful to me, and be faithful to the world. There is nobody that can judge that."

In your book you talk frankly about your difficult relationship with your father. Did Lillian help you learn to withhold judgment of him?

Lillian read a draft of my book and insisted I repackage, reframe and look at the stuff about my father from a different point of view, over and over again. For instance, I had written a scene about the time Dad gave Helen, my sister, a brown wallet with the initials HLH on it, but it was a man's wallet. I ended by saying, "It was the only gift he ever gave any of us and it was a man's wallet." Like, "What a screw-up!" But Lillian read that and said, "Mom, that's such a beautiful story. He gave her something that was really about who he was." I realized I had been looking at the deficit model and she was looking at the profit model. Then all of a sudden I thought, "Oh gosh, this poor guy." Suddenly he became much more three-dimensional instead of just the withholding father who let me down.

Your write that "We aren't who we are through genetics, we are shaped by those we meet at the right split-second." Who did you meet at the right split second that changed your life?


Hillary Clinton. When I sat down and talked to Hillary for the first time, I felt like if we were both starting a company -- like I would have her, and she would have me, and one of us would be president and one would be vice president. Our brains went click, click, click, and we discovered that our values were similar, we read the same books. That was that moment that changed my life forever. She said, "I want you to be in the administration," and I went up and worked on the transition team and one thing led to another. She asked me to come to Washington and talked to me about what I should do for women around the world. I put together Vital Voices with women leaders around the globe and she came and keynoted it. Now Hillary is the co-chair of Vital Voices.

In your introduction you talk about carefully choosing what to put in the book and what to leave out. Can you talk a little bit more about that process?

There is some high drama that is not in the book because it would have been hurtful to the people involved. I didn't want to write this book at the expense of other people. I think that would be a really unloving thing to do. But I guess everyone makes those decisions when they write an autobiography -- that's why Kay Graham said if you're going to write one, do it when most of the people in it are dead.

Ruthie Ackerman

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