John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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The Lysistrata Strategy for Afghanistan

Posted on February 7, 2013
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I went to the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner last night, where I had the opportunity to chat for a few moments with Terry Neese, an Oklahoma City businesswoman and the founder of the Institute for Economic empowerment of Women.

For those who don’t know, the Washington Press Club Foundation was founded in 1919 to help female reporters break into the newsroom as reporters.   A year later, the U.S. Constitution was amended to guarantee that women could vote in elections.

The dinner last night honored Lynn Povich, the daughter of the famous reporter Shirley Povich, who started his career at the Washington Post in 1923.  Povich was honored for her efforts breaking down barriers for women at Newsweek.  Incredibly, females were barred from actually being reporters at the now defunct news magazine up until Povich and some of her female colleagues sued in 1970.

Sometimes, things change quickly and sometimes things change very slowly.

Terry Neese has seen more than her fair share of change in a career that started when women were not exactly encouraged to get into the work force, let alone own their own business.

When she went to college in the late 1960’s, she majored in being a secretary, because that is what women did back then.  Now keep in mind, being a secretary was not an inconsequential job back before we had computers, iPhones, iPads and blackberries.   Being a skilled typist and a master organizer was much harder in those days, so just being a “secretary” sounds more demeaning than it was.

But the truth of the matter is that women weren’t encouraged to do anything else, and in fact, were actively discouraged.

Neese took the skills she learned in secretarial school, and applied them to opening her own business.  Undoubtedly, she faced her own obstacles in building her business.

But somehow, through hard work and determination, she succeeded, and her success allowed her to meet interesting and important people.  One of those interesting and important persons turned out to be Laura Bush, the ex-President’s wife.

Mrs. Bush and Terry Neese developed a friendship and a passion for helping women around the globe achieve economic success for themselves and their families.

And that is why Neese was in Washington, at the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner, sitting next to me.

Mrs. Bush convinced her to travel to Afghanistan to help women in that war-torn country build their own businesses.  Neese saw some tough stuff building a woman-owned business in Oklahoma City in the 1970’s, and perhaps that prepared her a bit for what Afghan women have to deal with on a daily basis in that God-forsaken land.

Through an organization founded by Neese, which would eventually be called “Peace Through Business”, Afghani women (and women from Rwanda), come to the United States to learn the basic of building a business.

A couple dozen women are selected from these two countries, provided a mentor, given instruction on business methods, and then sent back to their countries, usually with some low interest loans, which they then use to build successful businesses.

Neese brought her students in to Washington to meet with government officials and to learn the art of dealing with bureaucracy.   Hillary Clinton apparently was so determined to meet with these budding entrepreneurs before she left the State Department that she rejiggered her whole schedule so that she could spend an hour or so meeting with them.  Interesting, Michele Obama has expressed zero interest in helping out the program in any way, shape of form.

Last night, at the dinner to honor a woman who sued Newsweek so that females could actually get a byline in the magazine in 1970, Neese talked about a whole nation of women who fear for their lives on a daily basis, women who are barred from getting an education by Taliban extremists, women who have developed a complex system of hand gestures to signal when danger is coming.

And these women in Afghanistan are building successful businesses.  One woman business owner manufactures soccer balls in a remote part of the country.  Her biggest problem was transported the finished product to Kabul so they can be exported out of the country.  Neese bought the woman a big truck to help her transport the balls, most of which are exported to Germany.

Why Germany and not the U.S, I asked?  Good question, but is has something to do with our own government bureaucracy, and of course, the cost of shipping.

I asked another question:  What happens to these women business owners when America finally packs up and leaves Afghanistan?  She shook her head.  “I don’t know.”

This is the hard part.  America can’t stay in Afghanistan forever.  The American people are tired of war.  And they don’t want to spend our blood and treasure trying to bring the Afghan people into the 21st century.

I had an idea.  Instead of leaving these women behind, why don’t we bring them with us?  Our economy could use a million determined female entrepreneurs, women tough enough to brave idiotic Taliban brutes and smart enough to construct thriving businesses in impossible conditions.

If we leave them there, they will be abused.  But we must leave at some point in the near future.

Terry liked that idea.

In the Aristophanes play, Lysistrata, the female hero convinces her female brethren to withhold all sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers until the men decide to end the Peloponnesian War.

Perhaps by taking all of the women out of Afghanistan, we can convince the men who remain to join us in the 21st century.

Hey, it's a strategy.

Leaving these women behind sounds to me like a far worse one.