Former President Jimmy Carter spoke at the Memorial Church on Wednesday (photo 1). To commemorate Carter’s visit, Harvard Divinity School (HDS) Dean David Hempton (left, photo 2) announced the inaugural President Jimmy Carter Scholarship, which would be presented to an HDS student “working on and advancing studies of human rights issues.” The first recipient of the award was Karlene Griffiths Sekou (right, photo 3), a first-year master of divinity candidate.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

Jimmy Carter: Still driven

long read

Visiting Harvard, he’ll push policies guaranteeing rights of women worldwide

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, will visit Harvard Wednesday to discuss his new book, “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.” The book calls for a worldwide end to discrimination against and abuse of women, something Carter calls the “No. 1 unaddressed issue involving human rights.”

Since leaving the White House early in 1981, Carter has dedicated his life to promoting democracy, social justice, and human rights. He and his wife, Rosalynn, founded the Carter Center in 1982 in partnership with Emory University to “prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy, and improve health.” In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

His new book, Carter said, is part of the center’s ongoing effort to promote peace and justice and alleviate human suffering around the world.

Sponsored by Harvard Divinity School (HDS), the sold-out event at the Memorial Church can be livestreamed on the HDS website.

The Gazette spoke with Carter, still busy at 90, by phone about his book, his message, his motivations, his influences, and his time in the White House.

GAZETTE: What inspired you to write your book?

CARTER: We have had a major session at the Carter Center for the last 20 or so years on outstanding human rights issues around the world. And for the last three years, including this coming year, the main study has been the abuse of women and girls. We bring in what we call “human rights heroes” from about 40 countries. And they assemble at the Carter Center, along with Amnesty International and Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights … and also the United Nations’ leaders in the human rights fields to discuss these issues in some detail.

And it became increasingly obvious to all of us that the No. 1 unaddressed issue involving human rights on a global basis was the subject that I described in the book. And one of the things that concerns us most, and still does … is the lack of awareness of public officials and even ordinary citizens of how badly women and girls are mistreated on a global basis, including in our own country. So that’s why I decided to write a book, just to bring some attention to the news media and to public officials in the U.S. government and other governments. When I got through writing the book, I sent a copy of it to every head of government in the world, almost 200 of them. I’ve gotten responses back from, I think, more than a third of the leaders who read the book, they claim, and they are going to try to take action.

GAZETTE: You mention in the book how the distortion of religious texts in various faiths helps perpetuate sexual discrimination. Moving forward, how do you think religion can help advance women’s rights?

CARTER: I teach Bible lessons every Sunday at my local church, and I had been very active up until the year 2000 in the Southern Baptist Convention. So I have a personal experience with that: when the leaders of the Southern Baptist denomination decided that women should have to be treated as subservient to men, and that they could no longer serve as deacons in the church, or chaplains, or pastors in the church. And in some of the Baptist seminaries they even forbade a woman to teach a class if it had a boy as a student.

So Rosalynn and I publicly withdrew from the Southern Convention, and now we have a little church in Plains [Ga.] that has a woman pastor, and Rose has been a deacon, and so forth. So I knew that problem personally. … To abuse women — either a husband against a wife, or to cut the genitals of a little girl, or do anything else — if they believe that God distinguishes between men and women and ordains men as superior, it’s a kind of generic permission for the abuse to take place — or even when an employer wants to pay a woman less for the same work than a man gets. There are many things like that. A permeating factor is the misinterpretation of the Holy Scriptures.

GAZETTE: Moving forward, do you think the solution involves a better clarity on the part of different religions?

CARTER: Yes. This past session that we had, we deliberately brought in religious leaders from the different sects, and so forth. And one of the groups that had been most encouraging were the Islamic leaders. We had the grand imam of a large university in Cairo, who is also a spiritual leader of the Sunni Muslims, send representatives there, and he and I had discussed this earlier. In effect, the Islamic leaders declared and have written there is nothing in the Quran that ordains that women should be treated in an inferior way. So that’s the kind of thing that we’ve done. And more recently, since I wrote the book, I spoke to the Islamic Society of North America, which had about 12,000 people assembled there. And they asked me to talk about the subject of my book, and they brought in imams from around the world, and they prepared, with my help, a statement committing themselves to go back to their own mosques or constituencies and promote the concept of equality between men and women.

So we’ve had religious leaders continue to be involved, to do a self-analysis. I’ve also written Pope Francis about it and got a very nice letter back from him. The tangible comment was that he thought the role of women in the Catholic Church should be increased in the future, without any specifics. So that’s what we are trying to work on.

GAZETTE: Your book lists a number of actions that you are going to use to monitor and support women’s rights. Is there one thing in particular that you think is the most important in this global fight?

CARTER: Each thing can be the most important. One thing that we haven’t mentioned yet, in addition to religion: The other topic in the title is violence. I think if leaders in the world would look upon war and violence as a last possible resort to accomplish their national goals, that would be a profoundly important change. America is the most violent, war-prone nation on Earth. And we also have the death penalty in our country. We have seen the number of people incarcerated in prison multiply by sixfold since I left the White House, even. There’s been an 800 percent increase in African-American women in prison. So the imprisonment of people, and the execution of people, and going to war so profligately are major [reductive] changes that could be made.

There are some more specific things. As you may know, the U.S. Senate tried to vote earlier this year to remove commanding officers from being part of the decision-making policy about who in the armed forces could be prosecuted for rape. And only about 1 percent to a little bit more than 1 percent of the sexual assaults in the military are ever prosecuted. There were 26,000 cases that the Defense Department ascertained in one previous year; only 3,000 of those were ever brought to trial of an offender. So, you know, those are the kinds of things that are listed. I am just reluctant to pick out a single one.

GAZETTE: Are there other ways the United States can take the lead?

CARTER: There’s a law called the Violence Against Women Act, and it was sponsored by [Vice President] Joe Biden when he was in the U.S. Senate. But there’s an international version, sometimes called the I-VAWA [International Violence Against Women Act], that calls for the United States or any signatories to that commitment to use every facet of influence economically and politically to enforce the Violence Against Women Act against other countries. We have been very reluctant to do that. In fact, we haven’t done it. And so we have a very limited interpretation of this Violence Against Women Act, which should apply over the world. The United States hasn’t done it. And I’ve just pointed out to you that commanding officers in a ship, or in a Marine battalion or army troop, can veto any legal action against a rapist of women on his ship, and so forth.

Another thing that we can do in the United States: We have horrible cases of slavery in the United States. Atlanta is the No. 1 center for selling people into human bondage, because we have the largest airport in the world, and because a lot of the passengers who come into Atlanta come from the Southern Hemisphere, where women’s skin tends to be brown or black. And so there are between 200 to 300 girls sold into slavery every month in Atlanta. And we know that a girl who has brown or black skin can be brought by a brothel owner for $1,000, whereas a white girl, say from Eastern Europe, might cost as much as $8,000.

All this is in my book, but the point is that the State Department now is required to make a report annually, and the last report they made was that there are 60,000 people living in bondage in the United States of America. And part of this is caused by the distorted way we treat brothels, or houses of prostitution, or whorehouses. In the United States, there are 25 women arrested for every man, and we know that men are the ones who own the brothels, they serve as pimps, and they’re the customers. I wrote almost a whole chapter of how Sweden has set a model of doing this the opposite [way]. Sweden doesn’t prosecute girls who are prostitutes, but they prosecute the brothel owners, the pimps, and the male customers. And countries are now moving toward that.

I have written letters, for instance, to Ireland and to France and to Canada, to the leaders of the parliaments there, and I would say that there’s a very good chance that all three of those countries will adopt the Swedish model. So those are the kinds of things that the United States could do. There’s not a brothel in Boston or Atlanta that is in operation that is not known by the local police, and the mayor and the city council. They know what’s going on, and the policemen who walk the block are either bribed or get free sexual favors, and their chief of police and their mayor and city council know it’s going on, so we just accept that with, I guess, with nonchalance. And for us to realize that about 80 percent of all people sold into slavery across borders are girls who are sold into sexual slavery … I am inclined to ramble on when I get started on that, as you can tell.

GAZETTE: Shifting gears, I wonder if you could tell me if you had in your own life a strong female figure when you were young, and also later in life?

CARTER: I grew up in an isolated place about two and a half hours from where I am now in Plains, Ga. Plains has a population of about 630, and in Archery, Ga., where I grew up, I didn’t have any white neighbors. All my neighbors were black neighbors. It was during the segregation days. I grew up in the ’30s and ’40s, before I went off to college. Anyway, my mother was a registered nurse, and she paid no attention to racial discrimination. She served the black people primarily, and she was very strong and working to help the African-American women have a better life.

In fact, she would go on private duty after my father got a little more affluent. At first she just worked in the hospital for $4 a day for 12 hours. And then later, she began to work among the black families around the rural community where I lived. And she would spend 20 hours a day in the home. And if a woman was sick, mother would cook the food, and so forth, for the family. She only came home at night at 10 o’clock, and had four hours off. And she would wash her uniform and take a shower and leave instructions for me and my two sisters what to do the next day. And then she would go back on duty at 2 o’clock in the morning. So my mother was a powerful factor in my life concerning human rights and civil rights, and I would say had the most influence on my life in the future.

GAZETTE: And I know Rosalynn has been a key influence.

CARTER: Rosalynn, of course, is a very strong and sometimes dominant woman [laughs]. Rose is a full partner with everything I do at the Carter Center. She participates in all these events concerning human rights and women’s rights, and in addition to that, I’d say that Rosalynn has been the world champion of our mental health, and also has a major organization in our nearby university that promotes the concept of caregiving. Almost everybody in the world has either been a caregiver or is going to be a caregiver, or is going to be receiving the support of a caregiver. A caregiver, as you know, is someone in a family who has to take care of another family member or loved one who has Alzheimer’s or perhaps a disabled child. So Rosalynn does all those things. So my mother and Rosalynn have obviously been the two most powerful factors in my attitude towards women.

GAZETTE: What was the White House like when you were there? Did women have an equal place at the table?

CARTER: Well, I saw when I went into the White House that women had been deprived of a chance to serve. I think when I was elected only 3 percent of the members of Congress were women. Of course, I couldn’t do anything about that as president, but I worked very hard to try to get the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution passed. Rosalynn and I called hundreds of legislators in state houses, including Boston and so forth, during that time. We were not successful … and the Equal Rights Amendment did not pass. But I had the chance to appoint women judges and diplomats to foreign countries. And the number of women judges whom I appointed to the federal bench, to the district and appellate courts, exceeded the total number of women appointed by all the previous presidents in history. And I brought in key women to help me inside the White House and also had very top and highly influential women in my cabinet.

GAZETTE: How do you see the landscape for women in politics today?

CARTER: I think most presidents have continued on to do what I did. After I served, I think Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and others have continued to appoint women to high positions. And now we have the most women serving in the U.S. Congress in history, with this most recent election. … It would be about 100 out of about 540. Last election, it was 15 percent. The world average, by the way, is 23 percent, so the United States is well behind what other countries are doing on the average.

GAZETTE: What do you think is part of the solution in boosting that percentage in the United States?

CARTER: The percentages include local and state offices as well as the federal government. Some areas have gone backwards. I give the example of Los Angeles, which used to have six women … and when I wrote the book it only had one. So it goes up and down in local government. I think if we convince the American electorate — and other countries as well — that women are being deprived in the pay that they receive, and in their positions in the corporate world, and in the military, and in freedom from sexual abuse on campuses, and things of that kind, then I think there will be natural evolution toward more women being involved in politics and being successful.

GAZETTE: Can you tell me what guides your work and your life?

CARTER: I was a submarine officer. I served in the military for the first 12 years of my adult life, at the Naval Academy and then on battleships and submarines. And then I retired from that, and I was a full-time farmer for 17 years. And then I was elected governor. I would say I have a natural inclination to public service, as a pleasant and exciting and challenging and adventurous thing to do. Nowadays, Rose and I spend almost all of our time working on the affairs of the Carter Center. The result of this book is just one of many things that we do.

We’ve had programs in 80 foreign countries at the Carter Center and now more than 50 percent of our total budget and personnel are devoted to addressing the problem of what the World Health Organization calls neglected tropical diseases. So we go into the most remote villages in the desert areas, primarily of Africa and also of Latin America, and try to alleviate people’s suffering.

We also monitor elections around the world in troubled countries. We just finished our 98th election last week; we’ll do our 99th election this week, which will be in Tunisia. We monitored the election for the Tunisian parliament, and we will monitor the election for the Tunisian president this week, as a matter of fact. So we do those kinds of things. We try to bring peace to people who go to war with each other, and negotiate personally, and help with my staff.

GAZETTE: Since you left the White House, you have worked on behalf of democracy throughout the world. Where do you think things stand, in light of resurgent Russia and the outcomes of the revolutions in the Middle East?

CARTER: It goes up and down. We’ve seen in my life, since I left the White House and while I was in the White House, a major surge of pro-democracy in Africa, where the colonial powers withdrew, and we saw an end to apartheid in Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe], and also in South Africa. Unfortunately, though, some of the revolutionary commanders who are elected president, once they get into office, they modify the constitution or the laws to permit them to stay in office. And that is a permeating problem in Africa that the Carter Center and others try to address by urging their leaders to step down at the end of their legal terms, and so forth.

So the so-called Arab Awakening or Spring started in Tunisia, and we’ve been deeply involved in Tunisia. Last year, my wife was in Tunisia to monitor the election, and usually she and I both go. We have been in Egypt for four elections. We just withdrew from Egypt earlier this year because there’s no hope for any sort of democratic process to be implemented during this upcoming election, so we are not going to be involved in that. We’ve seen other places, though, do quite well. We just did an election in Mozambique, and also in Madagascar, and earlier in Ghana, so all over Africa we are trying to help. And we have been deeply involved in Latin America and other places.

So I think that the world trend has been toward democracy. The largest Muslim country on earth adopted democracy back in the 1990s and the Carter Center was the only monitor of the election in Indonesia. So there’s been a strong trend in the last 20 or 30 years toward democracy, but some retro-aggression as powerful leaders decide to stay in office.

GAZETTE: What do you think the most misunderstood thing is about your time as president?

CARTER: I think the most misunderstood thing was that my human rights policy was looked upon as kind of a weak policy. But I thought — obviously I am talking subjectively now — it takes a lot of courage for a leader to insist on peace instead of war, and emphasize the rights of people who are not influential. So we implemented this policy in Latin America, for instance. And when I became president, almost every country in South America, two-thirds of them were military dictatorships, and also in Central America … and partially because of America’s adoption of my human rights policy, every one of them became a democracy.

So I think that’s one of the things that I believe was most misunderstood. And, of course, I think my peaceful effort to get our hostages home from Iran and not resort to armed conflict was also interpreted as kind of a weakness. But I was able to keep our country at peace for four years, and I don’t think it was a sign of weakness. But it was one of the causes of my lack of re-election.

GAZETTE: Recently, a book came out chronicling your efforts to achieve the Camp David Accords [outlining Middle East peace]. What is the most important thing that people should know about that achievement today?

CARTER: The absolute necessity of America playing a key, and crucial, and very powerful role. The participants — there was conflict between Israel and Egypt in my time and between the Palestinians and Israel now — their issues cannot be resolved by the people themselves because each side thinks they are right and the other is unworthy as human beings. And unless the United States is willing — including the president — to get deeply involved, we are not going to have any real progress.

Click here to read coverage of Carter’s talk, “An Evangelist of Justice,” at the Memorial Church.