The trailblazing work of Melinda French Gates, a philanthropist, advocate for the rights of women and girls, and fighter for gender equity, was the focus of Radcliffe Day on Friday afternoon, Harvard Radcliffe Institute’s annual event to honor a leader who has devoted their life to excellence, opportunity, and service.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the institute, presented French Gates with the medal in recognition of her work to ensure that every person has the chance to live a healthy and productive life. The program also featured a panel discussion titled “Achieving Gender Equity in the United States,” moderated by Drew Faust, Harvard president emerita and the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor.
Brown-Nagin described the honoree as “a leader who sees every wall as a door,” someone who has “improved the lives of billions of people.” She said the medal was given “in admiration of your many accomplishments and your continued work in pursuit of gender equity in the United States and around the world.”
Accepting the award, French Gates said she was honored to be in the company of past recipients and “icons of equality” such as the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, labor leader and Civil Rights activist Dolores Huerta, the late Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Their work, she said reminded her of a line from Harvard graduate and inaugural poet Amanda Gorman ’20: “Hope is not something you get. It’s something you strive to give. Hope, she reminds us, demands action,” said French Gates.
“I love that idea of hope in action,” she said, “and I have so much admiration for any woman with the vision to imagine a better future and the courage to use her life and her work to bring that better future into being.”
French Gates has served as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation since its inception. The organization, launched in 2008, has worked to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from extreme poverty and poor health in developing countries to failures in the American education system.
In recognition of their foundation’s work, French Gates and husband, Bill Gates, have received numerous honors worldwide, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Légion d’Honneur, and the two were named Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year in 2005 (with U2 frontman Bono).
As part of the afternoon events, French Gates took part in a wide-ranging discussion with financier David Rubenstein, covering everything from her earliest inspirations to what it has meant to her own children to see her fighting tirelessly for the rights of women and girls.
French Gates said she came to the issue of gender equity while traveling with her foundation. Constantly meeting women who were working outside the home trying to raise money to keep their family together or to help get malaria medicine, or an important vaccine, for their children, had a profound impact, she said. “I just couldn’t turn away from it.”
As part of the discussion, French Gates noted that women everywhere regularly do more unpaid work each day than men. “If you average that across the world for a woman’s life, it’s seven years of her life … we have to look at this burden this unpaid work, and we have to take down that barrier.” She said policies that spur economic recovery, including programs like paid family leave, are more vital than ever in the age of COVID, which saw leaving their jobs in record numbers.