Book: The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates (2019)

Reviewer: Bethany

Age/Genre: Biography

Reading Accoutrements: An internet connection! You’re going to want the World Wide Web handy so you can look up some of these issues and ways you can get involved.

Content Notes: Rape, Genital Mutilation, Sexism, Prostitution, Suicide, Murder

If you read our “Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2019” post, you might remember that I was excited about the prospect of reading Melinda Gates’s book. Despite the fact that it’s not my usual type of book, I was interested in reading it because of the blurb and because it was written about some of the work supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – specifically about the work they do to support women. The title of the book refers to Gates’s primary point: “If you want to lift society up, invest in women.”

The Moment of Lift is billed as a biography centered around Gates’s memories of her family’s philanthropic pursuits. While Gates certainly discusses her personal life in this book, she mostly reveals information about herself and her life to give context to the causes that their foundation supports. For example, when Gates first brings up the foundation’s early focus on family planning, she discusses the fact that she is a devout Catholic. Because the Roman Catholic church has been so adamant about certain forms of birth control and family planning, Gates initially struggled with what it would mean for her family – specifically her children – if they focused their philanthropy so strongly on the topic. Eventually, Gates reconciled her belief in the importance of family planning and her relationship with the Catholic church and she talks about that struggle and decision throughout the book.

While Gates occasionally injects personal anecdotes – like her struggle with faith and philanthropy – most of the stories that Gates relates in the book are not hers. In fact, a large majority of the stories she uses to support her primary argument are retellings of other people’s stories. Gates discusses the leaders of several of the philanthropic projects that their foundation supports, as well as the people whose lives are impacted by those organizations. On her many travels to see the work that their foundation supports, Gates encountered a myriad of individuals who taught her something new about the issues their foundation was trying to remedy. Sometimes, Gates told stories about fellow philanthropists doing work in a developing country who realised that their methods could be improved. Other times, Gates spoke about women who received aid of some form from a philanthropic organization who spoke up for themselves and the women of their community to improve their lives. As I read these anecdotes about other people, I thought that this book might be more accurately described as a “how-to” manual than a biography. In fact, several times throughout the book, I thought this was Melinda Gates’s letter to other rich people (who can afford to go to the countries and see the work being done), teaching them the best way to participate in philanthropy without getting a lot of negative press when it turns out they gave money to a corrupt charity.

The book is formatted as a series of short essays, separated into chapters that focus on one specific aspect of society that must be improved in order for women to achieve equity on a global scale. The topics range from family planning to ensuring education for girls to women in agriculture. While Gates seemed to stick to a vague timeline, bringing up each issue as she learned about the need, the essays tend to refer to each other to support her points. It isn’t uncommon for Gates to remind the reader of a story from a previous chapter and add to it. It is equally common for Gates to forewarn the reader that she will talk about a person in more detail in a later chapter. I won’t lie, that got a little bit irritating. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a simpler way to organize the storytelling so all of this back-and-forth could be eliminated.

Considering the fact that many of the stories in this book are told second-hand, I was surprised at how it impacted me emotionally. Granted, these are very emotional topics. It is hard to read about genital mutilation or young girls who are forced to marry violent older men. Not all of the stories that made me cry were sad, though. I found myself reaching for my box of tissues when the men in one town started toting water from the well daily instead of making their wives’ perform the task, because they realized how much work their wives did to maintain their homes. I laughed (albeit a bit cynically) when, soon after the men took on the extra work, the town started working to develop better water delivery systems, like irrigation for family agriculture.

While the topics in The Moment of Lift are serious and, at times, heavy, Gates delivers the stories with an overall tone and message of positivity. Yes, things could be better, but they are getting better with every issue we learn about and address. Gates doesn’t go into detail about the mistakes that can be made in philanthropic endeavors, but she does discuss some ways she has learned to avoid a few common pitfalls. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in learning more about the struggle for world-wide equity between genders, or in becoming more actively involved in philanthropy. 

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