Ruth Hobday, Geoff Blackwell, Sharon Gelman Discuss How '200 Women' Changed The Way They See The World

11/15/2017 01:57 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2017
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

I cannot think of a book more appropriate for our time than 200 Women. The collection features a response to five questions—the same five questions—asked to each of the 200 women from across the world with a variance of professions, backgrounds, and interests.

In front of a single layer of fabric, to be filmed and later compiled into a collection, the questions posed were: What really matters to you? What brings you happiness? What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? What would you change if you could? Which single word do you most identify with?

You will recognize some interviewees immediately—Jane Goodall, Alicia Garza, Alfre Woodard, Margaret Atwood, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Danielle Brooks, Lydia Ko—and others you will meet for the first time through their heartbreaking responses and empowering fight for freedom and equality.

The opening quote, “Ultimately, the lesson of creating this book has been that there are no ordinary women, and there is no ‘us and them.’ There’s just us,” sets the tone of the stories to unfold, even the stories of the creators, who now have a practical and enriching understanding of breaking the divide in humanity after the conversations with interviewees.

The Editors, Ruth Hobday, Geoff Blackwell, and Sharon Gelman (US Editor), share their journey to putting the project in motion:

The world is in need of such conversations to take place and the more we communicate and understand our sisters of various walks of life, the better off we will be. What conversation, text, meeting, or medium sparked the idea/interest?

Ruth Hobday: For the past twenty years, my business partner Geoff Blackwell and I have travelled around the world making and selling books about subjects that matter to us. We’ve been fortunate to encounter people with amazingly diverse backgrounds and uplifting personal stories, but we have also experienced countless examples of painful inequality. Over the years we’ve also worked on a lot of South African books and I’ve always wanted to do a book focussed on the women of the anti-apartheid struggle – there are so many unsung heroes, and women in particular in relation to that specific part of history. This, however, wasn’t to be, and as we travelled around the world our experiences in Africa reinforced just how many challenges women from every corner of the planet and every walk of life have to face, every single day and we decided it was time to do a book that truly celebrated women.

Geoff Blackwell: During the course of a trip to South Africa, I met a woman who is the same age as me, and also has three children precisely the same ages and genders as my own. She is from a township outside Cape Town called Khayelitsha, a place where many of the people that live there do so without power and running water. In talking with her I learned that she was born in the same year as me, and together we worked out the strange coincidence of having three children born in the same years, same genders, same order. This weird common ground led to us talking more, and after some gentle persuasion she told me a little about her life and children, and her greatest hope that they can live different types of lives to the one she has experienced. She described her life as ‘the typical African story’ and suggested I probably didn’t want to hear about it, but I persevered and she told me a little about her husband abandoning her and her effort to try to earn enough money on her own to get her kids to stay in school and maybe get to university, to break the poverty cycle and to change the course of her family’s life. She has worked six days a week for almost all her life but despite all she has tried to do, her kids all had to leave school before they were 15, and now in their 20s are all still living with her in the township and struggling to make a living. There was deep pain in some of the things she told me, and the extreme contrast with my own life and those of my children was unavoidable. Her story, told with grace, selflessness and stoicism deeply affected me and inspired the idea of talking with more women from diverse backgrounds, looking past the context of their lives and focussing on what really matters to them, their happiness and pain, and the things they would like to change.

Traveling opens up our minds to a world of possibilities and endless learning experiences. In what city or country did you change your mind about something relating to your personal life?

Ruth Hobday: I’d never been to India before and I found the poverty and corresponding gender inequality incredibly confronting. It was very apparent that the less the community has, the worse women and girls are treated, so I came away with a tremendous sense of gratitude and a renewed sense of never taking anything for granted. Every woman we interviewed was amazing in her own right. We all have a story to tell, and every single person should have the freedom to tell theirs without restriction or fear of reprisal.

Geoff Blackwell: As a New Zealander trying to originate books for audiences outside my own country, travel has necessarily been a big part of my career and life. I have lapped the planet more times than I could count during the past 25 years, but always stopping at the places where books are made and sold. This trip took us off the beaten track to places like Kolkata, Kathmandu and the earthquake-stricken hills of Nepal, places where we encountered poverty on a scale that is devastating to experience. In those places the level of inequality women suffer is extreme. I wrote to my family as we flew out of Kolkata and wept as I wrote to them telling them about what we had encountered and the deep feelings of sadness and guilt I felt that we are all not doing better.

What city/country changed your mind about the way you’d present/perceive the project?

Ruth Hobday: It hasn’t been a place, but the reaction of the contributors themselves. As soon as they started receiving copies of the book the messages of support and gratitude for providing them with a platform to speak has been overwhelming, inspirational and reinforced our hope that the time is now to have this conversation, particularly in light of concurrent world events.

Geoff Blackwell: Johannesburg, early in the project. Close friends of mine, women, interrogated me on the question of, “how dare I, as a white man from New Zealand have the arrogance and naivety to launch into a project about women.” Their questioning really rocked me and I started to have doubts about my involvement. But after a couple of days of agonising I decided to continue on the basis that fundamentally all I was seeking to do was listen, and who better to listen to women than men.

To what extent was it helpful to have a male assume such a large position in the fulfillment of this project about womanhood? To what extent was it unhelpful?

Ruth Hobday: As we went along it became very apparent that this is not a book about women’s rights – it’s about human rights – and in order to have a conversation about gender equality, both sexes need to be part of that conversation.

Geoff Blackwell: I think it had its moments both ways, but overall I hope the fact that Ruth and I conceived and developed it together will illustrate the positive possibilities that exist for men and women working together collaboratively to change the world.

Sharon Gelman: As a lifelong feminist, I imagine if I had had the vision to create such a book—rather than being brought on once it was already initially underway—I would have made it an all-woman team. Yet, in my experience of being part of this particular team, I can honestly say the men involved brought a great deal to the table. In addition to their professional talents, each one of them possesses a natural respect, curiosity, solidarity, and a genuine attitude of gender equality. They also, at times, asked important questions that a seasoned feminist might not ask, which, in turn, helps to make the book more accessible to a wider audience. Ideally, this book is speaking not only to those of us already on board the gender-equality train, but also invites and enables a wider swath of humanity—women, men, and agendered alike—to join us in this worthy and ongoing struggle.

With countless women in the public eye sort of taking on the platform for diversity and sisterhood, how did you go about selecting which public figures would appear in this collection?

Ruth Hobday: It was important to us that all the contributors’ stories were heard and so it was important to include a number of well-known people to help illuminate the lesser known stories. So many people from all around the world, but women in particular, are denied basic freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of access to education and in turn employment and economic independence, freedom of control over their own bodies and reproductive rights, and worst of all, freedom from violence, brutality and fear so to provide a platform for these stories was at the heart of the project.

Geoff Blackwell: It was less a process of selection than persuasion of the well known women we admire. The famous women in this project already have a platform, and I think understood implicitly that a big part of their role in agreeing to participate was about shining a focus on the stories of their sisters in situations or parts of the world where they struggle to be heard.

Sharon Gelman: There are surely thousands if not millions of truly inspiring and notable women around the globe, so narrowing our lens was a very challenging process. We were very mindful of aiming for diversity in terms of race, religion, age, ethnic and national background, sexual orientation, gender identity, geography, field of accomplishment, areas of focus, etc., which meant that there are woman we all greatly admire who we did not invite to participate only because it was a priority to be more widely inclusive. There were extenuating logistical factors that made some of the decisions for us: the photo and video team was only able to travel to specific countries and cities and they were only in those places for a certain number of days, so there were women we were unable to feature purely due to insurmountable scheduling challenges. A few outstanding women were scheduled and set but then were unable to participate due to sickness or unforeseen emergencies. In other instances, there were amazing women we would have loved to feature but their teams were unable to respond in time to meet our deadlines. Despite all of this, we are extremely proud of and inspired by the remarkable women who are featured in the pages of this book.

How did you overcome language, political, cultural barriers? Can you provide a specific example?

Ruth Hobday: We had a lot of contacts from our years making books around the world so in most places had a local contact who was helping us, and in a lot of cases worked with charities who benefit from the project and they would provide interpretation where we needed it. For example we worked with Bec Ordish who founded the Mitritaa Foundation in Kathmandu who suggested women we could interview and provided drivers and interpreters; Sarah Beisley in Kolkata who founded The Loyal Workshop and suggested local women to interview; the list goes on and on. Every woman we interviewed wanted to then help provide more contacts and help to reach other women to include in the project so it became a giant community along the way.

Geoff Blackwell: We worked with translators, but even in places where we didn’t speak a word of the language, we found it a privilege to listen to these women and to connect with them.

What now? What do you feel is now your responsibility after creating such an impactful collection? What do you hope supporters will gain after their reading?

Ruth Hobday: Our plan is to continue to publish more books with both the women we’ve already interviewed together with new women, and perhaps men, in various formats around the world. The first book will be published in USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, Australia, NZ, Germany and France with hopefully other languages to come. We’re also really thrilled to have three exhibitions in the works – one has just opened at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, and three more are planned for New York, Munich and Sweden.

Geoff Blackwell: Our hope is that this book can be like a talking circle that inspires us humans to talk about what really matters and truly listen to each other. I hope we can enlarge the platform and continue to add interviews with many more women, and perhaps one day men. We have a long way to go to gender equality, and we must get there. Talking and listening is fundamental to this.

A percentage of the originating publisher’s revenue from book sales will be distributed to organizations nominated by the women featured in the book.

To order 200 Women, click here.

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