In an inspiring opening keynote on January 25, Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and author of a highly anticipated memoir, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, spoke passionately about her global campaign for gender equality, as well as her own personal evolution as an advocate. And she opened the 2019 ALA Midwinter Meeting with a call to action, urging her audience to recognize their power to create positive change in the world.

“The demand for gender equality is growing louder, and it is coming from all over the world,” Gates told attendees. “In the U.S. women are marching, running for office, breaking through glass ceilings. Around the world governments are starting to recognize that investing in women and girls has to be a priority. In other words, the engines are ignited, the rocket is rumbling, the earth is shaking. But I want to tell you that the moment of lift it is not inevitable—it’s just not. If we want to summon a moment of lift for women and girls, a moment that will lift up all of humanity, we all need to step up, every single one of us in this room.”

Over the course of Gates' 45 minute talk—30 minutes of which was in conversation with renowned librarian Nancy Pearl—Gates spoke about her own personal journey, from her traditional childhood in Dallas (her mother was a homemaker and her father worked on the Apollo missions), to her education in computer science and business (one of the few women at the time to pursue such degrees) to her time at Microsoft, (where she “met a guy at work,” and fell in love). Gates also spoke about her family, and her marriage to Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, including their working life together running what is now the largest private foundation in the world.

The heart of Gates’ talk, however, involved the issue of gender equality, and why, in 2012, the foundation committed significant resources to providing free, voluntary contraception to women in the developing world.

“I have to be honest, when we started this foundation work, gender equality wasn’t anywhere on my radar screen,” Gates told librarians. That is, until one day, while visiting a Gates-supported health facility in India, she met a young mother named Mina.

“She was proudly holding this baby boy and telling me about breastfeeding, and how she bonded with this child, and she clearly loved him.” But when Gates asked the young mother if she planned to have more children, things took a dark turn. “She said, very sad, no I don’t want anymore children. I can’t have any more children. I can’t feed this baby boy when I am finished breastfeeding him. I have no hope for educating this child. My only hope is that you will take him home with you. She didn’t know who I was. She didn’t know where I was from except for that I was from the United States. And her story crushed me. Absolutely crushed me.”

I believe in the power of a community of individuals to change the world.

After that experience, Gates said she came home and dug into the data. “What I found out was that 200 million women were asking us every single year for contraceptives,” she said. “And we weren’t giving them access to the basic tools that we use in the United States.” Later, when asked by Pearl, Gates confessed that, as a practicing Catholic, she struggled with the decision to support a global initiative to provide contraception. But she said she came to a simple realization: "I couldn't let these children die."

Helping to lead a coalition to deliver voluntary access to contraceptives turned out to be just the beginning, Gates said.

“I quickly realized that to speak out on that topic wasn’t nearly enough. There were so many more issues facing women, so many challenges that require our attention—maternal newborn health, access to education, unpaid work, child marriage, economic opportunity, workplace discrimination—these are the barriers we need to knock down, the doors we need to open and walk through if we’re really going to achieve women’s empowerment.”

In conversation with Pearl, Gates sketched out an inclusive vision of achieving gender equality, which, she said, has to happen in the home, in the workplace, in the culture at large, and which includes men embracing feminism, and equality. She also told librarians that writing her memoir made her appreciate more the work that librarians do—something Gates is intimately familiar with through the Gates Foundation, which over its 20 years, has granted over $1 billion dollars to libraries around the world.

“You remind us that facts matter. You challenge our worldviews, you bring communities together and change our minds through dialogue,” Gates told librarians. “And in this last year, writing a book, I’ve been again thinking a lot about libraries and I realize you do even more than that: you are the guardians of our stories. You protect our stories. You cherish our stories. You pass along our stories. And that is incredibly important in society, because it’s our stories that bind us together. It’s our stories that help us reach out and connect and that is how we learn and how we grow.”

Toward the end of their conversation, Pearl asked Gates how, with all she's seen, and given the daily barrage of bad news in the media, she remains optimistic.

"If you think short term you can definitely get pretty negative,” Gates conceded. “When I’m out in the developing world, I see a lot of very harsh things, and I write about some of these in the book, including female cutting, early child marriage. And I feel like you have to take it in… You have to let the heartbreak in, and feel it, and sit with it for a while and then you have to push back with action.”

Gates closed by reciting a favorite quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

“I believe in the power of a community of individuals to change the world,” Gates added. “That’s why I ask all of you, when you read the book, to think about your role in society.”

Gates' memoir, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, is due out in April, from Flatiron Books. The 2019 ALA Midwinter Meeting runs through January 29.