When Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, it was for “decades of untiring efforts” to advance human rights—also a hallmark of his US presidency from 1977 to 1981. At 95, he and his wife, Rosalynn, continue their intrepid efforts toward “waging peace, fighting disease, building hope,” the goals of Atlanta’s Carter Center, which they founded in 1982.
Author of 28 books ranging from memoirs to inspiration to politics, Carter recently toured the nation promoting his latest volume, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power. This latest work is rooted in a 2013 conference of religious leaders, scholars, and activists at the Carter Center. As they considered the obstacles facing the world’s women, Carter categorized them in three main areas: religion, violence, and power.
During his whirlwind book tour from New York to California, Carter was interviewed by Bill Maher, Diane Rehm, Stephen Colbert, Charlie Rose, Piers Morgan, and David Letterman. The amiable and unflappable world leader also took time for a telephone interview with St. Anthony Messenger.
Women and Religion
For a Baptist deacon, Jimmy Carter spends a lot of time with Catholics. He is well equipped to discuss the biblical view of women, since he has taught Bible classes at his home church for almost 70 years. He admits that there are verses that can be used to oppress women.
“My fallback on that,” he says, “is that there never was a word or an action of Jesus Christ that derogated the stature of women as they relate to men. But I know also—and I teach this regularly—that in some of Paul’s writings, he said women should not adorn themselves and women should not speak out in church and women should not teach men and things of that kind.
“On the other hand, Paul points out that all people are created equal in the eyes of God—men and women, slaves and masters, Jews and gentiles. Then, in the 16th chapter of his Letter to the Romans, he points out about 25 or so leaders at all levels of the early Church. Almost half of them are women. So my belief is that women, in the eyes of God, should be completely equal in their ability to serve God or to serve human beings.”
In 1979, during Carter’s presidency, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit the White House. More recently, Carter wrote a letter to Pope Francis. While its contents have not been made public, he says that he asked the pope to join him in efforts to end three global threats to women: female infanticide, sexual slavery, and genital mutilation.
Of these, Carter was asked which is most problematic in the United States. He was quick to reply.
“We have more slavery now than we did during the 18th or 19th century. The State Department is required by law to give a report on this every year. In 2013, they reported that 800,000 people were sold across international borders and into slavery. Eighty percent of those are girls sold into sexual slavery.”
In A Call to Action, he writes, “The enormous influence of the Church could be used forcefully to condemn sexual assaults, genital cutting, child marriage, inadequate pay for women, honor killings, and deprivation of equal rights for women in economic and political affairs.”
Carter reports that Pope Francis responded to his letter, insisting on “the need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.” The pope added that the issue of respect for women’s legitimate rights and dignity “presents the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be evaded.”
During our interview, the former president adds, “I just hope that all of us work together— Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, no matter what our faith may be—in assuring that there’s no mistreatment or derogation of women in their daily lives.”
It’s easy to see how infanticide, sex trafficking, and genital mutilation are acts of violence against women, but President Carter moves beyond those offenses to emphasize the impact of institutional violence. It is obvious that his book is also written in his heart as he reconfigures its chapters to address the power of violence to oppress women. He cites three examples: war, imprisonment, and the death penalty.
Of war, Carter is proud of his own military service in the US Navy toward the end of World War II and its aftermath. But he points out that “no boots on the ground” often means “high-altitude bombers or remote-control drones.” That “increases the suffering of the innocent and defenseless,” he has written, often women and children at home.
Asked about his encouragement of women in the military, though, he seems inconsistent. While he doesn’t support the number of recent US military actions, he does believe that women and men can and should fight side by side. Equal treatment—including the right to serve in the military—leads to equality in other areas, he says.
Counterbalancing the power of military service for women is the incidence of assaults. He says, “We had 26,000 cases of sexual assaults in the year 2012 and only about 300 resulted in any punishment levied against the rapists.”
Another institution where sexual abuse and assaults are “rampant,” in his words, is American universities. Carter says that college administrators don’t want the public to perceive campuses as places for sexual assaults. Thus, he says, “Only about one out of 25 sexual assaults on college campuses are ever reported to the authorities, because the administrators discourage this.”
Concerning the violence of imprisonment, Carter ticks off the statistics from memory.
“The United States has had a seven-and-a-half-fold increase in the jail population since I was governor of Georgia, and a five-fold increase since I left the White House. The number of incarcerated black women in jail has increased by 800 percent. This is worse than any other country on earth in the percentage of citizens kept in jail.”
Lastly, he bemoans the death penalty. “We are the only country in NATO or in this hemisphere that has the death penalty, which I point out as lowering the barrier of abuse against people who are quite often defenseless.”
In his book, Carter expands on this perspective, writing, “It is logical that any increase in societal violence will increase the incidence of violence against women. When the state acts in a brutal and lethal manner, this conveys to the community that violence is acceptable.”
Power that Disempowers Women
The link between violence and power is evident in the litany of power’s misuse in the offenses Carter names: abuse, honor killings, prostitution, sex trafficking, and rape. What is the worst abuse of power in the United States? The son of activist Lillian Carter cites discriminatory wages and advancement opportunities for women.
Carter says, “Just looking at the workplace, a woman who does exactly the same level of work with the same level of authority and education is paid 23 percent less than a man. Men employers, no matter how enlightened they may be on other issues, take advantage of the fact that they can pay women almost 25 percent less than men and get away with it. In the Fortune 500, only 21 have a woman chief executive officer. And those chief executive officers get 42 percent less pay than Fortune 500 CEOs who are men.”
Carter continues with quiet passion: “On college campuses, although women there comprise 57 percent of all undergraduates, graduates, and higher levels of education, they only occupy about 25 percent of tenured professorships. Those figures are not really changing. In fact, the 23 percent pay discrepancy was exactly the same in 2000 as it is now, almost 15 years later.”
In his book, aptly titled A Call to Action, he has more to say, pointing out the nations where women have been presidents and prime ministers, countries as diverse as Great Britain and India. Around the world, there are only 14 women heads of state, with Angela Merkel of Germany being the most prominent. In the US Congress, women hold only 19 percent of the seats, rendering the nation 78th in women’s participation at this level of government.
Toward the end of Carter’s treatment of power as abuse against women, he focuses on discrimination in health care. Although women in the United States fare better than in some other nations, the maternal mortality rate is 21 per 100,000 births, which places our nation “at the bottom among industrialized nations, despite spending more per average patient than any other,” he writes.
How Should People of Faith Respond?
Jimmy Carter begins the final chapter of his book by quoting Ritu Sharma, cofounder of Women Thrive World-wide. She says, “There is no religion that despises women. Hatred cannot come from the heart of God. . . . It is our minds and hearts that must change to release women, girls, men, and boys from the bondage of gender-based limitations or violence.”
Carter is a member of the World Council of Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela. This council, which includes three Catholic elders, including Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, devotes significant efforts to fighting discrimination and abuse of women and girls. The Carter Center (see sidebar) has an initiative— Mobilizing Faith for Women—which has 23 ambitious goals, including helping “scholars working to clarify religious beliefs on protecting women’s rights,” and reminding “religious leaders of the abuses and what they can do to alleviate them.”
“I am not a theologian,” Jimmy Carter says, but he observes that Jesus Christ exalted women. While he may be 90 years old, he is a vibrant, dedicated world spokesperson encouraging respect and equal treatment for women the world over. He builds on the foundation of the Gospels. Can any believer do less?
Sidebar: Has the Call to Action Been Heard?
The message for the 2015 World Day of Peace was “Slaves no more, but brothers and sisters.” It named human trafficking, trade in migrants and prostitutes, exploitation, slave labor, and the enslavement of women and children. This message was sent to all the world’s foreign ministers, setting out the Vatican’s focus of diplomacy for 2015.
On December 2, 2014, at the Vatican, leaders representing Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Orthodox, Muslim, and Anglican faiths signed a joint declaration of the Global Freedom Network. Its vision and purpose are to eradicate slavery and human trafficking by 2020.
Title IX, enforced by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), prohibits sex discrimination at colleges and institutions receiving federal funding. In April 2014, OCR issued additional guidance on sexual violence. In that document, inaction is considered a “hostile environment.” Nationally, more than 50 colleges are under investigation for discriminating against female students who file claims. A list disclosed in October 2014 included the Catholic University of America and Regis University among these probes.
In May 2014, Congress passed HR 49801, intended to prevent and address sex trafficking of children in foster care, to extend and improve adoption incentives, and to improve international child support recovery.
A 2014 report from the Inter-Parliamentary Union published statistics on women in legislatures. A sampling follows: Sweden, 45 percent; Germany, 37 percent; France, 26 percent; United States, 18 percent; Japan, 8 percent.
In some contrast, Forbes magazine reported the 20 most powerful women in politics in 2014. Of the 20, eight were active in US politics and/or government leadership.
In January 2015, Pope Francis, during a visit to the Philippines, said, “Women have much to tell us in today’s society. Sometimes we’re too macho, and we don’t leave enough room for women. Women are able to see things with different eyes than us. Women are able to ask questions that men can’t understand.”
Last year, Pope Francis named four women to a sex-abuse advisory panel. He included women in the Holy Thursday tradition of foot washing during the liturgy. Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras said he himself is backing more Vatican posts for women. He is in a position to make it happen since he heads a task force of nine cardinals charged with curial reform.
Sidebar: Peace, Health, Hope: The Carter Center
Thirty-three years ago, not long after the end of his presidency, Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in partnership with Emory University, founded the Carter Center to advance peace and health worldwide.
A nongovernmental organization, the center can boast success stories in more than 80 countries.
They are active in observing elections, furthering peace, assisting farmers, strengthening standards for human rights, and improving care of both physical and mental health by strengthening delivery systems, training, and prevention.
The Carter Center has led a coalition reducing the incidence of Guinea worm disease from an estimated 3.5 million cases in 1986 to fewer than 148 today, making it likely to be the first human disease since smallpox to be eradicated.
Carter’s latest book, on the themes of this interview, was inspired by a conference held at the center. Learn more at cartercenter.org.