Source: New York Times

LONDON — On a balmy morning in May 2007, Annie Lennox was in her west London garden, drinking tea with her right-hand woman Tara Goldsmid and Claire Lewis, who runs celebrity ambassadors for the charity Oxfam.


They were brainstorming about a new female forum the former Eurythmics star wanted to create. Something global. Something long-term. Something connecting women who have it all with women who have barely anything.


What would such a group be called? They joked: A flock of women? A school of women? A pride? A mob? “I know,” Ms. Lennox cried. “A circle! No sharp edges, no hierarchy, just a circle of women.”


Less than a year later, The Circle was launched as an intimate web of 16 influential women that has grown into a network of 150-plus, raising more than £1.1 million, or $1.72 billion, for women’s projects around the world.


Celebrity philanthropy is neither new nor particularly female. The Beatles donated to Oxfam in the 1960s. Rockstars like Bono of U2 and Bob Geldof have campaigned for poverty relief in Africa for more than a decade. High-profile business leaders like Bill Gates have made billions available to development-related causes.


Ms. Lennox and her Circle embody another trend: As more women acquire the financial muscle to support a cause, they seem to feel a special pull to help other women — and get actively involved in the process. Their empathy with less fortunate sisters, often rooted in shared female experiences like motherhood or the stubborn barriers to gender equality that persist from Pakistan to the United States, is quietly blurring the traditional line between donors and activists.


On Forbes’s list of the world’s biggest givers — individuals who have donated at least $1 billion — all 19 are men. Bill Gates leads the pack at $28 billion.


Lower down the scale, women are more likely to give and give more than men, according to a 2010 report by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University. The number of campaigns and foundations run by and for women has risen rapidly. If in 1985 there were only 32 dedicated women’s funds in the world, today there are at least 165, spanning 27 countries on six continents, according to Women Moving Millions, a group of 160 donors who each pledge at least $1 million to empower women and girls.


This international sisterhood is still evolving, at times feeling almost a little too fashionable, like a must-have handbag that fades from favor next season. But by effectively making the battle for gender equality a global one it has created an ambitious new frontier for 21st century feminism, “roll-up-your-sleeves feminism,” as Ms. Lennox says.


In many ways, Ms. Lennox was a feminist icon before she was a feminist.


In 1985, sporting a man’s suit and peroxide blond crew cut, she roused teenage girls with “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” giving “the conscious liberation of the female state” her husky soul treatment.


“Mothers, daughters, and their daughters too, woh yeah,” she roared. “Woman to woman, we’re singing with you.”


But if her outfit was a conscious statement — “to show people that my partner and I were equals” — off-stage feminism still intimidated her. “I didn’t identify enough to be a fully paid up member,” she recalled one recent afternoon in a soft Scottish burr. “I liked putting on lipstick. I somehow thought that disqualified me.”


At 57, Ms. Lennox still has the chiseled androgynous look that was the hallmark of her 1980s stage persona but she “no longer has any issue with that word — except that so many still have an issue with that word.”


At a ceremony in 2010, where she received the Barclays Woman of the Year award, she asked those in the mostly female audience who considered themselves feminists to stand up. Half the room stayed seated. Shocked, she created Equals, a campaign for gender equality grouping 26 organizations, and raised money with two charity concerts.


This spontaneous compulsion to “do something” is characteristic of Ms. Lennox. Scoffing at words like charity and philanthropy, she is, in the most literal sense, an activist.


“I see myself as a musician, a campaigner, a mother,” she said describing how she came to invest fame, time and money in many causes — most notably helping HIV-infected women and children in developing countries.


In that journey, motherhood has been a powerful ingredient.

In Ms. Lennox’s local cafe, on trendy Portobello Road, the conversation now turns personal. Before having her two daughters, she had a stillborn son in 1988. If she feels for women in South Africa or Malawi who fear losing their children more than their own life, it is also because she knows both: the joy of seeing a child grow up and thrive — and the pain of losing one.


“It throws your life upside down. You’re stunned like a truck just hit you. You can’t believe this just happened,” she said. “It really brings home the temporariness of life. But that is the everyday reality for so many women in the world.”


In 2003, after meeting then President Nelson Mandela in South Africa, she went to the townships to visit AIDS victims — many of them women and children. It was there that she decided to dedicate resources and her star power to this cause. “It found me as much as I found it,” she says.


Growing up in a two-bedroom apartment in Aberdeen, Scotland, Ms. Lennox always thought she knew what poverty was. Her father worked in a shipyard, her mother was a cook. Playing in a school orchestra at 11, her flute was held together with elastic bands.

“I don’t come from a wealthy background. We were working-class,” she said. “But seeing chronic generational poverty in Africa is something else. Your reference points shift.”

As a performer, Ms. Lennox can be daring, exuberant, playful even. She relished the fact that her masculine outfits in the 1980s had people wondering about her sexuality — she is not gay — because in one small way she had challenged stereotypes. More recently, when she sang for Queen Elizabeth II at the diamond jubilee celebrations, she sang “There Must Be an Angel” wearing a pair of outsize feathery wings.


In life, Ms. Lennox is as deliberate, but far more earnest in airing her views. “We were horrified by the Holocaust,” she noted. “But the genocide that goes on on a daily basis, wiping out women and children — illness, poverty, rape as a weapon of war. This is not fiction. Where is the value of a women’s life?”


Although she says “I was always in the glass-half-empty category,” she clearly believes change is possible.


In 1999 she donated the proceeds of a Eurythmics reunion tour to Greenpeace and Amnesty International. A year later she worked with Amnesty to lobby for the release of a Tibetan ethno-musicologist from a Chinese jail.


She has recorded an album of Christmas carols and written two songs entirely for charity. In 2007 she set up the SING campaign, a charity aimed at preventing the spread of the HIV virus. The main beneficiary has been the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa.


A century or so ago, few wealthy women supported the suffragette movement, and many made donations to institutions that actually discriminated against women, like their husbands’ universities, historians of philanthropy note. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, wealthy female donors often shied away from female causes.


But in the past decade, said Jacki Zehner, chief executive of Women Moving Millions, “gender equality has moved from the margin to the center of the political debate — it’s no longer considered strange to invest in women and girls. It’s considered smart and actually kind of cool.”


So cool that at times stars find themselves under scrutiny for championing a cause, accused of either opportunism, naïveté or vanity.


“The general concern is that celebrities take up a lot of time, it’s all about them, it’s resource intensive,” said Kenneth Roth, President of Human Rights Watch. But several stars he has come across are credible spokespeople for their cause, he said, citing Angelina Jolie and George Clooney.


At Oxfam, where Ms. Lennox has been a celebrity ambassador since 2007, Ms. Lewis said that the rock star is as knowledgeable about HIV as any Oxfam activist.


“She is definitely not some bored or image-conscious celebrity,” Ms. Lewis said. “When you’ve won a Grammy and an Oscar you don’t need to polish your image.”


Ms. Lennox acknowledged “there is a sort of fatigue” with celebrities. “It’s always Bono or Bob. Africa and the rock stars again,” she sighed, and paused. Then her piercing blue eyes look up and her left index finger shoots forward. “But if it wasn’t for the stars, you wouldn’t be there,” she said of the media. “Would you show up for the thousands of NGO workers trying to draw attention to a cause?”


Women have a special role to play in changing the world, Ms. Lennox said. “We are mothers. We are the portals. The next generation comes through our bodies.”