NEW YORK — Meryl Streep is fresh off her Oscar win for playing Margaret Thatcher. But she had an entire theater at Lincoln Center wondering if an even better role for her would be a political icon closer to home: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The question arose as Streep paid a glowing and affectionate tribute to the secretary of state at the Women in the World summit, an annual gathering of prominent women leaders and unsung heroines from across the globe that closed over the weekend.
“This is what you get when you play a world leader,” Streep said Saturday, hoisting up her best-actress Oscar for “The Iron Lady.”
“But if you want a real world leader,” Streep continued, “THIS is what you get!” Clinton strolled onstage at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ David H. Koch Theater, and Streep enveloped her in a hug.
The three-day summit, now in its third year, is organized by Tina Brown, editor in chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Besides Streep and Clinton, feminist icon Gloria Steinem and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, Brown harnessed the star power of Angelina Jolie, who came to read the words of Dr. Hawa Abdi, a Somali humanitarian facing danger from Islamist rebels there.
Also given star treatment was International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, who delighted the delegates at dinner Thursday when she suggested that the financial crisis might have been averted, or at least been much less serious, if more women had been at the helm of financial institutions.
“If Lehman Brothers had been a bit more Lehman Sisters … we would not have had the degree of tragedy that we had as a result of what happened,” Lagarde said.
She added that recent studies have shown “what the level of testosterone in a given room can produce when you do trading.”
Many global problems were addressed by the dozens of panels attended by some 2,000 delegates each day. But a constant undercurrent was an issue at home: the debate in Washington over women’s reproductive health care.
Clinton and other speakers referred, obliquely and not, to conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh’s insulting remarks about law student Sandra Fluke, who came under attack after she testified to congressional Democrats in support of their national health care policy that would compel her Catholic college’s health insurance plan to cover birth control.
The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, of Liberia, was the most blunt, saying women had been too passive: “Where are the angry American women?” she asked.
From Liberia to Egypt: Panelists discussed whether the Arab Spring risked becoming an Arab Winter for women, who were central to the popular uprising but now fear being marginalized.
“Tell people there is no spring without flowers and there is no Arab Spring without women,” said Dalia Ziada, Egypt director of the American Islamic Congress.
Other popular lines of the weekend included the definition of “glass ceiling,” from Jane Harman, the former California Democratic congresswoman: “It’s actually a thick layer of men.”
How do you puncture that layer? Kah Walla, a political leader from Cameroon, spoke of empowering women across Africa but added that in the United States, too, the level of female representation in politics was a serious issue.
“Every woman here needs to be involved with getting a woman elected,” she said.
The opposition leader in Israel, Tzipi Livni, of the Kadima Party, spoke about the nuclear threat from Iran. But she said she would not engage in what she called “megaphone diplomacy.”
“Maybe that’s something men do,” she quipped.
And Steinem had a good line – speaking on a panel about women leaders, moderated by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, she speculated on why some men feel uncomfortable with females in power.
“The last time a lot of powerful guys saw a powerful woman, they were 8,” Steinem said. “They feel regressed to childhood by a powerful woman.”
Yet men played a role in the summit, too, perhaps none more eloquently than Imam Demba Diawara, a village chief from Senegal. In a powerful discussion of the practice of genital cutting, Diawara, whose own family members had endured the procedure, spoke of how he had gradually come to understand that cutting was dangerous and sometimes fatal. He said he had since visited 378 communities to convince leaders of his view.
“By 2015, we will see the end of genital cutting in Senegal,” he predicted.
The conference came to a more lighthearted end with Streep, who spoke humorously of the similarities she shared with Clinton.
They’re roughly the same age, she said. They both have two brothers. They both had spirited, big-hearted mothers. They both went to women’s colleges and then to graduate school at Yale.
“But there our two paths diverged in the wood,” Streep noted, concluding that “I’m an actress, and she’s the real deal.”
Clinton arrived to deliver a call to arms for women around the world to get involved in effecting change. But not before expressing relief that there was one movie Streep had never made.
“I’m just glad she didn’t do a movie called `The Devil Wears Pantsuits,'” quipped Clinton, mixing the title of a Streep film with her favored style of clothing.