A Woman For All Seasons. Raised in a family where men worked hard and women knew their place, Swanee Hunt understood early on that to make a difference, she would have to fight constraints that governed everyday life. In the end it came down to less a struggle of will and more a conviction of righteousness and steadfastness. Hunt, daughter of oil baron H.L. Hunt and an heir to the Hunt family fortune, has toiled tirelessly to make her mark in a man’s world, bringing hundreds of thousands of other women along on her journey. Much of her work has been through The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, an organization formed by a group of visionaries who understood that collectively women of influence could wield power that a woman standing alone could only imagine. Long an icon in Denver’s giving circles, Hunt is so much more than a philanthropist who writes a check and moves on to the next charity of choice. She becomes ensconced in a cause and, on occasion, has created the cause itself when the need existed but the mechanism was not yet in place.
Take, for instance, her tenure as President Clinton’s United States ambassador to Austria, which led to a complete redefining of the atrocities being faced by women and their families in Bosnia. “Here I was living in Vienna, yet a horrible war was being waged next door. It was a call to action for me,” she recalls. Hunt uses the following example to aptly describe how the war affected her on a personal level: “How can you be living in Topeka and know there is a horrible war taking place in Amarillo? And then say, ‘Thanks, I’ll have another piece of Sacher torte’? There were 70,000 refugees straining across the border, and it was unlike anything I could have imagined,” she says. This revelation was in 1994, and it is chronicled in two works of nonfiction that were penned by Hunt. The first, This Was Not Our War, describes the efforts of 26 Bosnian women representing all facets of society who are united in a common struggle to rebuild their fractured society. The second book, Half-Life of a Zealot, provides stunning autobiographical revelations about the events that shaped the life of this remarkable woman, including candid portraits of her family in all its stages.
What emerges from her writing is a clear picture of a woman with a lifelong passion for lifting the less fortunate to a higher level, a woman who refuses to take no for an answer and who looks at every obstacle as a challenge that must be met and overcome. Now in her late 50s, Hunt shows no sign of slowing down, and in fact was a major presence at the recent Democratic National Convention, where she hosted a stimulating daylong event called Unconventional Women. The nonpartisan conference featured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and was designed to inspire future generations of women leaders. Her actions speak so much louder than her words, which in themselves are more powerful than those of the most dynamic orator. Her voice is a commanding presence: wellmodulated and confident and filled with warmth that commands a room and holds those around her in rapt attention. “Whatever I’ve tried to do in my life has been about change,” she explains. One of the more telling examples of her passion to set things right occurred in 1994, when in her role as ambassador she was asked to host negotiations between leaders of Bosnia and Croatia, then in the midst of a brutal conflict that had killed or displaced more than 2 million Bosnians. Hunt took the burden upon her shoulders, and today still wonders, “How could I have let that happen? There are very powerful forces of exclusion, and we don’t even see them. It means that those of us who care about long-term systemic change have to take this on as part of our mission to ensure women’s voices are fully heard. There must be leadership, and we can never assume anything. In any change there are certain people who, because of their experiences or their hard wiring, are willing to be in the first 3 percent. Others must be convinced, but they will be willing to be in the next 10 percent. But others will not join until the masses are involved.”
But change can occur, Hunt believes, if in the end there are enough believers who will step up and fight. “The leaders in any fight are the ones who are willing to step up and say the unpopular while others stick to the safer ground. It doesn’t matter what topic you’re talking about, but it really must be looked at through a gender lens, and the question must be asked, ‘Will this affect women differently than men?’ This brings a different weight to any question, regardless of the subject,” she says. During her years with the Clinton administration, Hunt met and interacted with some of the country’s most influential women, including first lady Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Pamela Harriman and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Whether these women were the impetus for Hunt’s zeal to place women as part and parcel of the political process, or whether they are simply affirmation of women’s potential, is not the issue. What is much more telling is her unwavering commitment to boost the number of women in high places, in business, in public policy, anywhere they can make a difference.
“What this means is we can’t just throw up our hands and say, ‘We lost that battle, so be it.’ Instead we must say that whether it is attributable to external or internal reasons, women are less confident, and we need to understand what it will take to bolster that confidence,” she says. One way to empower these women, Hunt believes, is to make sure they have plenty of peer support and encouragement. “Women do much better in groups because they have different brain chemistry than men,” she says. “This is an evolutionary outcome, and given that, we should encourage women to be part of a group and to run in groups.” Here, she points to EMILY’s List, a group that empowers Democratic women and provides resources for women to be elected to higher positions in government. EMILY, an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast, literally pushes the idea of putting in enough to make the dough rise. “So here is an example of women joining with other women to become part of a group, and then playing off that strength to effect huge change,” she comments. Taking the idea of the collective power of women a step further, Hunt points to the long-standing success of The Women’s Foundation as yet another example of how even small amounts of money can have a dramatic impact when enough is contributed. “I was approached by two women in the mid-1980s who said we need a women’s foundation to further this cause. I ended up writing the largest check I’d ever given, which at the time was $10,000. But then they said, ‘We were hoping you would organize this,” she recalls. The goal of the foundation remains to fight the injustices that women suffer and to alleviate that suffering. Or, as Hunt puts it, “to unlock the power of women and to change our entire society.
“Let me be clear that I was not the only one who initially was responsible for forming the foundation,” Hunt says. “In terms of hour-by-hour measure in the beginning, I probably put in more hours than anyone else. But after the first four years, there were just as many people putting in a lot of work as well. And I’m not here to be humble about my participation,” she continues. “I don’t do humble very well. “What I do want to do is be loving, kind and respectful. If I can do all of these, maybe it adds up to humble. But for women in particular, trying to be humble can feed into the expectation that she won’t demand anything or accomplish anything. “When I was a girl I never imagined myself becoming a woman,” she continues. “I wasn’t depressed or suicidal, but I didn’t want to live past 20 because there wasn’t one woman I knew who I wanted to be like. I didn’t have a single role model. But then I got to college and started reading about one woman or another and thought maybe, just maybe, I could be like that woman. I tried to explain it to my mother, and she kept giving me things that were pink and lacy. I tried to make her understand that I’m red and I’m blue. And she took that literally and gave me things that were bright red and blue!”
Married for the first time in her early 20s, Hunt was a product of her Southern upbringing, one in which women were taught to smile all the time and contribute little. “But I was attracted to philosophy, theology professors, men who were thinkers. These were not considered appropriate for a female,” she says. When she married her first husband, Mark Meeks, the couple would host and attend dinner parties where “the men would be in one room discussing theology, and the women would be in the other room discussing recipes, when they would have babies, etc. I would be in with the men, which made the women uncomfortable, but the men seemed fine with it,” she recalls. Although her first marriage ended in divorce at age 35, Hunt’s confidence and passion continued to grow. She worked tirelessly for causes such as mental health (her daughter, Lillian, suffers from bipolar disorder), completed her doctorate in theology and eventually married renowned conductor Charles Ansbacher, with whom she later had a son.
For each success she has had along the way, Hunt acknowledges at least two failures. “But the failures are short-lived, while the successes live on for decades,” she says. “The setbacks are never huge because I’m in a group.” Today, Hunt has no trouble acknowledging and paying tribute to her husband, a man she calls her biggest cheerleader. “He has always believed in me more than I believed in myself,” she says. “He’ll see a situation and say, ‘You can solve that, you can take that position.’ I would never have become ambassador if not for Charles, and I owe him so much.” It’s clear that Hunt will never stop working to right society’s wrongs, to stamp out injustice and to help others who are unable to help themselves. She elaborates, “One of the credos I’ve tried to live by is to just do the next right thing. This is not to say I don’t dream dreams and have a vision – I usually take on tasks that are beyond what other people are comfortable taking on. I can’t judge success that way, but if no one takes on the undoable tasks, then we concede the injustice.
“It may sound grandiose, but I want to believe that at least I am an inspiration for someone who is coming in behind me who really will create a lasting solution. This is not something that can be measured. Sometimes people build great castles that look like they’ll last through time. But go back a decade or two later and you’ll find that that orchestra, that neighborhood is in dire disrepair. And the opposite may hold true, whereby people who feel like they’ve accomplished little in their lifetime may in reality have opened up the door for incredible change.” Now that Swanee Hunt the achiever has explained the reason behind her remarkable achievements, what words of wisdom can she impart to others who may be wondering how they can do their small part to reach their ultimate potential?
“OK then, here is my advice to women,” she says.
“If you’re going to marry, choose very carefully.
“Get over the idea that you must be the 100-percent mom. The whole idea of balance is the worst paradigm, and you can accept the fact that there is no right balance. Go with your gut and intuition, and as long as your kids are kept safe and understand they are loved by you and by others, then you’ve done your job. Beyond that it’s mostly icing.”
Written by ELLEN GRAY
Photography by KIT WILLIAMS