Cherie Blair on a visit to India in March this year.
Cherie Blair on a visit to India in March this year. Photo by AP
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Ben-Gurion University
Cherie Blair speaking at Ben-Gurion University. Photo by Ben-Gurion University

When Cherie Blair was still Cherie Booth, 22 years old and studying to become a barrister at the London School of Economics, she found herself competing for a law firm vacancy against a fellow student − a guy. “Everyone agreed that I was the better candidate and would make a better lawyer,” she says matter-of-factly. “Including him.”

It was 1976, the sex discrimination act had just been passed, and there were finally a scattering of women raising their voices as barristers. And yet, recalls Blair, it was still common for firms to tell women straight out that “we don’t take women,” or, if they were very progressive, that, sorry, they had “already” hired one. Not surprisingly, she shrugs, it was the guy who got the coveted slot.

“It turned out to be a bad bet,” continues Blair, 58, who was visiting Israel this week to receive an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Because as it happened, he did not stick around in law for very long. He left and went into politics.”

Indeed, the guy − a handsome Oxford graduate and amateur rocker named Tony Blair, who not only stole Cherie’s job, but also nabbed her heart − went on to become head of the Labor party in Britain, leading them to a landslide victory in the 1997 elections and then serving as that country’s prime minister until 2007.

Cherie, soon a Blair herself, dutifully followed her husband along his political path, supporting him right into 10 Downing Street, where she proceeded to spend a decade hosting foreign dignitaries for dinner, organizing tea parties for local charities and generally throwing herself into the role of first lady. This, while bringing up the couple’s four children, the youngest of whom, Leo, was the first child to be born to a sitting prime minister in 150 years. And, unlike her husband, she stuck it out as a lawyer, too.

Blair co-founded her own chambers, which specializes in human rights law and where she continued to practice through her time as first lady − “rushing upstairs after tea with the spouse of the president of Tanzania, or some other president, to return to my computer and my clients,” as she puts it. Blair also serves as a part-time judge, is an accredited mediator and a human rights and women’s rights activist.

And, just because she was not busy enough, in 2008 Blair set up the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women − to help women in developing and emerging markets around the world “build businesses, contribute to their economies and have a stronger voice in their societies.”

Worldwide, attitudes towards women in the workforce − and in general − have clearly changed since her 22-year-old self was out there trying to get her first job at a law firm, Blair will be the first to acknowledge. But, she stresses, this does not mean there are no barriers for women. “They may now be informal, often unconscious,” she says, “but they exist nevertheless.”

Women are twice as likely to live in poverty as men. Two out of three illiterate adults are women − and a staggering few of them own property. Less than two percent of the titled land in the world is owned by women, Blair says. “The consequences of this are devastating − not only for the individual women but for the whole society,” she argues.

While she is a woman of the law, Blair says she decided to focus her foundation’s work on empowering women in business, instead of fighting the law on their behalf − so that they could stand up for what they need themselves. “I would rather help women help themselves − by giving them the economic independence to find their voices,” she tells Haaretz. “They will then use those voices to agitate for changes in the law. They will be able to decide what is right for their countries.”

The foundation, working with implementing partners on the ground, is guided by this philosophy − and has supported tens of thousands of women with the skills, technology, mentors, networks and access to markets they need to find, and raise, their voices. The foundation has projects across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East − including several successful programs in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

An ‘interesting’ country

Israel, says Blair, is an “interesting” country to work in, as, on one hand, it is a highly developed nation known for entrepreneurship and innovation, in which more and more women are both getting educated and setting up successful businesses every year. But at the same time, because of religion and culture, there are pockets within Israel − like some of the orthodox Jewish, Muslim and Druze communities − in which women are still all but excluded from the workforce.

One program of her foundation here, run in partnership with Western Galilee College in Acre, has developed a comprehensive economics and management degree program to develop women’s entrepreneurial skills. Another project, in Beit Shemesh, funded in partnership with Saban Women’s Self-Worth Foundation, focuses on supporting Jewish and Arab women entrepreneurs with micro enterprises − by providing business incubation services, access to capital and peer-to-peer networks.

A third project, also funded by Saban and run in conjunction with the Economic Empowerment for Women and the Koret Israel Economic Development Fund, helps over 100 women from Jerusalem’s marginalized communities with access to finance and networks. And a project with the Business Development Center in Ramallah, meanwhile, provides tailored business training, marketing and financial advice to women there.

“I learned an important lesson when I was eight,” says Blair, turning personal and telling the story of how, when she was a child, her father, British actor Tony Booth, abandoned her mother − leaving her to take care of their two young daughters, Cherie and her younger sister Lyndsey, on her own. “Mom had left school at 14, and given up her career as an actress to support his career, so you can imagine that when she was left with zero, she was faced with a very difficult task,” says Blair. “I realized then how vulnerable one is without the ability to stand on one’s own two feet.”

The searing experience pushed her to the work she does today, she concludes. For she managed to find feet to stand tall on, and lead a life, as she says, that her mother and grandmother could only have dreamed of − and from those heights, she is now reaching out to help other women find their way too.