Anika Rahman

The Trailblazer

Ms. Foundation President and CEO Anika Rahman ’90 is leading one of the country’s most vital women’s rights organizations at a critical point in time

By Anna Louie Sussman

Winter 2012

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Anika Rahman ’90 has spent the bulk of her career advocating for women’s rights in the global arena, so she is no stranger to uphill battles. And it’s a good thing, too: Rahman, who serves as president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, ascended to the helm of the organization in early 2011, a year when state legislators proposed a record number of bills restricting women’s rights.

Of course, that grim reality is part of why she took the job.

“I was excited,” she says, referring to the array of modern obstacles that go hand-in-hand with leading a 40-year-old organization dedicated to building and strengthening the women’s movement. “I like a challenge.” 

Rahman, who was born in Bangladesh, moved to America to study international relations at Princeton University. Prior to joining the Ms. Foundation, she was founding director of the international program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, and then served as president of Americans for UNFPA—an organization supporting the United Nations Population Fund. She is a focused and driven leader, and she uses her words to inspire.

During a recent speech at Columbia Law School, Rahman urged those in the audience to see beyond the dazzling accomplishments of a few high-profile women and gird themselves for the hard work that lies ahead.

“I really want to bring home that women’s rights are unfinished business,” she says. “I’m fed up with hearing about the first woman CEO, or astronaut, or secretary of state. We should be at a level where we are no longer talking about firsts. We have to get to the core issues and make sure that women as a group are able to rise.”

As head of the Ms. Foundation, Rahman is in a perfect position to lead the charge. Founded in 1973 by several prominent feminists, the organization is, in her words, “by women, for women.”

In 2011, the Ms. Foundation provided $4.4 million in grants and other support to more than 100 organizations representing four key program areas: building democracy, economic justice, ending violence, and women’s health. The foundation also works to build capacity at the grassroots level, trains up-and-coming leaders, and helps connect grantees to donors and one another. But at a time when many highly valued rights are in jeopardy, choosing which organizations to assist can be immensely difficult.

“The hardest decisions,” Rahman says, “are always about people—who to fund, how to pick from among the array of women’s issues and say, ‘OK, these are the places where we can make a difference.’”

Rahman spends the bulk of her days in meetings with colleagues, donors, and grantees, strategizing about how best to approach the issues of the day. She also writes regularly on women’s issues, and her well-reasoned advocacy pieces appear often in the opinion pages of newspapers from all over the country.

A student of history, Rahman says she is excited about the opportunity to supplement the Ms. Foundation’s legacy, which includes helping establish some of the first hotlines and shelters for survivors of intimate-partner violence, as well as creating Take Your Daughter to Work Day. (When Rahman’s young daughter visited the Ms. Foundation office, she was pleased to find that the corridors there were wide enough to accommodate cartwheeling.)

“I’m always thinking, ‘What is the next Take Your Daughter to Work Day?’” Rahman says. “‘What is the next thing that will inspire mass participation and will push us forward?’ That’s always at the back of my mind.”

Anna Louie Sussman has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

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Photographed by Peter Freed