Annie Lennox will be honored at the Campaign for Female Education's 25th anniversary gala in New York City on May 9

By Jordan Runtagh
May 03, 2019 01:55 PM
Annie Lennox
Credit: Eric Korenman

As the soulful singer behind hits like “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” “No More I Love You’s” and “Walking on Broken Glass,” Annie Lennox earned a reputation as one of popular music’s greatest vocal powerhouses. But in recent years, the former Eurythmics front-woman has used her singular voice to push for female empowerment, becoming the one of the feminist movement’s most visible and tireless champions.

Earlier this week it was announced that Lennox, 64, will be recognized by the Campaign for Female Education at their first-ever “Education Changes Everything” gala, which will be held on May 9 in New York City. “I’m very, very honored and extremely privileged to be given acknowledgement by them because they’re an extraordinary organization,” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s pretty remarkable work that they’re doing in terms of empowering girls to become young leaders in their field. Twenty-eight million girls are not in education in Africa, and CAMFED’s goal is to tackle that. I think they’re making fantastic inroads.”

Lennox’s career as an activist began in earnest after she performed at the inaugural concert for Nelson Mandela’s HIV/AIDS Foundation 46664 in 2003. Five years later she founded The Circle, a charitable non-governmental organization that aims to inspire, support and amplify awareness of the issues experienced by some of the world’s most disempowered women and girls — and to help combat these injustices by making education available for those in need.

“If you live in a developed country, a wealthy country — the kind of country that we’re in at the moment — or somewhere in the Western world, we wouldn’t even consider that your child or children wouldn’t go to school, or wouldn’t be able to read or write. It’s just something you think, ‘Oh yeah, it’s all been sorted.’ But actually, it’s still happening today to billions of people.”

In advance of the CAMFED Gala — and her exhibit at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, which opens on May 25 — Lennox spoke to PEOPLE about the ongoing fight for gender equality across the globe.

I wanted to begin by asking you about “global feminism” — a phrase that was central to a video you recently shared on International Women’s Day in March. What does that phrase mean to you?

It’s putting the word “global” before the word “feminism,” meaning that feminism must be seen from an international perspective. It must be inclusive of everyone, everywhere. I think that when we talk about feminism, we tend to think about it only in terms of the Western world. There are still so many wrongs that need to be righted in terms of injustices toward women. We still don’t have equal pay. We still don’t have equal rights. There are so many things that we need to address here. I’m so thrilled by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements because they brought attention to misogynistic attitudes and behaviors. One in three women and girls are impacted by physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, so it’s not only in the West.

When we talk about global feminism, we’re looking out towards everyone. It’s an inclusive term and it’s a broad term. It’s black, it’s white, it doesn’t matter. It’s a broad church and I think we really need it. It’s a time when the world is so polarized. It’s very important for the women’s movement to find what we have more in common than what we have going against us. I also believe that men must be feminists too. Boys and men must play their part in the feminist movement.

I fear that there is a common belief among men and boys that feminism is not something that includes them, and that the fight for gender equality is not their own. What would you say to those people who are seemingly unaware that women’s rights are human rights?

There are 757 million adults who can’t read or write and two of three of those 757 million are women. We’ve said that one in three women and girls are impacted by physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. In Africa, 28 million girls are not in education, and they will never step inside a classroom. Those are incredibly compelling facts. We assume that because women in the Western world have rights, that those rights must be global, but they are not. When a woman is widowed in many countries, she can often be thrown out of the house she was living in with her husband, because she doesn’t have right to ownership, inheritance rights, any of that. There are young girls who are married off at terribly early ages, become child brides, and become pregnant at ridiculous ages. Eleven-year-old girls giving birth is not uncommon, and it’s unthinkable. Malawi only recently changed the law to say that the age of marriage must be 18. Before it was 16, but actually, girls were getting pregnant at the age of 12 or 11.

We need to see rapid improvement. An organization like CAMFED are beautifully poised to create those changes through the education of young girls who would not receive an education otherwise. Those girls are like little seedlings that blossom into being empowered women that could be leaders in their communities, and they can be influencers for change. This situation is almost like the Dark Ages for girls and women in the developing world. I think it needs to happen at the ground level. It must happen through the education of girls.

How has the movement for female empowerment changed since you founded The Circle in 2008? You mentioned #TimesUp and Me Too a moment ago.

I have to say, change is a very interesting thing. There are times that you feel, “Oh, nothing can ever change and it’s always going to be like this.” And then, all of a sudden, something happens and for some reason it becomes the tipping point. I’ve been working in this area of empowerment to girls and women for many years now, and at times it has looked overwhelming. But I watched it grow. I watched the word feminism, for example, that many, many people felt uncomfortable with. They wouldn’t describe themselves as feminists. The young generation of girls coming up, they have no issues with calling their attitudes and their values, “feminist.” None whatsoever. I’m really encouraged by that. It was ironic to me that suddenly there was exposure, from a very high level, of a very terrible misogynistic attitude towards women. That was exposed. Millions of women and men stepped out into the streets to say, “No. This misogynistic attitude needs to change.” It’s the behavior and the attitude that need to change.

I’m a heterosexual woman. I love men. I have many, many friends that are men. I think men are great. I have friends who are gay. Men friends, whatever, it doesn’t matter. But if you have a misogynistic attitude, you have a problem. I have a problem with you, because this is really not acceptable. It hasn’t been acceptable for years. Now we have a talking point about it. Now I’m noticing that people are far more aware, and far more conscious about: “Ah, maybe I can’t say this. Maybe I can’t behave like that.” Well, actually, that’s right. No, you can’t say this and no, you can’t behave like that. I think it’s a really good thing.

Do you think there’s still a misconception that being a feminist means you’re inherently anti-male, rather than pro-equality?

Yes. This is nonsense, and it’s a willful misconception, mind you. Because there are some men out there who are being encouraged to sort of propagate that notion that feminists are man-haters. It’s been going on for decades now, and it’s very outmoded. It’s very untrue. I think it’s time that was dropped, but there are factions. On the internet there are so many groups of people with very extreme ideas. There always will be groups of people with very extreme ideas. Unfortunately, there are those that have that interest to propagate this kind of false information. I believe that feminists don’t have to hate men. We don’t hate men, we hate misogyny. That’s what is hated.

It has changed, and it is changing. I really feel it is changing. The world media is a terribly important thing. There are so many issues, intimate issues that need to be addressed by the world’s media. When a light is shone on particular issues, such as feminism, such as female empowerment, then we’ll have a platform. Then we’ll have the opportunity. It’s funny because once the media decides to really take a hold on something, then we see it everywhere. Everyone is following suit, you know? Like five years ago, you couldn’t get the word “feminist” on any magazine. They did not want to use it. It was embarrassing. One didn’t know what to do with it. Now, everyone uses it. It’s on the front covers of every magazine, and everybody says they’re feminist, which is great. But it cannot just stop there. It has to go further. We have to because billions of girls and women’s lives around the world depend on it.

You personally have an enormous platform through your music, which has reached and inspired millions for decades. What about someone who doesn’t have that same kind of influence — how can they help?

I think every woman can be an influencer and change agent individually, because everyone has a circle of friends to begin with, or a family, or people at their workplace. It starts with you. It starts with you becoming involved, understanding what feminism is about and expanding your worldview. I agree with you that I am fortunate to have a platform, and maybe not everybody’s got the same kind of level of outreach, but I think that each one of us, in our own way, can have a sphere of influence around us. That’s very, very important. Each one of us tends to think, “Oh, I can’t do anything, so I don’t think it’s important.” No, I don’t agree. Investigate yourself as a man. Investigate yourself as a woman. Ask what your values are and if you feel that you have something in common with feminism, male or female. Learn about the true, global facts. These are the real, real places where feminism is desperately required.

There’s a story I’ve read about you, which left me stunned: As a student you auditioned for a place at the Royal College of Music and were told that you’d be better off auditioning for a teaching place because there were so few performance spots for women. What kind of impact did that have on you, trying to grow as an artist in a culture that had that mentality?

It was kind of demoralizing and it was debilitating. Life is funny, life is funny. Sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you thought it was going to. But sometimes it does work out for the best, in that way. I was a classical flute player. I wanted to pursue that as a performer. I just wasn’t up to the standard to begin with, really. It’s true, I went to the Royal College and I almost got in, but they did say to me, “Don’t you think it would be better to pursue a teacher training course, because there are very few places available for women performers.” Now, that was in 1970. Forty-nine years later, if you look at orchestras, they’re filled with female performers. I like that. I just like that because it proves women can do that. Of course they could.

One of my favorite songs of yours is “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” which you recorded with Miss Aretha Franklin. What was the genesis of that song?

At the time I wrote the song, I wanted it to be an anthem. I woke up one morning and I had this idea in my head: “I think the feminist movement needs some songs.” You know a song, like an anthemic song that’s about what women have achieved since the suffragette movement. That was the genesis of the song itself, to celebrate the achievements that women have made. Like, we’ve broken down so many glass ceilings. We’ve jumped over so many hurdles. We still have a long way to go, but, if you look at that little film clip, the way we’ve done this film clip, we assume it’s all done. It’s kind of done, we just need a few more things and then we’ll be there. Well, no actually. Not quite there yet. It’s a long way to go in the rest of the world for millions of other women and girls. We must, must, must look to them. We must help them. We must support them. We must inspire them. That’s where the suffragette movement has to go. We all do.

What is it about music that makes it such an effective mode to enact social change?

My upbringing, I think, lies behind a lot of this, for so many reasons. I was born in Scotland. I come from a working-class background. My father worked in the shipyards. He followed his father into the shipyards. It was very hard work. We lived in a working-class district in a two-room tenement house. There was poverty. I thought I knew what poverty was, until I went to the developing world. Not only to the resorts and the beaches, but behind those scenes where you see people living lives which are so harsh and so hard. Systemic poverty. I was very fortunate that I got a place at a girl’s school that was not in my district. There was an opportunity for a slightly better education than I would have had if I’d gone, let’s say, at the local school with the kids in the area.

There I had the opportunity for music lessons. My mother and father paid the amount of money to pay for my music lessons. Quite honestly, I look back now at the age of 64, I think, “My God, if they hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have learned how to read or write music, how to play the piano. None of the chapters of my life’s direction would have happened.” They passed away a long time ago, but if they knew now what that small investment, which was quite a stretch for them at the time, how it had paid itself. I’m giving back in a way, I like to think. I’m giving back because I have had privilege, and it wasn’t a great privilege. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. But, nevertheless, I had education. I had opportunity. I went to the Royal Academy of Music. I had these opportunities that came my way. I have not taken it for granted. So what I do is to say, “Why can’t other young girls be given empowerment?” I was fortunate. I want to give back and make my contribution to the women’s movement. That’s what I want to do. For humanity.