Jay Leno loves that his wife has her own identity, and he feels lucky to have Mavis Leno after almost 24 years of marriage. She is not only his life partner and friend but also someone who has stepped up to use her status and reflected celebrity to try to make a difference in the world.
An ardent feminist, Ms. Leno has put her time, energy and money into helping other women-especially in countries where they are treated as second-class citizens.
Her feminism and political activism began early. She grew up in Southern California with parents who got involved in the fight for civil rights and then anti-war activism during the Vietnam era.
“After that it was feminism,” Ms. Leno recalled. “I really have always been a feminist. This is where my heart lies, because I feel like I owe a debt to the first feminists, the suffragists, that I can only pay by passing it on. And so for me it has to be the first issue on my list.”
Her major involvement since the mid-1990s has been with the Feminist Majority Foundation, which began working to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan long before the U.S.-led invasion. The foundation’s efforts were initially part of something called the Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid, now changed to the Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls.
“When I joined I was particularly interested in trying to do something for women in other countries, because I thought that American feminists were dropping the ball on that,” she said.
She quickly found that she couldn’t force social change. “When you talk about different cultures, you don’t impose your ideas on them,” Ms. Leno said. “You just come to them and say, `Tell us what help you need.”‘
Still, Ms. Leno’s work has borne fruit. One of the foundation’s successful initiatives was the defeat of Unocal’s efforts to construct an oil pipeline across Afghanistan, which the group said would have dramatically increased the Taliban’s power in the region. She was also active in the effort to defeat Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure approved by California voters in 1996.
“I’m really proud of her,” Jay Leno said. “I never wanted to be with a woman I would overshadow. … So it’s fun to go places now and people acknowledge my wife. It just makes me laugh. I think it’s great. It makes it a nice equal kind of thing. She saves the world, and I selfishly buy cars and motorcycles.”
Despite her best efforts to improve life for Afghan women and girls, Ms. Leno said she is frustrated with the current situation in that region. She feels the United States has chosen “to make a bad investment” in Iraq, and as a result promised programs to improve the plight of women in Afghanistan have not been properly funded.
“I’m frustrated and saddened,” she said. “At the same time, if you are going to do anything with human rights, you really have to be in it for the long haul.”