The inaugural Seize the Conversation event, “Creating a 21st Century Women’s Movement”, brought world-renowned experts in women’s issues together in Washington, DC to discuss the topic from both domestic and global perspectives.
Despite the great accomplishments of the last few decades by women worldwide, they are still grossly unprivileged in developed and developing countries. The panelists of the event highlighted the importance of not just changing laws in countries, but focusing on changing the social norms and making sure everybody understands that women need to be treated equally and fairly. All of them examined efforts made around the world to change global thinking on women in society. Their dynamic discussion covered a plethora of gender topics and the challenges of reconciling deep-seated cultural traditions with the talents and contributions of women that the world so desperately needs.
Suzanne Turner, President and founder of turner4D, a progressive strategic communications and campaigning firm, and co-founder of Fem2pt0, moderated the discussion. Her initial remarks painted a stark picture of where woman fall in US society:
- Women who raise their voices online are often targeted with harassment and death threats.
- Women’s health and reproductive rights have become a political stomping ground as GOP representatives were willing to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood federal funding.
- Sexual assault is rampant on college campuses.
- Too many women of color and transwomen are dying, often at the hands of law enforcement.
She also noted the struggles of women abroad, such as familial “honor” killings, genital mutilation, poor access to basic healthcare and maternity care.
Ritu Sharma, co-founder and past president of Women Thrive Worldwide, and turner4D’s newest principal, echoed Turner’s concerns. One in three women worldwide, Sharma said, is subjected to violence by a person that is not her partner. Although the majority of countries now protect women’s equality in their constitutions in some way (only 70 countries have full gender equality mandates), laws that persecute perpetrators of violence against women vary significantly.
Existing laws and policies worldwide are far behind the times and do not address the current needs of women to participate or succeed in her local, national, or global community.
Sandra Pepera, Director for Gender, Women and Democracy at the National Democratic Institute, reminded the audience that there are 1.8 billion people between 15-24 years of age worldwide, about half of which are girls. In her work and studies, Pepara has seen poverty and inequality define the urban landscape – which, she noted, has never been structured with women in mind – often leading to high risk of personal endangerment, low (or no) levels of education and early childbearing. She would like to see policymakers take action to invest in women and women in leadership on individual, institutional, and socio-cultural levels.
She also emphasized the importance of positive family attitudes towards girls and women, female role models, and education.
“Women learn and grow best when they are supported. We can’t all be sisters, but we can all stand in solidarity,” Pepera said.
There is no question that women have much to stand for, but solidarity from the population as a whole can be hard to come by, particularly when the societal structure is not mirrored in its representatives and leadership.
Celina Lake, President of Lake Research Partners and one of the Democratic Party’s leading political strategists, reminded the audience that in the US, the number of women in congressional seats is barely creeping up – women now make up 19.4% of Congress. Women hold 25% of statewide offices right now, down from 27% in 1999 (the peak number).
She urged more support for women running for office.
“We have to hurry history,” Lake said. “It’s happening too damn slow.”
Hear hear, Celinda.
So how do we get more women better access to healthcare, more educational opportunities, more support in the workplace, and elected to more leadership positions?
From what I garnered from the presentations, the short answer is that the global community needs to better understand feminism. Even in the US, many people do not understand the term. A study* conducted by Lake & her team found that before hearing the definition of “feminist,” a majority do not consider themselves to be one. However, once the definition of feminism was read to them, the total number of people who considered themselves a feminist rose from 51% to 64%.
*Ms. Magazine/Feminist Majority/CCMC Election Eve and Night survey of 1220 adults in the US. November 2012.
Even if a majority of people want equality, the culture and society of where women live play a big role in women’s lives. Culture shapes policy, and both can be either crushingly oppressive of women, or encouragingly supportive of gender equality.
Iceland, with policies like its equal-time, five month non-transferable maternity & paternity leave, tops the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Rankings. Yeman, with a female to male income ratio of 30:100, women’s literacy rate at 35 percent, and minimal access to healthcare and education, is listed last. The US, for all of our world leadership, falls at the 20th spot. (The US, shamefully, is one of a small number of countries, including Iran and Sudan, that have not yet ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.)
So what can we do in the face of such big, structural challenges?
Sharma suggested that we can start by changing attitudes and behaviors in several ways:
- Work to engage men and boys in the solutions – they are not just part of the problem. Their participation is key to the success of any new laws or legislation.
- Expand women’s membership in unions and build more unions specifically for women.
- Transform child care into an early education opportunity and free women’s time.
- Create more jobs so women can advance themselves and their families economically.
Above all, the panelists noted, increasing the visibility of the women’s movement’s successes is instrumental in building and sustaining a worldwide transition towards gender equality.
All of the studies and reports in the world (and the corresponding news pieces that often accompany them) only reach as far as public conversation takes them. So many incredible stories and important research studies are lost among the onslaught of information the world experiences every minute. Female rally cries that begin loud and clear fade away because no one continues the echo.
It’s imperative that women and their allies in the movement are able to spread their messages and stories in a way that amplifies their calls and sticks in the hearts and minds of those that hear it. This is why we need a continually larger citizen presence in the conversation, not just as passive readers, but as a participant in the discussion.
For many women, however, jumping into the discussion is often dissuaded, at best solely by intimidation, and at worst by threats of rape, violence, and death. (This is not just in places where women’s voices are not protected by constitutional rights, but even here in the US). These experiences, whether they are tweeted threats to a woman’s livelihood, being screamed at on the street, or the barrage of sexist coverage of women in the media, (particularly noticeable in the US 2016 Presidential Campaign races) are extremely damaging to women. The public’s passivity and relative acceptance of cultural ways are part of the reason that history is moving “too damn slow”.
This meeting of great feminists spurred anew a sense of urgency to advance the rights and global participation of women. Here, in the 21st century, we still need a women’s movement. We need to get our voices heard in whatever ways we can, whether that’s by showing up on the Hill in Washington DC, or using social media as a way to get the truth out, unfettered by big media conglomerates’ ideas of what society needs to see and hear.
Even though the world seems so big, and progress for women seems to be happening so slowly, we have some smart solutions that have already been devised. Now is the time to go about implementing them. We need to put pressure on those shaping legislation that impacts our lives by pushing the discussion forward any way we can – starting with educating people on the true meaning of feminism and encouraging men and boys to be part of the solution.
This is what citizenship is, not only nationally, but also globally. This is how we begin the 21st Century Women’s Movement.
All presentations and the following discussion were filmed via Periscope.