Around the Institute

Women’s Stories Frame a New Activism

July 11, 2013  • Elise Mann

Like many millennials, I am trying to both define my own path as a feminist, while also fitting into and contributing to a larger narrative of the women’s movement.  A conversation at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival shed light and a fresh perspective on what I suspect many like me are wrestling with. The panel titled “Activism Anew: Dispatches from the Front Line of the War Against Women” asked an important question: how do we unite women, across generations and around the world, for a more just and equitable world? GHD’s Executive Director Peggy Clark moderated this conversation between Congresswoman Jane Harman, Ambassador Nancy Rubin, feminist writer Courtney Martin, MSNBC’s Irin Cameron and The Arab Women’s Fund’s Hibaaq Osman, where all six women shared stories of devastating sexism and inequality, matched by stories of hope and transformation. 

Peggy Clark asked panelist to consider this question: Is there a war on women?

 All of the panelists agreed that indeed there is, but provided color and context to how it looks from their perspectives and how it’s changed over time. Irin Cameron of MSNBC pushed us all to reconsider the question: “The phrase war on women has an incompleteness to it. That’s partly because there are men that are allies in this struggle, and because the struggle itself is about how we live our modern lives, and whether women will be equal participants in it. That’s what is behind these struggles over reproductive rights, over politics, sex, education, and money, to name a few.” 

Beyond the backdrop of Aspen mountains, the conversation also had the contextual backdrop of the domestic women’s rights debate in Texas spurred by Wendy Davis and then the protests in Cairo and through the Middle East. As the CEO of the Arab Women’s Fund, Hibaaq Osman provided insight into the conflict while also prompting us all to act. 

“If a government is leaving behind its women, then they are not a democracy.” Hibaaq shared, her energy infected the audience. “We are at a moment of critical anger and we can’t be stopped.  In the Middle East, women and men have lost their fear and feel like they actually can make change. It’s a moment of realizing that I can change.”  This is not a war to be fought by individuals, or even by the women speaking on this AIF panel, but by all of us, together.

With Madeline Albright in the audience, the room honored the bravery of leaders like Secretary Albright and Hillary Clinton, whose leadership made women’s issue a foreign policy issue and put it at the top of the agenda.  Congresswoman Harman believes strongly in the need to mentor young women, to give them models of leadership that they can emulate.  This is why she’s leading the effort to create learning institutes to help women learn the skills necessary to enter into public service. Her goal? Fill 50% of public service jobs globally with women.  Look to Rwanda, whose quotas mandate that 50% of their seats are filled by women and thus, have been more about to reach across silos and find compromise. Having women at the table changes our world. Her other suggestion: “The best way to be an activist is to be excellent.”

Against all odds, women are stepping into their own power in unprecedented ways. It’s about time: For too long, girls and women in many parts of the world have been denied the same education, health care, and even food that their brothers enjoy.  There are forces that want to draw us back.  Reproductive rights is a mechanism for drawing us back. While challenges are different throughout the world, we must not forget the connections between all women fighting against the war upon them.  We stand united as we advocate from the individual level to policies at the national, regional and international level.

The feminist movement has been very and successfully reactive, but we must be proactive to see more progress.  Courtney Martin pointed to the example of when Mark Zuckerberg didn’t respond to requests to take down pro-rape pages on Facebook, activists got his attention by pressuring online advertisers to retract their ads.  The pages are now down.   What can our movement learn from that example?

The two women on the panel who consider themselves a part of this new and changing feminist movement stole the showby illustrating the realities they see for activism.  “The new feminism is not limited to activism just on women’s issues any longer.  Being a feminist… now means that you work for social justice issues, and apply a gender lens to your analysis.” Courtney Martin reminded us that this is not just about women.  “The men in my life are struggling with their own masculinity.  That is a beautiful thing and we should all be struggling together.” Irin continued, “We can shake people out of complacency.  We are creating media.  We are creating new allies and partnerships.”  

The panelists were in awe of each other, and I am in awe of all of them at this transformative moment in the history and future of the feminist movement. There is so much hope and excitement for a more just and equitable world.  Just as the panelists urged the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I ask you to consider this moment of change. How do you fit and how will you contribute to the moment?