Annual Conference 1997: Claiming Women's Political Power

Wednesday, January 1, 1997

NCRW 1997 Annual meeting draws hundreds to "Claim women's political power"
(Article taken from WRNN Fall 1997 edition)

"Once women stand up collectively, they never sit down again."


Participant Mary Boergers' words resonated throughout the Council's 16th annual conference, Claiming Women's Political Power: Defining Our Futures Globally and Nationally, held in Washington, DC this May. The meeting brought together new voices and long-term Council members to discuss the current state of women's power and leadership, nationally and globally. The opening plenary gave panelists the opportunity to share definitions of power and to assess women's achievements internationally in claiming political power. These definitions and themes informed the rest of the meeting, as participants discussed such issues as the intersection of political power with economic power and the challenge of effective leadership succession in women's organizations and in the movement as a whole. The weekend of panels and workshops allowed activists, educators, and researchers to discuss current trends in feminist studies and funding. All saw a need to build a common agenda incorporating perspectives across class, race, and generation. Participants in the opening plenary, Claiming Women's Power, cited the 1996 presidential elections in the United States, the transfer of power in South Africa, and the increased parliamentary representation of women in France and England as examples of women's increasing power as voters and legislators. Maureen Bunyan (MCB Communications, Inc.) opened the conference by defining power as "the ability to influence the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others. This is a definition that transcends culture, history, gender, and race." Panelists and audience members discussed different visions of power and measured where women stand in the US and worldwide.

Panelist Rosina Wiltshire (United Nations Development Programme) cited the higher representation of women at the decisionmaking level globally as evidence of women's increasing power. "Women in Africa who have been involved in taking their countries from vision to stability are inserting themselves in the decisionmaking process," she said. Wiltshire raised the issue of women's management of power as well, noting particular hazards. "Women struggle within a male domain and tend to take on a masculine mask so they don't bring the feminine perspective to decisionmaking," she said. "They, like the Thatchers, tend to become 'Iron Ladies.'" Panelist Linda Williams (University of Maryland) addressed the political gains made by women. "The good news is that this is an amazing decade for women nationally and globally," she said, "but there continues to be a disparity between demography and economic reality. Women have not reached parity. They are still having trouble breaking into the power structure."

Panelists and participants focused on the need to create an agenda for women's equality that transcends divisions of generation, class, and race. "In South Africa, women broke all boundaries that traditionally bound them--class, race, ethnic boundaries--to form a coalition," said Rosina Wiltshire. "Breaking boundaries gave them power. They put on the agenda an issue focus that was relevant to the whole population: that of equality, and an end to violence." According to Linda Williams, the divisions in the women's movement should be met with "a more systemic confrontation of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and homophobia." Williams added, "We must join those who want to transform our society into an equal one." In the discussion of common ground and shared agendas, participants frequently referred to the 1995 United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing and its theme of women's rights as human rights. "The agenda that most women agree with is human rights issues that are global," said Mary Boergers (University of Maryland).

Sharing Power

In discussions of power and shared agendas, participants often cited the challenge of transferring power between individuals in organizations and in the women's movement as a whole. Claiming Women's Power panelist Lisa Sullivan (New Generation Network) expressed concern about the lack of planned leadership succession in women's organizations, charging women's organizations with the responsibility to identify, mentor, and train women leaders for the future. She brought to the session a group of activists aged 15 to 30 whom she called "postmodern activists," representing the next generation of social change agents. "These people are founding companies, magazines, and are involved in their communities and elections," Sullivan said. "Too often we don't know who young women are. While their socio-economic backgrounds are diverse, their commitments are similar. They clearly understand power. They understand the nexus between community and policy."

The theme of transferring power within women's organizations and across generations surfaced both in discussions of political power and again in intergenerational dialogues. In the Leadership Succession Workshop, participants discussed the challenge of building growth, training, and departure into existing organizational structures. "People learn to lead because they care about something," said Charlotte Bunch (Center for Women's Global Leadership, Rutgers University), adding, "Effective transition includes finding ongoing roles of substance for both much older and younger women, with a goal of continuing ownership roles for all." Betty Dooley (Women's Research and Education Institute) spoke of her personal and professional experiences with leadership succession, emphasizing the need to "give each person a role and encourage people to take leadership positions." Vicki Semler (International Women's Tribune Centre) said, "For a collaboration to work, it is important to emphasize collective responsibility." Concerning the attrition of potential leaders from women's organizations, Caryn McTighe Musil (Association of American Colleges & Universities) said, "The problem of succession is also an opportunity. We diffuse feminist leaders. Those people we 'lose' from our organizations are going into the world."

Eleanor Smeal (The Feminist Majority) delivered a stirring call to action in Friday's luncheon address, Claiming Women's Political Power. She emphasized the need for activists to build their strategies on research and to work with researchers to influence legislation and set a collaborative agenda. Citing the example of 'gendermandering' to elect women legislators, Smeal encouraged activists to become aware of where potential voters and funders live. Smeal stressed the importance of publicizing women's activism in response to the religious right's increasing power in the media. A later workshop, Hot Questions/Cool Answers: Framing a Media Campaign for Member Centers, explored further how to turn media attention to a positive portrayal of women's issues. Led by Vivian Todini, Director of Communications at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, the workshop encouraged groups to examine the interview techniques that have contributed to the right's media success.

Building Bridges

In addition to workshops on the media and leadership, concurrent panels allowed participants to share insights and strategies on specific issues. One panel focused on the success of commitments made at the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, while another convened educators and activists to discuss girls' education and leadership. Participants in the session Turning Women's Activism into Policy Gains for Women and Girls emphasized the importance of building intellectual bridges and working coalitions between research and activism. Heidi Hartmann (Institute for Women's Policy Research) said, "Ideas and facts are facilitators, but they don't move an issue. They help one side do what they need to do to win." Florence Bonner (Howard University) said, "What's missing today is the kind of collaboration and coalition-building that we did in the early years." She added, "In terms of activism, 'coalition' means the community and the grassroots leaders take ownership of programs in their own communities, as well as emerging problems. I don't separate my academic work as a researcher from myself as a woman in the community." Bonner added, "My work ought to be translatable."

In the session Feminisms and Power: An Intergenerational Dialogue, the full conference convened to continue discussion of the importance of collaboration and coalition- building across generations. "Power issues are not being directly addressed in women's organizations," said Jaime Grant (Union Institute Center for Women). "We need to talk about our failures as much as our successes with young women." Wayne Winborne (National Conference) reminded colleagues that the failure to incorporate younger generations into decisionmaking affects the effectiveness of their own work. "The intergenerational divide means at best we become irrelevant, at worst, we become part of the problem," he said.

Some of the participants in the dialogue assessed intergenerational divisions within a historical framework. Mary Hartman (Rutgers University) said, "The generation gap existing now is not nearly as deep as the gap between the first wave feminists and the ones who went before." Eleanor Horne (Educational Testing Service) recounted her personal experiences with the women's movement. "In my 20s I rejected feminism, in my 30s I embraced it, in my 40s I walked away in disappointment, and now in my 50s I have returned."

What Language Do We Use?

Some participants assessed the role of language in generational and cultural differences. Arlene Torres (University of Illinois at Urbana) asked, "What do we mean by generational? What are the concerns of young women today? What language do they use? What do we choose to speak about? What to silence?" She added, "We have to deal critically with language. Some of us speak English, some Spanish, some both. How we choose to speak in the academy is different from how we speak in our homes. We also speak in languages of theory."

The closing plenary, Changing Feminisms, addressed in greater depth the issues of language and power in forming the priorities of the feminist movement. Moderator Demie Kurz (University of Pennsylvania) challenged researchers and activists to reexamine their assumptions about their disciplines. "Reframing our issues is necessary if we are to make feminist theory as valuable a tool in the 21st century as it has been for the past 25 years. This includes thoughtful incorporation of challenges from different generations, classes, ethnicities, disciplines, and intellectual movements such as postmodernism and poststructuralism." Sandra Morgen (University of Oregon) asked participants to consider the pervasive influence of postmodernist theory in academia, including the debate about its merits and who is able to participate in that debate. "The debate surrounding this hegemony reflects generational and political issues. Within feminism, we must consider who's 'guarding the borders'; on whose terms dialogue takes place." Morgen suggested that academic feminists might reframe the issues by reconnecting abstract debate to women's lives. "We must put our energies into a different kind of feminist theorizing: In terms of what is useful. We need, as a community, to think about the most fundamental thing feminist theory was set up to do: to make the lives of women and families better."

The Unequal Benefits of Feminism

Participants in the Changing Feminisms panel considered the gains of the past 25 years, but also noted limitations and mistakes of the US feminist movement. Electa Arenal (City University of New York) read Hester Eisenstein's remarks in her absence. Eisenstein (Queen's College) raised the issue of the uneven benefits of feminism. "For some women," Eisenstein wrote, "the 1990s bring a sense of accomplishment and arrival: tenure, money, power. But the rise of feminism has done little or nothing for most women around the world to prevent them from experiencing increased poverty, exploitation, and despair. Negotiating class differences may be harder and harder as polarization increases." Heather Johnston Nicholson (Girls Incorporated) noted the importance of extending feminism's benefits to future generations by including and addressing girls. Advocates for girls must work to involve girls in their own communities, not just train them for material success. "We are promoting financial savvy at the expense of revolution. Girls must grow up knowing that their business is change, not just wealth," said Johnston Nicholson.

Rogaia Abusharaf (Brown University) analyzed the term and movement "global feminism" by discussing feminist discourses on female genital mutilation (FGM), an issue that has preoccupied the medical and human rights communities for decades. She cited a recent US documentary film that presents FGM as a rite carried out for the sole purpose of curbing women's sexuality. "The film presented FGM as a practice of gender oppression by dominant males and resorted to sensationalism and imperial feminism. African women were presented as victims with no agency of their own. It was a well-intended film, designed to inspire the audience to action, but it was in some ways naive." Abusharaf challenged feminist perspectives of FGM that don't take into account cultural patterns. She added, "FGM in Sudan affirms ethnic identity, serves as a ritual linking generations, asserts 'cleanliness.' The local view is that circumcision enhances femininity, creating a culturally-produced body." She also cited local concerns about the procedure, noting indigenous efforts to eradicate FGM in Sudan, including the National Organization of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Harmful Practices, founded in 1985. "We need more of a sense of local awareness, struggle, and sensitivities if we are to take 'global feminism' seriously."

Elizabeth Weed (Brown University) also expressed concern about the "prevalence of discourses of victimization, from which feminism is not exempt." Citing the work of two Pembroke Center scholars who examined the feminist treatment of rape, Weed identified a shift from seeing rape as "not the worst thing that can happen to a woman" in the late 1960s to a paradigmatic, subject-shattering violence in the early 1990s. "The discourse turned from rape as an individual act to rape as a paradigmatic, systemic act," she said, adding, "Feminist rage became feminist pain and desire for redress." Weed concluded with her assessment of the situation today: "The only feminism seen as possible on the Brown Campus is victim feminism. Some of the Women's Studies students who do not partake of that ideology are silenced. This is a profound difference, and very disturbing to many of us."

On the Gap Between the Academy and the Activist Community

Panelists turned their attention to the importance of building coalitions between activism and research, and making both relevant to issues affecting women's lives. Florence Howe (The Feminist Press at CUNY) said, "The focus today is on knowledge and scholarship. But what is it we're focused on, and what connection does it have to the world people live in?" Charlotte Bunch suggested that a way to bridge the gap between research and activism is to focus on women's human rights, a movement begun as an effort to mainstream feminism into major public policy issues of the day. Bunch offered this challenge: "We want to have our identities and our differences respected, but we also don't want to live in isolation. The struggle is how to find a commonality of effort that respects those differences and gives space for them, but doesn't completely isolate us." In formulating an approach to this common effort, Donna Shavlik (American Council on Education) asked, "How can we address some of these questions and problems . . . with something other than theory? Our institutions are in real difficulty. It's both an opportunity and a challenge to us. We want our institutions to improve the lives of women, but also to create space for different discourses."

The shifting balance between activism and research across institutions generated debate as well. Elizabeth Weed defended the value of academic feminist study, emphasizing that "intellectual work is political work." Electa Arenal said, "I respect the need to step back from the front lines to think about things. But if work isn't connected to the social body, the social-political body, then we have a problem." Alice Dan (University of Illinois at Chicago) challenged the opposition of theory and practice. "All practice is theoretical. We may have the luxury of not having to think on our feet. But students must see their work as political work."

Throughout the panel, discussions of theory and practice were influenced by positivist and empirical approaches, with reference to earlier debates on crossing the borders of race, class, and generation. Judith Saidel (SUNY Albany) reflected on the value of the debate, suggesting, "We need to understand our links to larger frameworks and to make those links real. It would be useful to have these discussions published in places decisionmakers in higher education read." The meeting concluded with a call for collective action that transcended partisanship and division.For a complete program of events and list of participants in NCRW's 1997 Annual Meeting, Claiming Women's Political Power: Defining Our Futures Globally and Nationally, see Women's Research Network News Supplement, Summer 1997.

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