Women in the World Summit NYC 2018: Day 1
My excitement as I climbed the steps to our fourth tier seats was a mixed anticipation of the opening evening of the Ninth Annual Women in the World Summit and reunification with my London friends. These women of Verve found me while I was organizing the Women’s March in London in 2017. They have become the rock of my women’s right activism. This first evening was the beginning of a weekend of feminist activity starting with the summit.
Tina Brown, founder and CEO of Tina Brown Media and the Women in the World summit made a few remarks, highlighting some of the speakers and of course thanking our corporate sponsors. I mumbled under my breath that I wondered how many women Toyota had on their leadership team. Karine put her arm around me, laughing quietly and whispered, “I’ve missed you!” It turns out that Toyota’s US executive team is only 20% women. I’ll be following up about that.
The first guest was Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee. She told her story of leading women in a peace movement to end the war in Liberia in 2003. When telling us how she united women of all faiths she said,* “If a man came in this room right now to rape, he would not point to one woman as a Christian or another as a Muslim and choose. Bullets would not choose. We have to come together.” She didn’t believe that men could have created the type of united front that she and the women she organized with created because “men focus on their own power, women focus on community.” Leymah was asked how to create a movement, start a revolution. She told us that Americans can’t get to the same place of necessity that Liberians did because we are still comfortable, we still sleep in a comfortable bed. Many people in the United States practice “lazy activism,” sitting on their computers posting opinions and articles and signing petitions. She praised the high school students who were walking out of school as real activists. As she spoke I thought, “corporate or not, they have put a true revolutionary in front of us.” My cynicism started to fade and I began to have hope that this week would inspire more than the capitalistic vibe would suggest.
Then they put a man on stage and my nose wrinkled. Karine, Eryn, and I glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, as writer Ronan Farrow prepared to moderate a #MeToo panel made up of Asia Argento (director, actress, singer, screenwriter, and activist), Laura Boldrini (former President Chamber of Deputies of Italy, current member of Parliament, journalist, activist), and Ambra Battilana Gutierrez (model, who wore a wire for the FBI in an investigation into Harvey Weinstein). It was a terrible mistake to have this man moderate. First of all, no one seemed to have told him that it was the women’s voices that we wanted to hear. He spoke for a total of 13 minutes. Runner up was Laura with 9 and a half minutes followed by Ambra with 6 minutes and Asia with 5 and a half minutes. He spoke more than twice as long as two of the three women who made up the panel. He interrupted them a total of 13 times. This all distracted me from the importance of the conversation the women would have been having if he hadn’t been on stage with them.
At one point he said to Ambra that through all her struggles she always put others first and then asked Asia how it felt to help other women with her story. Why can’t these women just have done this for themselves? One of the most insidious ways that social norms oppress women is through the expectation that our actions must benefit others. To act for ourselves is seen as selfish while men are acting for themselves and no one else all the time without comment. I appreciated what Laura and Ambra shared but it was Asia who I connected with the most. Her rage was barely contained beneath her beauty. She was inspiringly furious and if my inner feminist could climb out of my oppressed body it would look like Asia Argento. At one point, she called herself a warrior and I felt myself mentally take up arms to have her back.
Ronan’s display of stereotypical male behavior was followed by an interview with the new CEO of Uber, brought in to fix the poisonous bro culture at the company that was only addressed when it developed into a scandal. The new CEO sitting upon the stage was an experienced, enlightened, women of colour who surrounded herself with other women experts in the field. I kid, I kid. It was a man, of course. His name is Dara Khosrowshahi and he was interviewed by Tina Brown. Although she gave him a skeptical look at one point, she was a gentle interviewer. I can only assume there were financial reasons for this. Some women are theoretically feminists but aren’t going to act against their capitalist interests. You can’t get to the position Tina is in unless you are one of those women. I won’t dwell on this conversation long because it was basically an Uber infomercial but I will say that Dara mentioned several people that he had brought in to help work on the problems in the company—all men including Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of Homeland Security. Knowing the history of Homeland Security I am in no way comforted by his involvement with this company. Just another session of listening to the same boring thoughts of an uber-rich man (see what I did there?).
In a bizarre juxtaposition to the Uber infomercial, we next listened to Dr. Fozia Alvi and Nicholas Kristoff (please tell me why men were on 3 out of 4 of these panels—can we do nothing without them?). Dr. Alvi is a Canadian physician who has repeatedly volunteered on the ground in Bangladesh to care for the 700,000 Rohingya who have fled the genocide in Myanmar. Myanmar’s mass slaughter and systematic rape of the Rohingya is motivated by hatred of their faith—Islam rather than Buddhism which is the dominant faith in Myanmar. Dr. Alvi said that Facebook had been a fundamental force for harm by dehumanizing the minority. She criticized Facebook for being slow to respond to the hate speech, “Buddhist extremists peddling virulent hate speech.” When asked what people can do to she encouraged us to call our senators to support Senate Bill 2060 to enact targeted sanctions on Myanmar until the genocide ceases. She also mentioned two organizations: BRAc and Fortify Rights.
The evening ended with Viola Davis reminding us that there are “not a lot of laughs in truth.” She is one of these extraordinary actresses who seemed to truly understand her craft. Many American actors/actresses sort of fell into acting either as children or because their families were in the business. This woman has studied the art and it shows. She is able to talk about her work in a way I haven’t often heard from celebrities. About the unrealistic expectations that the portrayal of women in movies creates, she said, “we’ve churned it out and churned it out and it’s infected everything.” She also spoke about the wide-spread side effects of sexual assault including addiction, crime, suicide, and body dysmorphic disorder. Although she wasn’t the strongest speaker of the evening she was a good ending—not traumatic and not meaningless. I was ready for day two.