Clinton, Atwood, Davis: The World’s Most Brave & Brilliant Talk Female Revolution

Clinton, Atwood, Davis:

The World’s Most Brave & Brilliant Talk Female Revolution

“What a seismic year it’s been for women,” opened Tina Brown, Founder of Tina Brown Media. And it’s no understatement. The female-celebrating media company, whose annual multi-day event, which began on April 12th, drew hundreds of attendees, explored a myriad of scintillating topics such as female imprisonment, the modern establishments of male autocracy and how to get women into power. In its 9th year, Women in The World is meant as a study in female relevancy, and this year it showed remarkable scope and depth.

Over the course of the three days, an accouterment of ceiling-busting ladies graced the Lincoln Center stage, accompanied by a dose of noteworthy men with unique vantage points of the Women’s Movement. Featuring incredible changemakers and thought-leaders like Hillary Clinton, Margaret Atwood, Sally Yates, Julianna Margulies and Viola Davis, there was much to be discussed given the progress made in the last year for women globally.

“Not everyone who’s sexual is a size two or whiter than a paper bag.” -Viola Davis

“You can have the future all laid out and predicted and then something comes out of nowhere, and there goes your interesting plan.”- Margaret Atwood

To be sure, the overarching sentiment was “change” with a side dish of revolt, as woman after woman spoke about leading rebellions and revolutions, from those on the micro-scale to those with the power to change the world.

“We do have an election in November of this year,” Clinton, who was sporting a cast on her right wrist due an arm injury after taking a tumble in India while on her book tour, told a cheering crowd, reminding those in attendance that while much work has been done on the path to equality, that there is still much work remaining, and it begins with who we elect to represent us. During the event, a spotlight was shone on the women that are neglected by the press, in regions unknown to most of the American population, whether it’s in rural Africa or a breakaway subset of Myanmar. Also in the conversation were the many (oftentimes abused and impoverished) women funneled aimlessly through the justice system, who struggle enormously to find their feet after years in undignified prisons. And, of course, one of WITW’s main themes was centered on the pushback against sexual harassment, and the fact that it has never been more evident that men not only must know what the definition of sexual harassment is, but they must also know how to prevent the culture that allows it.

Indeed we did learn a lot over the course of the powerful, sometimes outright intense talks and debates, and we’ve rounded up the most thought-provoking of the themes below.

Sally Yates, one of Donald Trump's first public opposers once he took office, was welcomed with a standing ovation
“Are We In a Dystopia?”

Following the success of The Handmaid’s Tale TV adaptation, Margaret Atwood has re-emerged on the global stage as an early harbinger for the precarious situation women find themselves in today. After the results of the election came in back in 2016, the sales for the novel skyrocketed, coinciding with the beginning of the show’s filming. What readers and Handmaid enthusiasts were seeing was a dastardly parallel between the dystopian universe and their very own Trumpian version.

“We have this despicable sexist ogre in the White House,” remarked The New York Times writer Michelle Goldberg, who moderated the talk with Atwood, trying to piece together whether or not the writer believed her dystopian vision had itself came true in real life. It’s a complicated question, with no right or wrong answer, but Atwood answered in the negative, stating that here in America, we’re not there yet because the proverbial ‘they’ have not started to shoot protestors yet, which is “a good thing,” she said with a laugh.

The terrors and real-world applications of Atwood’s dystopian “fiction” are not, however, lost in our daily lives. With flailing birth rates a very real and disconcerting trend globally, Goldberg asked Atwood about the effects of this potential reality on current and future generations of women. She then reminded the audience that forced birthing is a practice that has absolutely been seen before in the world. “I put nothing into the Handmaid’s Tale that hasn’t already been done,” she stated, giving the example of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. Coming to power in 1966, he mandated every woman have four children, famously announcing to the world, “The foetus is the property of the entire society.”

“It’s really cruel and inhuman to force women to have children if you’re not going to give them the money to do that,” noted Atwood, calling on governments around the world who are impeding the way to women’s full bodily autonomy, such as Ireland, to better support women. “I don’t think that feminism and human rights ought to be on opposite sides of the fence.”

However, and with the drawl, we have become accustomed to, Atwood resoundingly assured those in the audience we were safe for the moment. “The United States is very big, very diverse. So I’m not giving up hope on it yet.”

Bipartisan Feminism

As Republican and Democrat Senators Lisa Murkowski and Kirsten Gillibrand walked onto the stage on day two, a graphic appeared behind them showing the percentage of women in the Senate. The dismal apparition of the current state of female politics (a small 21 percent of the Senate is made up of women), only served to make the pairing on stage the more compelling.

Throughout the conversation, Murkowski and Gillibrand imposed on the audience the importance of voting in the upcoming elections in order to gather support for more female-forward policies in government, and throughout the world. Gillibrand spoke on her bill that has consistently been denied on the floor, that aims to address the situation of sexual harassment within the U.S armed forces. They served as a perfect preamble to Clinton’s panel later in the day where they would be discussing male autocrats, the two painting the figures of a democratic U.S that while fractured, is a much better place for women to exist than elsewhere.

Yevgenia Albats, Editor in Chief of The New Times in Russia spoke frankly at Clinton’s panel, delivering American women a reminder to stay the course in order to keep inspiring rebellion in other countries. “You shouldn’t be afraid,” she said, on an internationally-savvy panel consisting of journalists from Russia, the U.K and Georgia and moderated by the former Secretary of State. “Your strength is our future freedom.” The idea of standing up to bullies and embracing your fellow woman, whether she’s on the other side of the aisle, or across the globe, was one that rose above the sometimes heated debated, which took on the strangling hold of male autocrats throughout the world, and what democratic countries like the U.S could do to lead by example for countries looking to break from autocracy. .

Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator (D-New York), Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senator (R-Alaska) and Andrea Mitchell on bridging the bi-partisan divide through feminism and getting more women into government this year
“I Want to be Human”

When Viola Davis on Thursday? took to the stage she had a clear point to make, and it was centered on the subconscious bias that exists for black women in Hollywood. “As an actor of color your not seen the same way,” said the How to Get Away With Murder star, underscoring that she looks forward to a day when she no longer has the responsibility to represent an entire race in her everyday professional and personal life. “Black actors are always asked what social statement they are making,” said Davis, adding that the dehumanization of the black community is what made it possible for discrimination and hatred. “We don’t always want to be God or…go against the KKK. I just want to be a housewife. We have to be OK with being ordinary. There’s power in that.”

Sunitha Krishnan, Anti-Trafficking Crusader and Co-Founder of Prajwala. "You cannot wipe us out, the war is on. Even if I'm not there, there are many others that will continue the fight"

“The weight of the responsibility can kill the joy.” – Viola Davis

Regarding her bold recent decision to go take off her makeup, wig, and even lashes during a recent Murder episode, Davis said her goal was to humanize her role, down to the way the character’s dialogue is written. “I felt if I took my lashes off, it will force the writer to write the human. “An actor has to create a human being. It’s not about vanity. Vanity has no place in acting.”

The Jekyll and Hyde of Tech

With the conference coming right on the heels of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there was much to say about the state of technology, and whether it’s our salvation or destruction. To be sure, the advances made for women in the last hundred years have coincided with an enormous technological revolution. The internet has served as a major tool in the female revolution, allowing, for example, thousands of people to click attend and instigate women’s marches that began last year. Similarly, advances made in med-tech have significantly lowered the death rate for breast cancer patients. A recent study by Sarah Friedewald, M.D. found a 41 percent increase in the detection of invasive Breast Cancer as well as a 29 percent increase in the finding of all forms of the cancer. The World Wide Web has even helped women kick-start female-run businesses, as with just a few clicks of a button ladies can search for women’s-focused VC firms or start their own crowdfunding campaigns.  What, however, transpired in the 2016 election and with the revelation of this major Facebook data breach, and the irrefutable evidence of sexism in Silicon Valley, many had pause to question if these advances in tech were indeed aiding, or impeding women.

Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi joined the fray to contradict the notion that technology was damaging the female outlook, and admittedly took some flak for both Uber’s bro culture and the safety concerns for women surrounding the app. Khosrowshahi, who came from Expedia to Uber in the wake of its “brogate,” acknowledged the impediments to growth for women in tech while simultaneously laying out his new safety features for Uber, launched following harrowing stories of rogue drivers and self-driving cars.

The ride-sharing app’s CEO was not alone in defending tech over the three days, with many female tech entrepreneurs gracing the stage, sharing a belief that women’s future within the sector certainly looks to be a bright one. On the other hand, the perils of the burgeoning tech industry in the Third World were duly noted by Indian anti-trafficking activist Sunitha Krishnan. Krishnan stated vehemently that the social media landscape in India was only serving to aid the activities of the traffickers. “Tech is aggravating this,” she said. “it’s making it more faceless, more clandestine.”

Margaret Atwood, "Once in a while it happens to books they escape from their cover and take on a life of their own"
“Money is a Dirty Word”

Women have a track record of shying from talking hard cash. Whether it’s a wage negotiation, fundraising, or simply chatting with friends and significant others about finances, traditionally and statistically money is not a woman’s friend.

Because of a culmination of divorce, longer lifespans and despondency with the male population, 8/10 women will wind up alone in their later years and will need the financial wherewithal to handle it. The women on the stage during a talk entitled “Emotional Money” evinced horror stories of women in their fifties and sixties who divorced only to find themselves as financially illiterate as a 16-year-old opening her first checking account. This is in part their own fault, but also the fault of patriarchal systems. In fact, it was after all only 1974 before women could have their own credit card in this country.

But this apathy women have for money persists, and can be seen in the rising millennial today. “I still see and hear a lot of ‘well, this is our money now,’” commented Carmen Wong, CEO & Founder of Malecon Productions, on the subject of modern women’s financial neglect once in a couple. “Let’s be clear, you have to really understand your own autonomy. This is not genetic, the idea that you… can’t manage your money. You need to have your money, and you need to know where all that money is going.”

The panelists concurred that women are unfortunately very quick to abdicate from fiscal responsibility once they get into a serious relationship or marriage, as they are full-time jobs. Financial planning is thus taken out of their hands and into the hands of their significant other, and this is where a major obstacle to improvement lies. With the knowledge that the economy will be undergoing a “tectonic shift,”  becoming 50 percent freelance by 2027, the theme of lifestyle volatility for women coincided with that of financial planning and budgeting. “We realized that one of the outcomes of the incredible flexibility that the gig economy provides…is this budgeting crisis,” remarked Jennifer Rademaker the Executive Vice President of Global Customer Delivery at Mastercard, during a panel on the future of the workforce (which is gradually getting older and more female), which also starred celebrated TaskRabbit Founder, Leah Busque. “The key is flexibility,” said TK, adding that women are in need of jobs and careers that will allow them to live their lives as well. “There is so much more work that needs to be done.”

“There is no one ‘the future.’ There are a number of possible futures. What we get determines on what we do now.
-Margaret Atwood

Indeed many who took to the stage pointed to the rising percentage of female freelancers, but also to the detriment of the standard of living for those women. Such a situation provides no maternity leave, no healthcare, and little stability, but is ultimately more desirable for a woman who needs to take career interruptions or requires a flexible schedule.  

Her? She’s a prostitute.”

Slut shaming in the wake of the #metoo was both rapid and vapid. The scorn women were met with when telling their stories was indeed unprecedented, but in light of who was under scrutiny, to be expected.  #metoo and Time’s Up were inevitably central themes of the conference, shaping many of the conversations and driving a lot of emotional discussions. Having opened the event with the recording made by Ambra Battilana Gutierrez for the NYPD, and subsequently released by the New Yorker (the story then earning them a Pulitzer Prize), it set the tone for one of the most disturbing conversations of the three days.

Lining up on the stage during a talk called #metoo: Outrage From Europe, were Asia Argento, one of Harvey Weinstein’s first denouncers, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, an Italian model, and Laura Boldrini an Italian government official. Moderated by Ronan Farrow, the panel would endeavor to elucidate the ramifications of the Weinstein story throughout the world, and in particular, Europe, where, it was clear, the #metoo movement had certainly not taken hold.

Gutierrez, who went as a model to a Silvio Berlusconi party, only to find herself fielding unwanted advances from him, was labeled a prostitute and forced to leave her native home because of the scandal. Little did she know that leaving the misogyny of Italy’s dominant male culture would lead her into the path of Hollywood’s biggest predator, and then into a scandal that would become a catalyst for major change in her new home, the U.S.

As one of the first to publicly come forward against the sycophant, it was Argento who felt the biggest brunt of Weinstein backlash, as she was labeled a whore, prostitute and an opportunist by the Italian press. “The backlash, it was fuel that they threw into my fire,” said Argento, acknowledging that while she would receive much abuse online for her statements against the producer, it was worth it in the end, when the scores of other women’s stories began emerging into the public sphere.  

Be Your Own Revolution

It was only fifteen years ago when the women of Liberia, a small country on the coast of West Africa, stood up to then ‘elected dictator’ Charles Taylor, demanding peace and demanding respect for women who had endured decades of rape and torture during the country’s war years. Since then, the women’s revolution in Liberia has been recognized as a landmark for female movements in Africa and around the globe, and its gloriously-frank leader was on hand to share insights about DIY revolt. “Do you think men could have united in the same way?” CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell asked revolutionary leader Leymah Gbowee. “HELL NO!,” she said, to the raucous applause of the crowd. “It’s all about the ego [with men], not about the community.”

When it came time for Leymah to approach Charles Taylor, she put her and 6 other women’s name on a piece of paper and sent it out to the media so everyone would know exactly who the protesters were. The brazen and boldness of this move would ultimately mean the beginning of the revolution, and according to her, putting faces and names out there was ultimately the best start her girl gang could have made. She also underscored the importance of bravery and openness when advocating for change, especially given the way masses conduct activism today, behind a keyboard or faceless petitions.

“A lot of the activism in the world today is lazy,” she noted. “You sit behind your computers, use pseudonyms, no one knows who you are. You bash the world, you sign statements online.” Her words, arguably stinging everyone in the room who, like ourselves we’re sure, has at one time or another signed an online petition and thought that that was good enough. But it’s not. Taking action away from the internet and a myriad of hashtags, instead of into real-life applications is the only way big, effective change can be made. Leymah’s movement, for example, took to sex strikes in order to stop the men- one man at a time- from fighting and instigate peacetime in Liberia. And it worked like a charm.

The Forgotten Women

Throughout the event, women from countries even we had to Google, took to the stage to speak out against brutality, violence, and subjugation. These women, who represent the underserved silent female communities in their homelands, shared emotional testimonies of the regions and women left behind in the sweeping #metoo movement. Also in the category are those women in the U.S, from disadvantaged areas, who experience assault at a very young age, who, statistics show are very likely to wind up in the prison system later in life because the resulting mental state from the assault is never treated. These are the women you won’t see on primetime television or gracing the covers on the newsstands, and this is silent, but deafening sexism and racism, and nobody is talking about it.

These women on the fringes of society were also mentioned by 11-year-old Naomi Wadler on March 24th when she got up in front of thousands at the latest protest for gun control in Washington, D.C, she knew she had to talk about these forgotten women. “I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news,” she said. “I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant beautiful girls full of potential.”

Her speech highlighted media impertinence and bias here in the U.S against women of color. Championing this subconscious prejudice, women like Viola Davis, activist Sunitha Krishnan, and  Dr. Fozia Alvi from the Punjab region took to stage to discuss the mirroring global problem of multicultural underrepresentation, their message became eerily clear: we’re much too focused on white women, and only those “comfortable” problems in our immediate vicinity.

With this knowledge and a focus on bringing together those changemakers who can rewrite the future, Tina Brown set out to bring in women from around the world to broadcast their stories and get people talking about situations that are too often neglected by mainstream media. Sunitha Krishnan, for one, painted a dejected figure as she spoke about the current situation for females who encounter trafficking in India. “The numbers are just growing, my anger is growing,” remarked the outspoken leader, as she told the audience about the rape of an eight-year-old child that had happened three days previous in a temple. Krishnan, who runs shelters for women trying to avoid captivity at the hands of traffickers or who have escaped the underground business, is constantly under threat, along with the women and children who habitually move through her care.

Equally forgotten are incarcerated women, arguably this country’s most jarringly ignored minorities. The US incarcerates more women than anyone else in the world, and it’s these prisoners, and the neglect they face, that had speaker Holly Harris, Executive Director for the Justice Action Network, in tears as she spoke. “The women that funnel into the prison system because of neglect, because of subjugation of the youth,” she said, also touching on the danger of “private prisons,” calling them the “biggest obstacle” to prison reform. “I don’t care how much money they save,” she said. “There’s not a price you can put on the lives of the individuals.”

In short and on behalf of women everywhere, SWAAY sends a heartfelt thank you to Tina Brown for facilitating such an important masterclass in navigating a new culture where men still rule, but women are rising. There may be much more to be done, but we can only get there by coming together, lifting our thoughts and voices into powerful unison.  Women in The World is a reminder of how much women bring to the table, and how much we can change the world when we unite.

All photos courtesy of Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit / Tina Brown Live Media

Belisa Silva and Amy Corcoran

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