Reflections on the ‘Women in the World Summit’
Making a spectacle of American self-absorption

Tina Brown and Angelina Jolie at the Women in the World Summit, March 8, 2012


Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who last year had stressed the good fortune and responsibilities of American women, was now back to moderate a grievance panel entitled, “Where Are the Women at the Top?” The speakers, mostly women at the top, addressed the plight of American women and how our revolution had “stalled.” The revolution does not seem to have stalled at the New York Times. Its executive editor, Jill Abramson, is a woman, as are 40 percent of her newsroom’s top editors and managers. Yet panelist Abramson asked, “What can we do to get more women to the top? That is obsessing me right now at the Times.” She said she was especially concerned that young women editors “get known.” (Pity the young male editors who work for her.) Most of the panelists viewed Hillary Clinton’s failure to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 as evidence of deep misogyny in the culture. Feminist blogger Shelby Knox explained that many young women voted for Obama rather than for Clinton because of “horrible sexism.” It left them “terrified.” Obama seemed like a “safer” choice.

Knox’s logic was obscure, but panelist Gloria Steinem heartily agreed. Steinem brought down the house when she explained why men fear powerful women. “Female authority is still associated with childhood: The last time a lot of guys saw a powerful woman, they were eight, and they feel regressed to childhood by female authority in a way that they might not feel regressed to childhood by a man.” (For the record, a new Heartland Monitor Poll finds that 71 percent of men have had a female boss or supervisor, and that 75 percent of women answer yes to the question, “In your workplace, do you believe you can advance as far as your talents take you regardless of your gender?”)

The highlight of the summit was an appearance by Secretary of State Clinton. All that was admirable and appalling about the gathering was contained in her talk. Secretary Clinton refocused attention on the heroism of women dissidents in places such as China, Pakistan, Burma, Nepal, Liberia, Egypt, and Tunisia. She said it was part of the “American mission to ensure that people everywhere — men and women alike — have the opportunity to live up to their God-given potential.” But then came the pivot:

Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They all want to control women. They want to control how we dress. They want to control how we act. They even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and our own bodies. . . . Yes, it is hard to believe that even here at home, we have to stand up for women’s rights and reject efforts to marginalize any one of us, because America needs to set an example for the entire world.

The American secretary of state then compared the bravery of Sandra Fluke to that of Burmese dissidents — praising women who are “assuming the risks that come with sticking your neck out, whether you are a democracy activist in Burma or a Georgetown law student in the United States.” The audience was overjoyed.

The absurdity of Secretary Clinton’s comparison was heightened by the presence of Zin Mar Aung, a 36-year-old activist from Burma. Aung spent eleven years in solitary confinement in a Burmese jail for the crime of carrying pro-democracy flyers and expressing solidarity with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She told us she survived her confinement by reciting a poem over and over again: “Someone can imprison your body, but not your mind.” What did she do once she was freed from prison? She immediately began protesting again. “We try to deliver the message: Democracy is not only for the West, but for all human beings,” she said. “Why can’t we practice it in our society?” She is a Burmese Patrick Henry, and I was thrilled to be in the same room with her.