Politics & Policy

Reflections on the ‘Women in the World Summit’

Making a spectacle of American self-absorption

It isn’t easy to attract 2,000 people to a conference on women’s rights. But Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, carried it off. On March 8, she filled an auditorium at Lincoln Center in New York City with mostly high-powered professional women and kept them enthralled for three days. Even on day three, Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m., the hall was packed. This year’s “Women in the World Summit” was much larger than the 2010 and 2011 editions. The surroundings were grander, the special effects more impressive. With generous funding from HP, Bank of America, Toyota, Intel, Coca-Cola, and other corporations, the entire event was exquisitely choreographed. The program was filled with celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, and Oprah, and star journalists such as Barbara Walters, Christiane Amanpour, and Andrea Mitchell.

Yet this year’s gathering was a letdown. Last year’s summit was confident, positive, and non-partisan. It was focused on honoring and helping those who are working to advance the status — often lowly and precarious — of women in the developing world. As Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg then said to the assembled women, “We’re here because we know that with good fortune comes not just the opportunity to help but the responsibility to help others.” The 2012 summit, by contrast, was intensely partisan: A recurring theme was the alleged war against women waged by Republicans. More generally, the gathering was suffused with the grievances and anti-male vitriol of successful, wealthy American women. It was as if the women’s-rights activists from Liberia, Egypt, and Burma were there to offer succor and guidance to American women in our time of need. Tina Brown said as much in the Daily Beast: “It is ironic that American women now need to be fortified by the inspiration of the women of the Arab Spring, who risked so much to win basic human rights.” What is ironic, and sad, is that Brown has lost track of the purpose and meaning of the summit, her own brilliant creation.

The stars of the summit, this year as in previous ones, were women’s-rights activists from across the globe, mostly unknown in the United States. On one panel after another, we heard from change agents successfully combating child marriage in Pakistan, indentured slavery in Burma, femicide in the Congo, and genital cutting in Senegal. The conference began with a riveting presentation on the plight of British girls whose parents take them out of school at 14 or 15 and send them to Pakistan to marry strangers. We heard a recording of a terrified girl calling a hotline and explaining that she might be forced onto an airplane at any minute. The calm, focused person on the line told her that if she did not have time to escape to a shelter and found herself being whisked away to the airport, she should place a metal spoon inside her underclothes. That would set off alarms at the airport security line and she would be sequestered for questioning. She could then tell her story.

The discussion revealed that mothers are often the ones most determined to force their daughters into marriages. And it showed that the solutions were being forged by brave women and men working together. The panel included two extraordinary men, one of whom is stationed in Islamabad and leads rescue operations. Also present were two young women who escaped forced marriages. One of them, Jasvinder Sanghera, has founded an organization called Karma Nirvana, which works to stop forced marriage and honor killings. Its motto: “No apologies. No excuses. No backing down.” The group receives 5,000 calls a year.

One of the many things the summit does right is to highlight solutions. Molly Melching is an American woman who has spent the past 36 years living in Senegal working with locals to improve the status of women. A few years ago, she and her Senegalese colleagues realized that their efforts to stop genital mutilation were not working. Their focus had been on educating women and raising their awareness of their rights and needs. They came to realize that to foment change, they had to involve the entire community — especially male tribal leaders. By involving local imams, by appealing to their impulse to protect vulnerable women, and by working with rather than against local traditions, Melching’s group has achieved something unprecedented. More than 4,000 villages have abandoned genital cutting. Melching was joined by Imam Demba Diawara, a Senegalese village chief who is leading a national effort to replace harmful traditions with healthy ones.

But when House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi spoke, she had nothing to say about the plight of women in the developing world except that their example could inspire American women in our struggle against oppression. “This is our moment,” said an impassioned Pelosi. The “moment” in question was created by congressional Republicans who are opposed to the federal government’s requiring religious organizations to fund birth control, and by Rush Limbaugh’s vulgar tirade against Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University reproductive-rights activist. Pelosi urged her American sisters to “have the courage of the suffragists and all that they did . . . and of the women who took part in the Arab Spring.” Expect the worst, she warned. “Whatever the arena is, it is stacked against us.” Her interviewer, journalist Pat Mitchell, concurred and described the current environment in the United States as a “nightmare.”

Over and over again, the conference morphed into a super-charged political rally for the reelection of Barack Obama. Prominent American Democrats stole the show from the valiant unknowns battling violent oppression of women in far-off lands. Beside Pelosi, speakers included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, U.S. ambassador on global women’s issues Melanne Verveer, State Department chief of staff Cheryl Mills, and former Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman, now president of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Harman quipped that that there is no glass ceiling — “just a thick layer of men.” The image so delighted the audience that she said it again the next day.

When Madeleine Albright took the stage, she recited some standard “women are wonderful” bromides about how we outshine men when it comes to “consensus building” and “operating well with others.” Her interviewer, Charlie Rose, asked her why there are still so few women in power in the United States. Before he could finish the question she blurted out “men!” A surprised Rose replied, “It’s us?” The audience loved it. Ms. Albright continued, “There is a real question among American women whether or not there should be quotas as to how many women are elected to their legislatures.” She acknowledged that quotas for political office are not popular in the United States, but implied that strong and unpopular measures may be needed. “People say there are not enough ‘qualified’ women. That is one of the biggest bull**** things I have ever heard,” Albright explained. “There are men who do not want to see women in power.”

No doubt there are such men, but a new study from the Women and Politics Institute at American University confirms what previous research has shown: Men are not the problem. When women run for office, they are just as likely to win as men. Taken as a group, their success at fundraising and getting out the vote is equal to that of men. “The fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office,” the authors conclude, “There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it; and women don’t.”

Ms. Albright ended her session by saying, “There is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.” But her misdiagnosis was all about censuring men, not helping women.

The crowd’s most passionate reaction came during an interview with American war photojournalist Lynsey Addario. Addario is a talented and brave photographer who often finds herself in harm’s way. While covering the Libyan uprising, she was kidnapped, physically and sexually assaulted, and told by her captors that she was going to be killed. Newsweek editor Christopher Dickey, the interviewer, unwittingly asked a forbidden question: “You have a ten-week old baby. Are you going to keep doing this?” Addario’s jaw dropped, anger flashed across her face, and she shot back, “Do you ask men that question?” The audience reacted to this brilliant repost with deafening applause, cheering, whistling, catcalls, and stomping. Poor Dickey: In his natural solicitude for a new mother, he had shown himself to be part of the thick layer of men.

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.

Americans are debating whether Catholic (and other) institutions should be required to pay for their employees’ and students’ birth-control pills, and what if any procedures women might be required to go through before obtaining an abortion. This is called democracy. The Burmese freedom fighters are risking their lives, and suffering grievously, to win this form of government for themselves. For American women on one side of our democratic debates to compare their circumstances to those of the Burmese freedom fighters is insulting and embarrassing.

Rush Limbaugh’s crude attack on Sandra Fluke is another matter. Vulgar misogyny is a blight on American politics and culture, and the Women’s Summit could have confronted it squarely and responsibly. But doing so would have acknowledged the arguments of Peggy Noonan and others that casual misogyny is at least as prevalent on the American left as on the right. Noonan, needless to say, was not on the program; the issue was just part of the partisan script.

Women in the World 2012 juxtaposed brave, calm, fiercely determined women and men who are fighting female subjugation in some of the most benighted parts of the world with a disconcerting spectacle of American self-absorption. Women at the pinnacle of American politics — women of great accomplishment, accustomed to thinking and speaking with care and precision — indulged in loose and thoughtless rhetoric. The audience, attending a sumptuous conference at one of the world’s premier cultural venues, gloried in fantasies of male oppression and American nightmare.

Tina Brown and her associates have now launched the Women in the World Foundation that will bring together “courageous women of impact” and connect them with philanthropists, journalists, and each other. Despite the antics of this year’s conference, the foundation has great potential. Equity feminism did succeed in liberating women in the United States, and we are now in a position to support fledgling women’s movements throughout the world. We have a vast army of female lawyers, editors, journalists, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists who have made it to the top. American women have clout, connections, and the know-how to change the world for the better. But doing so will require a new attitude of seriousness, realism, gratitude, and, as Sheryl Sandberg put it at the previous summit, responsibility.

— Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Her books include Who Stole Feminism and The War against Boys.


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