From the stage of the Women in the World (WITW) conference, a summit organized by media powerhouse Tina Brown for the sixth year in a row, Sunitha Krishnan, a feisty Indian anti-trafficking activist, asked the audience: ”Why are we silent? Why do we sit and expect someone else to ring the bell?”
She wanted to know why her campaign to stop rape by shaming rapists has found such little support. Yet her question, angry at the state of things (“enough is enough!” she declared), begged for a deeper answer. When the moderator asked what could the audience do to help, Krishnan said she was worried the conference would amount to a couple of days spent with great women in a nice, air-conditioned environment, listening to inspiring stories and revealing good intentions that ultimately were not going to result in much action.
That is, indeed, a legitimate worry to have as women’s conferences are frequent (at the time of writing, two big events, WITW and Power of Women‘s luncheon, took place in New York alone this week). Year after year, events like WITW dot the influencers’ agendas, little progress toward true gender equality appears to be made. Women are working in all corners of the world to improve the conditions of their sisters—but there is no real movement, and movements get things done.
Meryl Streep, who spoke at WITW about her new movie Suffragettes, showed a clip from the film in which her character, British political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, incites women to resort to violent revolt if that’s what it requires to be taken seriously and gain the right to vote.
It worked. A milder-mannered movement worked in the US, too.
When we are outraged about racial inequality and police brutality we take the streets, we scream, we march. When we demand gay rights, we march, we dance, we parade. But when we want women to be respected, paid equally, granted paid maternal leave, given leading roles, what do we do? Talking can’t be the only answer.
Women’s conferences—especially the high-level ones, from UN events to élite gatherings with steep price tags and notable revenue—follow a particular template.
The vast majority of speakers are inspiring women: a mix of celebrities, experts, and individuals with the most remarkable stories to share. At WITW, just to name a few, Hillary Clinton spoke about her plans to advance the women’s agenda, were she to become president; Robi Damelin and Bushra Awad, two mothers who lost their sons to the Israel-Palestine conflict (one on each side) displayed true compassion and cooperation; Yeonmi Park, a young North Korean defector told the story of when, at 15, she walked across the Gobi Desert with her mother, in -40 degree weather, guided by the north star, just to be able to live with dignity; Marquesha Babers, a poet who grew up homeless, professed her belief that by being a poet she can change, if not the world, the lives of a few.
The attendees are, by and large, alpha females—they are privileged (tickets can be a couple of hundred dollars and invites land on the powerful’s desks), they are elegant and confident, predominantly white, focused on advancing the women’s cause: It’s hard not to feel a little out of place among such impressive (and so impressively coiffed and manicured) champions of female power, with whom the average woman might not share more than agreement that they don’t want to keep living in a man’s world, and, well, a vagina.
The speakers are outstanding (a reminder in itself that women, unlike men, still need to be amazing to be in any position of power), their stories—of great intelligence, struggle, commitment, and passion—inspiring. For two or three well-designed days, it feels plain awesome to be women, in an environment where everyone agrees that women are smart, that girls can and will have it all, that violence against women is an ill that all of society is responsible for. Seated in giant hall in Lincoln Center, it’s easy to laugh at jokes about paternalism and stereotypes about women. It’s easy to be moved and shocked, perhaps even enraged by the stories of discrimination, of denied rights.
But then, then what happens to that fire, where does that anger go? Attendees—many of whom feel galvanized and excited by what they have heard—leave with a sense (perhaps not entirely misplaced but exaggerated) that the conversation about women has great momentum.
But where does this momentum show? Where is the movement, outside the conference halls? Who is calling for a strike, a protest, a march? Where is the anger?
“We’ve dealt with slavery better than we’ve dealt with women,” Leslee Udwin, director of India’s Daughter, told Quartz at WITW. After we’ve made our social fights about slavery, race, homosexuality, the focus “had better be on women in the 21st century,” Udwin said.
But this won’t be the century of women if women don’t make it one. If women continue to show up for work, loyal and productive, even if they see their paycheck smaller and their promotions scarcer than men’s; if they still run their homes, even when the chores are divided, they’re usually the ones running the show; if they keep pushing their god-given gift of multitasking to the very limit and a bit beyond.
Women’s issues remain predominantly women’s issues—at the bottom of the world’s, and even more so of men’s, concerns. Frankly, why should it be different, until women aren’t the only ones to effectively suffer from gender inequality? Sure, the world’s growth is stunted by female’s untapped potential, but not until men stop benefitting from a system that negatively affects women, will they take up the cause.
Women have had enough inspiring examples and proof that they can win the fight for their rights. Now it’s the time to make that fight truly happen. This is not to say women should go out and break stuff, Suffragette-style, but maybe just raise our voices a little? Let’s move out of the conference room and create a real, feisty movement that tackles the long list of things that need to change for women to be true equals.
Let’s—all together—ring that bell, once and for all.