Understanding the (Untapped) Power of Women

Madeline di Nonno

Madeline di Nonno

Power of Women

When you walk into a room and fewer than 50% of the people there are women, “it should look peculiar,” said Madeline Di Nonno, executive director of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, “and it doesn’t.”

Marianne Williamson, in her lead-up to the upcoming November conference: SISTER GIANT: Women, Non-Violence and Birthing a New American Politics, points out that woman make up only 16.8% of our elected representatives in Congress–a figure very close to the 17% cited by Di Nonno as the percentage of female characters we see “in the environment” in film and on TV.

What’s going on here and how do we change it?

On Friday, the West Hollywood Women’s Advisory Board observed Women’s Equality Day with Understanding Our Power, a roundtable discussion moderated by Dianne Callister, academic, theologian, and director of foundations that benefit children and mothers around the world. Di Nonno brought her expertise in media; attorney Angela Reddock spoke from her experience in labor and employment law and city politics while licensed clinical social worker Judi Miller Levy based her remarks on extensive work in the field of domestic and sexual violence.

angela reddock

Angela Reddock

In spite of the power women clearly have and 92 years after we won the right to vote, the speakers considered why, in Di Nonno’s words, “women have stalled out.”

Women in Public Life

“Men just automatically think they should run,” Di Nonno said. “Women think they have to be asked.”

But it’s more complicated than just waiting for an invitation. “We are balancing so many interests and family and other obligations,” said Reddock, but we need to be present. “In LA”–unlike West Hollywood–”we face the possibility of not having a woman on the LA City Council. Many of the male council members are my friends,” she said, “and so is the mayor, but I know, having been in so many closed-door sessions, that a woman’s voice is so important. We have to be in the room.” (Reddock got a big response from the audience when she wished women had a voice in designing women’s bathrooms.)

The experience of violence holds women back, said Levy. “A lot of energy is expended just surviving. Depression and PTSD use up energy and resources” that would otherwise be given to families and communities. “Even if you’re not a survivor, the fear is a reality for so many women, it’s a fear in all women.”

Gender-Based Violence

“Are we afraid to show our power,” Callister asked, “because it promotes those negative aspects?”

Levy advocated considering the approach of Jackson Katz, the anti-sexist male activist. We have to stop thinking of the violence as a “women’s problem.” Violence perpetrated by men is a men’s problem, she said, “and it won’t be resolved by working only with women. Men are being acculturated in such a way that violence against women is allowed.” We need to confront in our culture the negative ideas of how to be a man and masculine and powerful and see how these ideas threaten the well being not just of women, but of men, she said.

Levy thinks the recent initiative by the City of Santa Monica is on the right track, a “large scale collaborative effort in male violence prevention” aimed at “acculturating boys to see themselves in a different way.” The program enlisted the participation of  everybody who works with young people–coaches, teachers, religious leaders, afterschool care workers–in a broad effort so that the values were expressed and modeled throughout the youth environment, not only by women, but by male role models as well.

dianne callister

Dianne Callister

A Global Perspective

According to the UN, gender-based violence is the #1 factor holding women back, Callister said. But there’s more: the majority of the world’s women cannot legally own land or property or wealth and have no access to credit. Less than 1% of sales to multinational corporations are from women who are “a growth reserve” of enormous untapped economic power. Even now, though often unpaid, women do more than 66% of the world’s work.

“Everything affects women,” Di Nonno said. “Climate change, war, economy.” The success of microfinance programs targeting woman has shown that when a woman starts a small business, she improves life not only for herself and her family but for her entire village. When women have access to capital, said Di Nonno, “you will see change in the world.” And it’s getting easier, she said. “With digital technology and smart phones, women can now access microfinancing on-line instead of walking three hours to a bank.”

In the US, our situation isn’t as dire, but true equality has not been achieved. When Abbe Land, West Hollywood mayor pro tem, welcomed the audience on Friday, she pointed out that the movement for women’s suffrage began in 1878 and it took 42 years to reach the goal.

judi miller levy

Judi Miller-Levy

(Only a fraction of the time African Americans still struggle for equality. But those 42 years reinforce the reality that activists must take the long view in working for change.)

Today, women still make 70 cents for every dollar paid to men, Callister said. In the extremely lucrative financial sector, the disparity is even greater: 50 cents to the dollar.

Since the Wal-Mart gender discrimination and pay case, Reddock sees many more women taking employers to court. Especially as women take on the major corporations, “we will start to see change.” But wherever you are employed, she said, you can start in small ways working for an equal playing field. Does your employer offer “a welcoming environment? Are accommodations made for us?” The City of Los Angeles, for example, just opened a room for employees where working mothers of infants can breastfeed.

Which brings us to the inevitable question.

Can We Have It All?

“Can men have it all?” asked Di Nonno. “Can anyone have it all?” She thinks the entire controversy aimed specifically at women was contrived by the media and not based in reality.

diane lefer“It’s impossible to do everything,” Reddock said. “The real question is having choices. Not having it all, but having choices” and having your choice respected.

“Being a woman in power shouldn’t mean you distance yourself from your womanhood,” said Levy. Being powerful and being a woman. “That’s having it all.”

Diane Lefer

Posted: Saturday, 25 August 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on August 25, 2012
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About Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer's books include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile and torture survivor Hector Aristizábal; the crime novel Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as "sifting the ashes of America's endless class warfare" and, most recently, her historical novel The Fiery Alphabet, which tells a woman's adventurous life-story against the backdrop of the 18th-century tension between Enlightenment values and religious faith.
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