Ms. Gloria

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A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men. – Gloria Steinem

I had the most amazing pleasure of meeting Gloria Steinem on Wednesday at an event to benefit the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and the Women’s Media Center (for which Gloria is a co-founder). As a feminist and an advocate for human rights, this was not only a dream come true but an inspirational moment that I will remember for the rest of my life. I will tell my daughter about it one day. I will share it with my granddaughters. I will remember the words of wisdom she dispelled on that night cold night in Chicago in a lovely family’s home amongst 125 women and girls.

It has taken me a few days to write this post because a) I was on travel for work and b) it’s taken me a little while to come down from cloud 9 and process everything she said. I’m still processing, but I am ready to share my thoughts and feelings around the night.

First, I have to mention that Gloria Steinem is so incredibly kind, genuine, and such a kindred spirit. When introduced to her, I expected to shake her hand, smile, pose for a picture, and be on my way so the other 124 women could get their photo opp. But instead, she shook my hand, asked what I did, looked me in the eye, smiled, and then told me I was an inspiration. Yes, Gloria Steinem said I was an inspiration. I just about died. I know what you’re thinking — she probably says that to all the young women she meets. And you’re probably right, I am sure she said it so several of the women and girls she met throughout her 3-part event on Wednesday. But what matters is the genuine way in which she said it. The thing about Gloria is she truly does find inspiration in young women and girls who are using their voices, speaking out, impacting change, and pushing forward.

I got my photo and had a permanent smile plastered across my face for the rest of the evening… heck, the rest of the week.

ImageAnd then, we were all hushed and began to gather in the living room for Gloria to share her words of courage and wisdom with us. The coolest part was that there were 25 or so 13-17 year old girls who were invited to have a small “fire side” chat with Gloria. I will say with 100% honesty, I’m not sure what was more inspiring: Gloria or the young group of girls. The poise and intelligence these girls demonstrated was fantastic. They asked questions like “How can we utilize all of the political capital that women and girls have?” and “How can we make sure these conversations are not being led by just white women but rather a diverse group of women.” I remember looking at my friend and saying “Gosh, I was not even thinking about these things at 15, 16 years old. Heck, I’m not saying “political capital” now.” It truly was amazing to watch the conversation unfold with Gloria Steinem, the mother of feminism, a hero who paved the way for women and girls, and a group of our future. It was refreshing. Inspirational. and brilliant.

Gloria said something that truly struck me even though it seems so simple and common sensical. She said something to the effect of “we shouldn’t focus on generalities but instead particularities.” So many arguments are made in sweeping manners. “Everyone on welfare is lazy,” “feminists are man-haters.” These are the arguments and the radical points that attempt to silence the rational thinking of complex issues facing society. Generalities are isolating, suffocating, and can be ignorant. Instead, we must focus on the particularities. The “Why’s” and the “whats” It’s unpacking an issue and not seeing it face value. I also think this can be related to how we view ourselves, our goals, our passions, our dreams. My mentor, Rebecca Sive once said to me “It’s not about how big the dream is, but how possible.” Sometimes we think if we aren’t on the path to being the next Gloria Steinem, then what’s the point. But there is so much we can be doing to achieve our dreams.

Which leads me to a conversation I had last night while speaking at a panel on human trafficking for the World Affairs Counsel in Jacksonville, IL. At a pre-panel dinner, an older gentleman in his late 60’s early 70’s looked at myself and two students who were also at the table and said, “What’s wrong with the world and how are you going to fix it?” We chuckled and looked at each other wondering who was going to answer that loaded question at which point the gentleman followed up and said, “No but seriously. My generation, we were angry. Really angry. And we marched. But yours, I don’t think you’re angry.” I smiled and said “Oh don’t worry, we are angry. It just looks different. You had your voice and your feet, we have our voice and technology. We use social media to express our anger. We write letters to representatives. We create documentaries and videos.”

And then after the panel discussion on human trafficking, an audience member asked “well what can we do?” I knew exactly what to say and who to quote. I said:

Organize. It sounds simple. But look around, there are 120 people in this auditorium. If you organized and told others about this issue, it could be extremely powerful and impact change. The way Gloria Steinem organized perhaps looks different than how you and I might because of the tools we have available today. But make a Facebook status, Tweet this event, write a blog article. Do it together. Do what you’re not supposed to. Challenge yourself and others to think creatively about how to combat human trafficking.

I believe we will all look back on our lives when we’re older and remember a few moments and a few people. I know that when I look back, my moment will be in the living room and a person I will remember is Ms. Gloria.

Lose Lose Situation

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For some, Sheryl Sandberg has “hijacked feminism” and added “controversial author” to her list of esteemed accomplishments — right below COO of Facebook. All because she wrote Lean In, a book about her journey to the top as not just a woman but a business woman, a Harvard graduate, a mother, and a wife. As a woman in positions traditionally held by men, Sandberg has been criticized, insulted, judged, and degraded throughout her career. So the heat she has received in the media ever since her book was released (and prior as well) likely doesn’t sting all that much. Regardless, she’s received some pretty serious pushback in the media, particularly among those who proudly claim to be feminists and demand that Sandberg step down from espousing feminism and gender equality.

I originally heard about Sandberg and her book all in one article that was criticizing her for well, writing the book in the first place. It questioned her motives and referred to has as an elitist on a marketing campaign not striving to change the world. I remember thinking, “hm, I need to read this book because I love to read things that challenge me and make me furious all at the same time.” That’s what this article made me think the book would evoke. So I broke down and bought it a few days ago and I have been taking the bus instead of the train to lengthen my commute, guarantee me a seat, and allow me to dive into the thoughts, values, beliefs, and experiences of a very successful woman. Maureen Dowd is scoffing so loud right now.

No but seriously, the critics of Sandberg need to take a step back and realize that your arguments are not founded in much of anything. Yes, Sheryl Sandberg is a white, affluent, successful, and nonetheless powerful woman. Yes, she got to go to college and then graduate school at Harvard Business School. Yes, she has worked for the Treasury Department, Google, and Facebook. Yep, you’re right, she is an elite and she doesn’t speak to women, especially women of color, who are living in poverty. Because you’re right, her principles, lessons, and experiences doesn’t reflect the power women of color in this country. These are all things she acknowledges and admits in the first few pages of her book. She did not write for an audience of underprivledged women and girls. She wrote for women who would read her book and for men and institutions contributing to the gender gap. It is these people who can, should and will implement change and open doors for poor women living in poverty

Not everyone who writes about gender, equality, and feminism has to be writing about or on behalf of poor women of color. And quite frankly, it’s disrespectful to think so. Plus, if Sandberg had written her book out of outrage for the fact that her experiences and success are so far out of reach of poor women of color, people would be criticizing her just as much saying “She’s just some rich white woman trying to speak to the realities of people from which she is so far removed.”

Even so, Sandberg led her introduction with the devastating statistics regarding women in this country as well as around the globe and how unequal we truly are. She did not focus each chapter on this devastation nor did she drench her pages in history and the women’s movement towards liberation. That wasn’t the purpose of her book and we should not discount what she does have to say based on what some people think should have been said. She states, right off the bat, “I am writing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously.” She recognizes also that “the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families,” and that “parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work.” You see, she countered all of the anticipated push back in the first few pages of her book. She was not trying to come off as some hero to the less fortunate women in the world.

Although her advice and lessons learned were born out of prestige, excellence, affluence, and privilege, they can be equally applied to the mother that is working double shifts or two to three jobs to take care of their families.Building up confidence, speaking even when we are not asked to, and leaning in instead of sitting back are ways all women can better their lives. Yes, it’s easier said than done, especially for those living in poverty. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say it, discuss it, and empower women who most would think don’t stand a chance to reclaim their voice and lean in rather than be silenced.

Certainly, Sandberg is right when she writes, “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.” We all applaud and stand proud when we see the number of women graduating from college, entering the workforce, and being elected to public office. Yet when a COO of the most successful and well-known social media site tries to highlight the underpinnings of our excitement and pride, she’s shunned.

Sandberg isn’t blaming the victim nor is she letting the deep rooted causes and institutional patriarchy off the hook by placing tools into the hands of women. She didn’t write this book for women, she wrote it for both men and women. Many of Sandberg’s mentors were men due to the fact that they accepted her and valued her for her skills, mind, and leadership not because of her pencil skirt, high heels, and cleavage. They didn’t reduce her down to her gender, they listened to her. Indeed, the best leaders are the best listeners.

The critics — which should be noted are mostly women — are pushing back based on the same notions that Sandberg is trying to also push back on. She’s being hushed because she’s a (successful) woman and a mother. She is exactly what the feminist movement has strove for. Sandberg stopped waiting to be told what to do and what to say a long time ago.

Her lessons, advice, and feedback motivate me every day as I try to “make it” in this world. My peers, those criticizing her in the media, my colleagues — we are all women who are relatively successful and well-off in the grand scheme of things. As a social worker, I will espouse the principles and the ideals she writes about as I try to empower women who otherwise would not be given a chance. I will also take notes on how to be a strong, confident, and respected leader who is equally part of a team because it is through leadership and collaboration that we will make the world a better place.