Rita Henley Jensen

(WOMENENEWS)–As part of preparing for our gala tonight, I read aloud to a staff member every word in the official biographies of this year’s Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century. The program was going to the printer and we wanted to ensure no typos had crept in and no requests for changes had been ignored.

What could have been a tedious exercise was not. Instead, as I read along, page after page, my smile widened and my heart lifted ever higher. Each leader was wonderful, dedicated, smart, savvy, committed to women. Yes. But it was the accumulation, one after the other, one in business, one in reproductive rights, one in politics, one in education, sports, documentaries, history, and on and on. Elation filtered through me as I read once again of the actions of so many, working so hard and successfully on behalf of women.

The Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century gala, held in New York in May, raises funds that helps make it possible for you, our readers, to continue to receive every day another story about women somewhere in the world. Our goal is that this news breaks the sound barrier that prevents the views and experiences of women from being included in what is produced by other news outlets.

Women’s eNews selects this week to celebrate the 21 leaders because we are commemorating an incident in journalism history that continues to inspire us. On May 21, 1889, the newspaper owned by Ida B. Wells burned to the ground because the former slave dared to challenge in her newspaper the lynching of three men. Wells fled Memphis and began her national fight against lynching through her writings and lectures. She remains our inspiration, standing as she does for committed, passionate and risk-taking journalism.

I learned about Wells when I was in college at Ohio State University. I also had the chance there to work for the campus newspaper and get a taste of what I came to see as the wonderful gift being in the news media provides.

Because the assignment desk knew I was a single mother, I was given the story of a mother who was also an OSU law school student who lost custody of her child in a highly unusual ruling. While judges rarely involve themselves in custody issues unless the parents are battling, her divorce court judge on his own motion–even though the parents had no dispute over custody–ordered the law student to surrender her child to her father, the child’s maternal grandfather. The judge deemed her unfit because she was spending too much time in classes and studying. Custody was handed to the mother’s father. Just like that.

As a good journalist, I had to verify the facts. I called her attorney, a professor at OSU law school. He too was outraged, and he had the knowledge, experience and affidavits to show why the judge’s move was all wrong.

My notepad was full after our interview. I hung up the phone thinking this is so cool: When this kind of stuff happens, I get to call up the smartest people, write down what they have to say and then tell the world. Fantastic.

That is the first time I can remember breaking the sound barrier; giving a woman’s voice the power to penetrate all the forces denying her simple justice. The story wound up on the front page and soon custody was returned to the law student.

Now, that is what Women’s eNews is all about.

Barriers still prevent women from being heard and heeded. That is why Women’s eNews covers women who experience injustice and those working to assist them. We also cover the many who leap over or go around the barriers, if they help others to do the same. This gets us into every aspect of civil society: health policy, foreign policy, business, trade unions, households, electoral politics, legal affairs, sports, philanthropy, culture and academia.

Women’s eNews reporters are out there reporting on women’s experience. They are making phone calls and sending e-mails. They are getting on planes, trains, buses and driving to meet sources. They are gathering data, information and quotes, acting on the belief that women have the right to be heard and must be heard.

Nicole Itano, a correspondent from Africa, flew to Zimbabwe to report on women’s anti-government protests. In Zimbabwe, it is now illegal to publish information about the government’s policies. Nevertheless, Itano went to the streets to cover a woman’s demonstration and narrowly escaped arrest before she filed her story.

A New York Times columnist produced a particularly poorly informed piece indicating that smart men were not attracted to smart, ambitious women. Our board member Caryl Rivers fired back within 24 hours, writing a piece that made mincemeat of the data cited by the Times’ writer. Rivers’ response was widely quoted by other news media, including the Los Angeles Times. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran it in full.

And when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Michele Bachelet were setting the stage for their electoral victories in Liberia and Chile, we were among the first to tell an international audience about them and how they exemplified female leaders emerging throughout Africa and Latin America, bringing new hope and strategies for sound governance, health and economic policies.

That is what Women’s eNews does every day: We cover the issues of particular concern to women through the thoughts and ideas of ordinary women and leaders around the globe, like those honored at tonight’s gala.

These 21 individuals, nominated by our readers, are leaders much like those Anne Firth Murray describes in her book “Paradigm Found.” They had a vision, developed a plan to implement it, were open to diversity and welcomed others to share in their vision. They speak for battered women, entrepreneurial women and impoverished women. They speak for women struggling to balance work with family, women in unions, women struggling to protect reproductive health, female military veterans. They speak for women who are silenced and ignored.

Their images and words will be recorded, posted on our Web site and heard around the world, inspiring others to also act, speak and be heard.

Meanwhile, we women have this, our own, professional news service. We no longer need to rely on the scant and often slanted attention to our issues provided by other news media. We can alert the citizens of the world to gender injustices as well as women’s triumphs. We can break the sound barrier every single day.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

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