Tina Brown’s annual Women in the World Summit has been a smashing presentation since it began humbly in Broadway’s Hudson Theater in 2010, presenting what Brown dubbed “theatrical journalism” on a stage that served up segment after segment—mostly panels but also one-on-one interviews—of powerful stories of women facing the issues of our day, with brilliance and with courage.
The summit moved in 2012 to Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater, where last month the agenda was star-studded as usual—no surprise given that Brown, one of the most talented magazine editors of her time, knows that the optics and voices of issues are as important as issues themselves. This year’s roster included Nobel peace laureate Leymah Gbowe, Ronan Farrow interviewing key #MeToo luminaries from Europe, the ever-regal Viola Davis, the prima ballerina Misty Copeland, and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton back again, but this time as a moderator of an irony-limned panel on authoritarianism’s rise.
But it was other content that got this attendee thinking about the solutions that must follow the stories in a more galvanic way than ever. We heard Sally Yates, briefly our attorney general, who stood up to POTUS by refusing to support his Muslim ban, admit (in an interview with Brown herself) that she’d been encouraged to run for office by many, including her own husband, but just doesn’t see herself doing so.
Later the eminent Margaret Atwood, author of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ the dystopian novel now translated to television, commented that none of the draconian policies she’s written about—most famously the ‘Handmaid’s’ story of women being mandated to bear children–hasn’t been tried in real life, reflecting some of the worst outcroppings of the patriarchy as expressed in policy.
A Yemeni woman, describing the death and destruction being visited on her nation by US bombs sold to the Saudis, added more kindling when she urged, “Fix US policy,” as the way to stop the war in Yemen.
But what set the fire going in my own mind was a rather garden-variety agenda item: a conversation with two women from the Senate, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Lisa Murkowski, moderated by veteran NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell.
Murkowski was bemoaning how slowly the Senate, once renowned for its ability to work across party lines and actually get things done, is moving these days due to deep divisions. “I have a solution,” interposed Gillibrand. “Elect more women.”
The conversation blossomed into an argument for doing just that. Murkowski and Gillibrand, who most assuredly have their policy differences, spoke of their friendship, incubated by the quarterly dinner of the women Senators, now numbering 23 with the recent swearing-in of Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, bringing women’s representation in Congress overall to just under 20 percent.
Mitchell referred to the women’s group as a caucus but was corrected because, by definition, a caucus has a business agenda. The sole purpose of the dinners is relationship-building. And it showed on the WITW stage. Gillibrand and Murkowski are both mothers of sons and often compare notes. Gillibrand praised Murkowski’s berry cobbler, sampled when Gillibrand’s family visited Murkowski’s in Alaska, where Murkowski’s husband took Gillibrand’s family fishing.
In addition to Murkowski, Gillibrand cited Republicans Susan Collins and former Senator Olympia Snowe, both of Maine, as valued collaborators across the aisle. Murkowski, who lost her initial primary but managed to get elected via write-in during a general election against all odds, commented, “There are no lines [in this case referring to partisan lines] in a write-in election,” underscoring her willingness to place effective governance above party, something that has incited recent presidential tweets.
The cumulative suggestion that emerged is that a key to solving most of the problems facing not just women and not just the nation but the entire world is for the people of the United States to elect more women. According to the Interparliamentary Union, the US ranks 109th globally when it comes to women’s representation in government. This despite the political science that has emerged in recent years suggesting vastly improved policy outcomes—more peace and prosperity, less war and privation—when women are fairly represented.
Well, signs are that this is changing. A January CNN.com commentary by Swanee Hunt and Andrea Dew Steele predicted a “seismic shift” as women rise up and run for elective office in unprecedented numbers. The op-ed was followed by a flurry of reportage, including a Time cover story called “The Avengers” and an important piece by Rebecca Traister of New York Magazine. It’s possible that 2018 could be even more important than 1992, dubbed “The Year of the Woman” when a record number of women—four—were elected to the Senate after its all-male judiciary committee confirmed the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court after Anita Hill (now helping lead the charge against sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era) came forward as an accuser and being, essentially, dismissed in terms of her credibility versus that of the accused.
At this point in this year’s election cycle, a record number of women have decided to run for Congress this year. (And the research is clear that women’s odds of winning are, historically, equal to those of men.) But a large number of men are running as well, suggesting that the predicted “pink wave” won’t be a cake walk. What can be done?
The running of women must be consistently lifted up as a major news story between now and the November election, especially for media that cover politics on a daily basis. Politico has taken the lead, with its Women Rule platform and its recently announced tracker of women’s races.
But more is needed. At all levels of government, let there be editors and producers and reporters who give attention to the candidacies of women, regardless of party, as the real news they represent, sometimes involving sexism, sometimes with other newsworthiness. When a New Jersey participant in the 2017 women’s march decided to run against a lawmaker who derided the marchers on Twitter, and defeated him, the media took note but not—in my mind—enough. It’s been said that you can’t be what you can’t see. Admittedly, it’s not the media’s job to encourage women to run for office. But by telling the legitimate stories of women running to upend the electoral patriarchy (including, by the way, the archaic Congressional rules for dealing with sexual harassment cases), the zeitgeist shifts. The same goes for invitations to women in Congress like Amy Klobuchar in the Senate and Jackie Speier in the House, serving on the judiciary committees in their respective bodies, to comment on the actions (or lack thereof) surrounding the Russia/Trump probe, as they often have on CNN. Let there be more elected women in front of the cameras speaking their minds with aplomb as they invariably do.
We have six months in which to turn up the volume on the second-biggest domestic news story of the year, a story that could help assure that the biggest news story of the year is not repeated. Whether individually via social media, or via the still-powerful mainstream media, let us permeate our national consciousness with the potential and power of women’s political leadership so that women like Sally Yates, when looking in the mirror, easily see a leader who can and should be elected.