In Case You Missed It: Women in the World Summit 2019

As speakers began to be announced for Tina Brown’s 10th
annual Women in the World Summit, which took place earlier this month, the news
came that Oprah Winfrey would be opening the powerful event that takes over
Lincoln Center’s Koch theater every April and invariably shakes the world with
seismic force.   New Zealand had just
suffered a terror attack, which had been met both in symbol (donning a
headscarf in grief and sympathy) and substance (taking action against automatic
weapons) with stunning effectiveness by the nation’s prime minister, Jacinda
Ardern, the 38-year-old leader who had made news for having given birth in
office (itself an important milestone in women’s rise to power).  I have no doubt that Brown tried to move
heaven and earth to bring Ardern on to the WITW stage, and my guess—my
fantasy—was that Oprah would engage her in compelling conversation.  That was not to be: Ardern, after all, has a
nation to run, and to heal. Addressing Brown’s tone-setting question for the summit,
“Can women save the world?”, Winfrey, probably as deserving of the Nobel Peace
Prize as Ardern herself surely is, took the podium.  Her opening words set the tone for what I found
to be the underlying conference theme: 
the intersectionality of race and gender as key to saving the
world.  Winfrey invoked the immortal
speech “Ain’t I A Woman,” proclaimed by Sojourner Truth in 1851 at a women’s
convention in Akron, Ohio.  Winfrey cited
case after case of women saving the world, most notably Prime Minister Ardern,
admonishing the audience of 2500 to “channel your inner Jacindas.”  Well known for doing that is Michelle Obama,
going high when others go low, whose autobiography, Winfrey noted, is on track
to become the best-selling memoir of all time. The interweaving of racial and gender equality was noted in
a subsequent panel by Dr. Brittney Cooper, an African American professor at
Rutgers University, who said she knew that the current wave of women’s activism
would soon be upon us after Black Lives Matter emerged because, for more than
150 years in America, this has been a pattern in our nation’s history.  She cited Maria (pronounced Mariah) Stewart,
a black woman in Boston who spoke out about women’s rights years ahead of Seneca
Falls, when white women took action after their work in the abolitionist
movement enlightened them about their own gender oppression.  Cooper cited also the women’s movement of the
1960s and 1970s, which closely followed the civil rights movement.   She then noted the killing of Michael Brown
and the uprising that followed, ahead of the Women’s March and subsequent
movements bringing us to this pivotal moment. 
“This is why white women know what to do,” asserted Cooper, because, she
said, watching those who rose up to lead Black Lives Matter “gave us [women] a vision
of who we could be if we were willing to get up and fight for it.”  Cooper shared the stage with two major voices:
Rebecca Traister, arguably the nation’s leading feminist journalist, and
silence-breaker Ashley Judd, a central player in the #MeToo movement.  I could be wrong, but I sensed that the
moderator (Katie Couric) and the three other panelists (all white women) stepped
back to give Cooper space to make her supremely important points. Probably the most anticipated speaker at this year’s summit,
interviewed by Brown herself, was not Brie Larson (whose success as Captain
Marvel was cheered with deserved enthusiasm) but another marvel:  Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, who fell only 1.4
percentage points shy of becoming governor of a state that has been described
by one expert as “a blue state with a voter suppression problem.”  Abrams once again delineated between
acknowledging the ultimate outcome and the concept of concession, which she
could not bring herself do because an unjust system denied countless thousands
access to voting (by closing polling places especially in communities of color and
other means).  Abrams, who started Fair
Fight, which is now suing the state over these practices, faces decisions as to
her political future.  I for one hope
she’ll run for the Senate and for the presidency after that.  At only 45, she’s got time.