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Why a fancy, feel-good women’s summit is what the world needed

Women of power, influence and—yes—privilege gathered recently in Manhattan. As Anne Kingston writes, their show of strength could not be more timely.
Tina Brown, Former United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and Journalist Nicholas Kristof speak during the Eighth Annual Women In The World Summit at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on April 6, 2017 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Tina Brown, Former United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and Journalist Nicholas Kristof speak during the Eighth Annual Women In The World Summit at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on April 6, 2017 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Brown and Clinton on stage at the summit; Clinton took questions from journalist Nicolas Kristof, far right. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

From a distance, the three-day Women in the World Summit that ended last Friday in New York City was ripe for satiric take-down. Tom Wolfe, in his “Radical Chic” heyday, would have gone to town. Corporate sponsorship, or “Femvertising,” was ubiquitous—from the Toyota Prius with “Mothers of Invention” on its side parked outside Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater to the snacks and beverages provided by PepsiCo. Employees of other sponsors—MasterCard, Procter & Gamble, AT&T among them—popped up to discuss their company’s commitment to women’s advancement. The list of marquee feminists was impressive—Hillary Clinton, Scarlett Johansson, Queen Latifah, Justin Trudeau. “VIP access” signs revealed a class system at work. So did ticket prices ranging from $50 to $350. A “Women in the World” boutique in the lobby run by the Tory Burch Foundation sold items made by women in developing countries—$79  baskets, $150 earrings, $22 bracelets. “Guilt-free shopping!” Tina Brown, the famed editor turned “Women in the World” founder and host told a packed house.

Up close, the event, which drew women of all ages and ethnicities (though mostly Caucasian), elicited more complex feelings. The summit, live-streamed and  available to all online, is part of a thriving “empowerment feminism” industry; women’s conferences and award shows have become so common we’re approaching gridlock (Arianna Huffington, who appeared several times onstage, runs the annual event, “Thrive”). Their inspirational messaging and affluent audience are catnip to corporate sponsors who see the circuit offering more branding bang than traditional media advertising. For women, they provide the networking ops men have enjoyed for centuries.

So, yes, the summit was a fancy, well-produced, often self-congratulatory, feel-good exercise. Yes, the commercial imperative meant deeper systemic issues were glossed over or given short shrift. But we’re at a juncture where feel-good and inspiration is in short supply. Fear and anger is mounting. The Women’s March on Washington, and its international counterparts, revealed revitalization of women-lead activism. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put it in his interview with Hillary Clinton, the summit’s highlight: “Young women were galvanized by your loss in way they weren’t by your campaign.” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, an organization the Trump administration wants to defund, made a similar point. “Women are ‘woke’ in this country,” she told Katie Couric. That’s reflected in the crowd this year’s Women in the World summit. At the first one Brown threw in 2010, she scrambled to fill a small theatre and find sponsors. Tickets were free.

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This year’s summit dovetailed with the end of a bad week for women’s rights. Earlier, the Trump administration announced it would stop funding the UN agency that provides family planning in 150 countries. On April 4, “Equal Pay Day,” Trump repealed Obama’s Fair Pay Order giving protections for women workers. The president also took time to defend Bill O’Reilly as a “good person” after it was revealed the Fox News star settled five sexual harassment lawsuits from co-workers for some $13 million.

The privileged event provided a needed shot of adrenaline and connectivity. It served as a platform for accomplished activists, artists, CEOs, politicians, journalists, celebrities, and whistleblowers to talk about their work and offer perspective. Twenty-seven panels covered a dizzying range of topics—from human trafficking to exposing barbaric treatment of refugees in offshore Australian detention camps to combatting ageism to doing journalism in a repressive regime to female activism in Muslim countries.

The audience heard from brave women. Evgenia Kara-Murza, wife of Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian pro-democracy activist and Putin critic who’s recovering from his second poisoning spoke of the risks they both take. There were revelations of unthinkable horror. Shireen Ibrahim, a Yazidi woman who survived being enslaved by ISIS in Iraq, told the shocking story of how a pregnant friend’s stomach was slashed,  the female fetus removed, then raped before the mother was also raped. The audience gasped in disbelief.

American spoken-word poet Iasia Sweeting delivered a stunning performance, before describing being kidnapped, raped, starved and tortured for four years by a man in Georgia; she gave birth alone to two children. Now an activist about to attend university, the 24-year-old credited her survival to her love of writing and Christian faith. Asked what advice she would give others in pain or suffering, she said: “I always remind myself that just like I can cry, I can also smile, and that I’m still here to be able to smile.”

Discussions were engaging and thought-provoking. “I want girls to reject ‘likability’,” Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of We Should All Be Feminists, announced. On a panel about upending ageism, Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth noted that while older women face the most pernicious ageism, younger women aren’t exempt: the big reason their story “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America” by Lauren Duca was an online sensation, she said, was because people were so shocked that a magazine for teenage girls was interested in trenchant political analysis (Welteroth also announced the magazine was launching an online political program, “Thigh-High Politics,” the title a defiant up-yours to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who told Duca she should stick to “writing about thigh-high boots”).

The message that sexism persists and women’s progress is not as advanced as assumed came through loud and clear. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, talked about that notorious  front-page photo of her with British PM Theresa May, as well as Brexit, climate change and the sexism female political leaders face. She also shot down the sexist presumption that women in power are all the same: “It’s not enough to be a woman leader, you have to do the right thing with it,” she said.

Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who successfully sued Fox’s founder Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, sat on a panel that discussed lack of legislation to protect people dealing with workplace harassment. “In 2017, every damn women has a story and we have to change that,” Carlson said. When asked whether people should report abuse to HR, Carlson’s lawyer Nancy Erika Smith was caustic: “Only call HR if you would call the KGB to report on Putin.”

A repeated theme was how necessary it was for men to join the fight. Yet men were scarce, on panels and in the audience. Queen Latifah, a face of Cover Girl cosmetics who sat on the panel about advertising, pointed out that boys face gender stereotyping, too. “We have to think about our young men,” she said. “We can take some of the pressure off guys to be so linear.” But the conversation went no further.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, participates in an armchair discussion with Tina Brown at the Women in the World Summit at the David H. Koch Theater of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York on Thursday, April 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau’s talking points—now familiar to Canadian women—went over well in his discussion with Tina Brown (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Women standing in the long line-ups to the women’s washroom joked they should use the men’s because it was empty (when some tried, they were shooed out by staff). There were a few exceptions. Trudeau’s now-boilerplate, pro-feminist declarations thrilled the audience.  In a sit-down with actor and writer Sarah Jones, actor John Leguizamo (a last-minute sub for Lena Dunham) told women not wait for men. “Men are too slow evolving,” he said, which is a cop-out. Brendan Cox, husband of slain British Labour MP Jo Cox who sat on a panel about white supremacy,” seemed damned evolved. He talked about the effect his wife’s death had on their boys, and called for people to stop applying “populist” to political leaders who incite hatred. “They’re racists,” he said.

The conference showcased a new commercial face of the resistance. That corporations understand its smart business to affiliate themselves with, and even abet, women’s advancement, is seen by many as progress. Toyota, the summit’s chief sponsor, was front and centre awarding the winners of its “Women of Invention” program which funds female entrepreneurs doing innovative work.

Yet big brands are also controversy-averse, which was also apparent in the program. For all the talk of “bad-ass women” and “disruption” and the need to “piss off” people, there wasn’t much debate. (One refreshing exception: a heated discussion on the rise of Islamic extremism in France between activist Samia Hathroubi and Zineb El Rhazoui, a journalist whose colleagues were killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo.)

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Ironically, the biggest headlines to emerge from the event focused on women criticizing other women: Scarlett Johansson, who portrayed Ivanka Trump recently in a faux perfume ad on Saturday Night Live,  said she was baffled and disappointed by the president’s daughter’s behaviour. The first night, Nikki Haley, a Trump-appointed Ambassador to the UN, was booed by the audience when defending the president.

A more critical lens on occasion would have been welcome. Billionaire Zhang Xin, China’s premier property magnate, told her remarkable rags-to-riches story, making the country sound like a feminist Utopia when it is not. Tina Brown’s interview with Trudeau included a video clip of him winning that famous boxing match with Senator Patrick Brazeau. It would have been the perfect moment to ask the PM how he reconciled his much-publicized feminism with the fact his political rise was driven by a calculated display of machismo.

Gillian Tett of the Financial Times was more probing as the moderator of a panel with Ajay Banga of MasterCard, an event sponsor, and Kristalina Georgieva, the first female CEO of the World Bank. They discussed their  joint initiative designed to give millions of women in the developing world access to financial networks and a identity via a chip-encoded cash card. Tett questioned Banga about motive: “You’re not running a charity,” she said. Using cards means there will be less “inefficient” cash in circulation, he answered, while tethering the brand to female emancipation: “We need MasterCard to deliver this dignity.” Unfortunately there wasn’t time to talk about systemic financial inequities facing women closer to home, including the fact women carry  twice as much credit card debt as men.

The financial benefits of gender-equity and need for realistic depictions of women in advertising was a recurrent theme. Gender bias and objectification of women is bad for business, the crowd heard during a week that saw both Pepsi and Nivea pull ads due to public backlash and advertisers flee Fox News  following news about O’Reilly. P&G’s Marc Pritchard noted ads that portrayed women and girls accurately had a “26-percent higher purchase intent.” The need is there, Madonna Badger, CEO of Badger & Winters, and founder of #WomenNotObjects, said; she spoke of one study that found young girls would rather have cancer than be fat. AT&T chief brand officer Fiona Carter talked about how women make 85 per cent of purchasing decisions, which means they can effect change by supporting businesses that promote equality. She boasted about a new AT&T ad featuring a rare female voiceover and female actors cast as CEOs was the company’s best-performing campaign.  Nobody questioned the fact that of the top eight management positions at AT&T, only one is filled by a woman.

The summit revealed the racial and class divide in unexpected ways. Felicia Saunders, who survived the Emanuel African Methodist Church shooting in Charlestown, sat on the panel “Life After Hate: Surviving White Supremacy.” Her son Tywanza and her best friend were among the nine people killed by Dylann Roof in the racially inspired attack. She recounted how her son asked Roof why he was doing it. His answer: “You’re raping our women and taking over the world.” Saunders addressed the crowd. “I look around this audience and I see so many Caucasians here,” she said. “We don’t mean you no harm.” That she felt need to say it brought tears to my eyes.

The last panel featured Women’s March on Washington founders offering instruction on how to continue the resistance beyond the Lincoln Center. Tamika D. Mallory offered the wisest, and most pointed, advice: focus, she said, “must remain on the people not able to make it to this room today.”