The media has a powerful influence over how society views women as well as how women perceive themselves. The Women’s Media Center, founded in 2005 by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, is an organization determined to address and redress that image. Increasing women’s prominence and visibility in media as a core objective, WMC recognizes the need to change the conversation so that media more accurately represents the perspectives, positions and priorities of women.
The question looms: Just how are they going to go about doing that? Sexism is certainly not a new phenomenon. Jamia Wilson, Vice President of Programs, asserts it’s a multigenerational fight. And it appears she’s up for it, her life experiences having prepared her with the audacity and vision to further the movement’s lineage.
“I have always been passionate about women’s issues,” Jamia states. “That’s probably because I was raised in a really strong family of women. In feminism, a lot of people talk about their click moment, when they first realized they’re a feminist, but I feel that I’ve always known. I just didn’t know its name was feminism. I also knew early on that I wanted to do some kind of social justice work. That’s something my parents were involved in doing during their personal time—working in local campaigns and initiatives.”
Jamia recalls how her mother and father would encourage reflection and how they would go the extra mile to broaden her scope of understanding. “I would get deprogrammed after school,” Jamia states, laughing. “My mom would ask, ‘What did you talk about in class today?’ When I told her she might say, ‘Okay, well maybe there are some books that you should read that would cover the other side of that issue.”
Born in South Carolina, at the age of five and a half, Jamia moved to Saudi Arabia with her mother to join her father who had already been working for the past year in a Saudi University. “I remember not really wanting to go, having seen some of the movies about that part of the world. Even at that age, there were images in my mind that encouraged a fear of this Middle Eastern other. My parents quickly changed that perspective for me and I went.”
Jamia notes that her life in the Middle East still impacts her perspective today. “Growing up in a school with over thirty nationalities represented has really had its effect on me. It’s influenced my relationships. It’s affected how I look at the world, and how I look at war and peace. It’s even influenced how I look at feminism. I’ve heard a lot of people make comments about women in the Middle East and their plight. I really find it problematic when I see judgment or any kind of negativity that promotes this idea that there’s no agency among Middle Eastern women because there is. It’s just different. There are many really strong Saudi women who are doing amazing things.”
Eleven years of Saudi Arabian culture under her belt, Jamia once again took up residency in the U.S., continuing her education and graduating from American University in Washington, DC in 2002. It was soon afterward that she began working for Planned Parenthood’s Action Fund, eventually managing their outreach program VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood. Having also helped to organize the participation of thousands of students in the historic March for Women’s Lives, Jamia has definitely traveled her own path in the women’s movement, reaming knowledge along the way. “When I was in DC managing VOX, I was working with all the different affiliates on the youth initiatives in the national office. It was then that I realized this was the work I loved and what I really wanted to do.”
After venturing to New York and obtaining her M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought from NYU, Jamia discovered there was a position open at the Women’s Media Center. “I wanted to work at WMC because I knew that I needed to be involved again in a major way. Now I’m getting to collaborate with people I worked with before like Shelby Knox, who is a young feminist activist, and Gloria Feldt, who’s a mentor and was also my former boss at Planned Parenthood. Gloria is a social media expert and just really amazing—someone who’s shown me I can do anything that I want and also be super powerful and dynamic.”
Dynamic intention seems to be the glue holding this multigenerational women’s initiative together. The Women’s Media Center links tried and true strategies with fresh, progressive initiatives to rattle the status quo, all the while presenting a new media paradigm—a blueprint positioning women at every structural stronghold from cornerstone to apex.
The WMC works to amplify women’s voices on key issues in the national dialogue, fight sexism and bias against women in the media, and increase professional opportunities for women across all forms of media.
In order to achieve that aim, Jamia explains, the Center strives to make certain that women have equal representation. “We can’t tell the whole story if we don’t have everyone’s voices represented. We do that through our media advocacy campaigns, our media accountability campaigns, and also through our leadership and media training for women.”
The WMC’s flagship program for media training, Progressive Women’s Voices, gives women opportunities to go into studios and practice different techniques to expand their media platforms. “They’re taught everything from how to use social media to on-camera training that involves practicing hostile and friendly interviews,” Jamia states. “They learn how to be thought leaders.”
PWV trains and mentors emerging political commentators to ensure there are plenty of qualified, authoritative, progressive women experts available to the media.
“Not Under the Bus,” Jamia relays, “is our reproductive justice advocacy campaign, promoting women’s freedom to choose. In addition, we also have our media accountability campaigns like Name It Change It which we’re doing in partnership with Women’s Campaign Forum and Political Parity. That program is about confronting sexism against female candidates in the media. We challenge media outlets when we see them giving a platform to that type of targeting. We ask that they take our Equality Pledge to discontinue those sorts of attacks and to make certain that they’re focusing on the views of our candidates and not on the way they look or dress—that they’re not promoting misogynistic stereotypes.”
We must erase the pervasiveness of sexism against all women candidates — irrespective of political party or level of office — across all media platforms in order to position women to achieve equality in public office.
Girls are also prime targets of media hype. Jamia conveys how the Women’s Media Center is dedicated to pushing back against the onslaught. “We recently had our SPARK Summit which is now the Spark Movement Campaign aimed at standing up against the sexualization of girls in the media.” As Jamia explains, the movement sprouted from a 2007 APA Study which found that sexualized images of girls was linked to, among other things, increased eating disorders and lower self esteem. “It’s important to make sure that girls are not only protected from this kind of media but are proactive about it,” Jamia maintains. “Debra Tolman, a professor at Hunter and a big proponent of the study, partnered with Lynn Michael Brown, a professor at Colby College, to bring together a new feminist coalition to fight against this sexualization. That’s where the WMC came in. Along with other partner organizations, we wanted to bring girls together to have a day long conversation about the movement we were going to ‘spark’, with girls not only leading the conversation but also leading the initiative.”
The SPARK Summit, held in New York this past October, gave girl activists ranging from the ages of fourteen to twenty-two the tools they need to take a stand against the prolific ” target=”_self”>sexualized images presented by the media, as well as the opportunity to create meaningful messages and make media of their own.
“The training we gave the girls was an abridged version of what we do for Progressive Women’s Voices, just specially tailored,” Jamia relays. “We gave them on-camera time, and the girls were also able to show their videos and get feedback from each other. We also gave them a platform to blog during the event and to do social media tweeting—live tweeting—as well as to create video blog interviews. Some of the girls had already created their own documentaries which we included in the Summit. What was important to us was to convey that this is truly a girls-led movement. They have their own ideas about what to do about fighting back.”
Jamia also speaks about how WMC live streamed the event so that those people who were unable to come to New York for the convening could virtually participate. “We had people from Alabama to Dubai who were virtually streaming in,” Jamia recounts. “It was amazing. They were able to chat and interact and have their own community with each other. I was in a couple of panels where we took questions from that virtual audience. It was really exciting for me—interacting with people who weren’t present but who were really engaged in the conversation.”
During the SPARK Summit, the girls also had the opportunity to interact with women they admire. “Geena Davis was our keynote speaker,” Jamia mentions. “She’s brilliant. She has her own center on media [The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media]. She is such an excellent role model because she’s done a great deal of work of her own and has used her privilege to help uplift others in a really powerful way. The girls also got to meet Gloria Steinem. They just loved her and were so excited to be able to engage and learn from Gloria and she from them. So for me, it was great to see this intergenerational movement building, which was one of our goals for the summit.”
Weaving the generations together to create a more cohesive force seems like a sound plan. Within the scope of the women’s movment, young feminists valuing the accomplishments of predecessors is an essential element in assuring the success of the endeavor. “I have seen the importance of intergenerational movement building from the very beginnings of my life and also know its importance by being involved in this work. There are those who have come before me who have given me advice, have mentored me and given me the power to continue. I know that a lot of my peers have a similar view, so I think that young feminists really do recognize what has been achieved before us and what work we need to do to in order to continue things forward. We see our role.”
Still, there are women who don’t consider themselves feminists, who may not fully appreciate the type of effort it took to establish rights that they wouldn’t second guess today. Jamia indicates that “education is the key” in creating awareness of the work that’s gone into past attainments and maintaining a well-rounded perspective. “You really should be learning about equality at a young age,” Jamia states. “It’s a larger conversation about history and how we talk about it and how we treat it. We need to teach people about their predecessors. We need to write more women into history and really create a narrative tradition of passing on these stories.”
Of course, most of us will never know what it’s like not to be able to vote or get our own credit card without having our partner’s permission. Jamia recognizes that although she’ll never go through those experiences, she can appreciate their significance. “I’m grateful that I’m living in a world where people have laid that foundation for me, and I hope to be able to do that for the people that I precede. I believe when we understand what has been laid out before us, we have appreciation and want to work to move it forward.”
Working toward women’s voices being an integral part of the media is key to upholding a more balanced and just society. That essential truth is what must urge us forward today to establish women in all levels and sectors of media, as commentators as well as on the organizational front. There is certainly a danger if we don’t.
One aspect of that danger, as Jamia indicates, is “not having the whole story. Women will not be able to make their mark on history which will lead to a larger problem—people in future generations not understanding how they got where they are. Our history is so powerful. Coretta Scott King said, ‘Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won—you earn it and win it in every generation.’ I believe that as well. We can’t just let go and take things for granted. We really need to know about our history. If we don’t have women out there who are getting reported about, or there isn’t an archive being created about our lives, then we’ll never be able to make that mark. That’s why it’s so important for our voices to be heard. Women need to see each other in the media and hear each other’s voices in order to remain empowered. We need to see other women doing the things we all aspire to do.”
In that respect, Jamia herself is an example. Passionate about her beliefs, she brings her own spiritual path to her work, including the idea that “our success as a movement depends on our ability to respect spirituality’s role in the feminist conversation,” a provocative stance she presented in her blog article, Manifesting a Movement—a Spiritual Uprising.
But there are some women who feel their position is weakened if they bring spiritual beliefs into the picture. “There are people who feel that expressing that part of yourself means you are somewhat naïve—that you’re not thinking intelligently,” Jamia states. “I’ve even had conversations with feminists who’ve asked, ‘How can you be so interested in God when you know that this concept of God, in an organized sense especially, has been used to oppress us?”
Jamia’s answer is one that reveals spiritual reflection rather than dogmatic rhetoric.
“I see a very strong synergy between spirituality and science,” Jamia concludes. “When I was at Planned Parenthood I had some very hard conversations with coworkers about where I stood on some of the issues. They didn’t understand how I reconciled being a Christian with my belief in science. Basically, I believe people have free will, and I also believe that the concept of God is so much more expansive and powerful than our human understanding. It’s perplexing to me why people are so bothered about bringing spirituality into the conversation because to me it just seems so inherently real—that there’s this life force. It’s not necessarily about believing in a deity but really understanding that there is something beyond us that’s part of the situation.”
That ‘something beyond us’ which Jamia refers to has almost always infused our political struggles—for better or for worse. With this in mind, the women’s movement may find itself further strengthened by being more open and willing to include spiritual values and beliefs in the dialogue—creating even more power within an already shifting paradigm.
“We need to take our moral conversation back,” Jamia asserts. “I think the right has done a really great job using the moral frame and putting out this idea that they have a premium on values—that they have a stronghold on any kind of worthwhile conversation. I completely disagree with that. I believe that the reason I do this work is very spiritually driven. It’s something I wouldn’t have chosen if I didn’t have a belief system that made me think about what ‘right’ means or what ‘justice’ means.”
Jamia mentions feeling hearted to be in a community of feminists who are spiritually involved. Presently, she’s on the Advisory Council for Our Inner Lives, a project of Feminist.com founded by Marianne Schnall. Our Inner Lives honors women’s spiritual beliefs and practices, recognizing how they enrich all our human endeavors. Jamia is also a board member for REVEAL, an organization dedicated to empowering and advancing the next generation of feminine spirituality—secular feminists and fiery women of faith who come together and understand that faith and feminism create a soul-fueled form of activism.
“I think that there are some very strong women who are demanding that this conversation about spirituality and feminism be brought to the forefront,” Jamia proclaims, “and I’m really happy about that. I remember being interviewed for an article on pro-choice and spirituality. Some people wrote comments below the article like ‘I’m writing her off because you can’t be pro-choice and a Christian. She says she does yoga and is interested in Eastern philosophy. How can you relate to those things and still have Christian beliefs?’ It was really interesting for me to see that kind of closed-mindedness coming from some people. They’re actually promoting energies that are oppressive and that shut people down. Instead, we need to be more open to the spirituality conversation—open to different ways of attaining our goals in the movement.”
While attending this year’s Women & Power Conference presented by Omega Institute in New York, Jamia mentions she was able to see many women address the spiritual aspects of feminism—women of international repute like Leymah Gbowee, who organized several thousand Christian and Muslim women in Liberia to help bring peace to the country after a fourteen-year civil war, and Ani DeFrano, singer-songwriter and feminist who Jamia interviewed. “When I asked Annie about spirituality,” Jamia reveals, “she basically said she believed that most of the great activists that she knew were deeply spiritual people.”
Jamia also stresses the role feminist leaders like Jodi Evans, cofounder of CODEPINK and part of WMC’s board, have played in her life. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Jodi and being able to meet someone who’s organization mobilized a lot of the different actions I was a part of in college and that had energized me to get involved in peace work when we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. So for me, it’s been a great blessing to be able to meet some of the people who really catapulted that work.”
Building upon that thought, Jamia notes the importance of women’s voices being included in peace initiatives, as well as the kinds of messages those voices convey. “Women have a deep investment in the peace conversation because we are usually at the helm of our families and are so greatly affected by conflict. We often bear the brunt of many burdens—in finance, in health care, as well as on our bodies when rape is used as a weapon of war. So I think that makes us really important messengers of peace and compassion. I also believe it’s important we’re carrying that message because we have such a deep involvement with children. We’re planting seeds in their minds about how we define friends and how we define enemies.”
Jamia also touches on WMC’s connection to this larger picture—using media to focus on the conversation of women’s human rights. “We’re working on an upcoming project on public education about genocide and its effects on women, specifically the story of women in the holocaust and their suffering due to sexual assault. We’re taking a look at the connection between that atrocity and more current ones such as in the Congo and Rwanda—how things might be different today if we had really talked about what those women went through back then. So I’m happy we’re going to be raising awareness about what’s occurred, because when you look at mob mentality and mass movements against entire races of people, they’ve usually stemmed from the fact that nobody spoke up. It’s like the Martin Luther King quote: In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
The Women’s Media Center is determined to break that silence. But changing the course of women’s roles in the media is no easy task. Jamia’s vision for the WMC encompasses holding an even broader conversation, and that dialogue, driven powerfully forward by the organization’s intergenerational collective, is harnessing the strengths of the past to the promise and initiative of the present.
“There have been some people who’ve said, ‘We need to be in the streets. We don’t need to be blogging as much or on social media.’ But I believe we need both,” Jamia contends. “When Marianne Williamson was at the UN MDG Summit, she was asked how she felt about all the blogging young feminists were doing. She responded by saying that blogging was a beautiful way to bear witness, and I agree. I also think that we can use these tools—blogging, video, etc—to organize marches and spread messages, to spread a feminist gospel, so to speak. It means we can still be somewhere and show solidarity, and we can also live stream a summit.”
The world, ready or not, is facing a new wave of feminists. Image-makers and information outlets hold on to your hats as women man the frontlines. Armed with computers, laptops, iPods, flip phones, video cams and every social network platform known to humans, they are determined to flood media pipelines with women’s voices and their agendas.
Yet throughout it all, as Jamia Wilson emphasizes, the foundation for true success lies in acknowledging something deeper.
“When a woman suffers, I suffer.”
And it’s that voice of suffering that must move us—not to rail against the tide but to focus our collective energies toward turning it. As the Women’s Media Center states, diversifying the media landscape is critical to the health of our culture and democracy.
Women’s voices, empowered with conviction, will be the key to that deliverance.
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