Posts Tagged ‘Global Women’s Issues’


One Billion Rising -logo-webOn February 14, 2013, V-Day celebrates its 15th Anniversary. Valentine’s day and V-Day — it makes sense. What better day for hearts to rise in unison as one global voice, refusing to accept violence against women and girls. This revolutionary movement is a much needed wake-up call for those who have complacently accepted the atrocities.

Imagine one billion women and those who support them rising together in a global strike, dancing together in the streets in an act of solidarity. Sounds crazy? Well, may it is. You don’t gain attention by being dainty or by conforming to the status quo. A wild dance party, a planetary flash dance, will definitely strike a chord. Want to join in and support the cause? Then get the One Billion Rising toolkit.

As Eve Ensler, V-Day founder, stated in a 2012 Huffington Post article: Today 1 out of 3 women in the world — more than 1 billion women — will be raped or beaten. As economies collapse and the 99 percent struggles with less and less, as global warming increases, and fires, floods, drought abound, the violence against women and girls increases. They become targets. They become commodities, sold in many places for less than a cell phone.

The thought that women’s and girls’ lives have such little value in so many areas around the world is one that should knock us off our duffs. In an age of internet, blogs, and videos we still need to take serious objectives to the streets. Eve is simply in tune with what’s already happening on a planetary scale. Women are coming to the fore because they need to. It’s a wave that’s been building — a powerful force that we need to ride. So let’s get visible. Let’s be heard. Let’s start . . . dancing!

One Billion Rising video

One Billion Rising video

Break the Chain
Lyrics by Tena Clark
Music by Tena Clark/Tim Heintz

I raise my arms to the sky
On my knees I pray
I’m not afraid anymore
I will walk through that door
Walk, dance, rise
Walk, dance, rise

I can see a world where we all live
Safe and free from all oppression
No more rape or incest, or abuse
Women are not a possession

You’ve never owned me, don’t even know me I’m not invisible, I’m simply wonderful I feel my heart for the first time racing I feel alive, I feel so amazing

I dance cause I love
Dance cause I dream
Dance cause I’ve had enough
Dance to stop the screams
Dance to break the rules
Dance to stop the pain
Dance to turn it upside down
Its time to break the chain, oh yeah
Break the Chain
Dance, rise
Dance, rise

In the middle of this madness, we will stand I know there is a better world Take your sisters & your brothers by the hand Reach out to every woman & girl

This is my body, my body’s holy
No more excuses, no more abuses
We are mothers, we are teachers,
We are beautiful, beautiful creatures

I dance cause I love
Dance cause I dream
Dance cause I’ve had enough
Dance to stop the screams
Dance to break the rules
Dance to stop the pain
Dance to turn it upside down
It’s time to break the chain, oh yeah
Break the Chain, oh yeah
Break the Chain

Dance Break Inst.

Dance, rise
Dance, rise

Sister won’t you help me, sister won’t you rise x4

Dance, rise
Dance, rise

Sister won’t you help me, sister won’t you rise x4

This is my body, my body’s holy
No more excuses, no more abuses
We are mothers, we are teachers,
We are beautiful, beautiful creatures

I dance cause I love
Dance cause I dream
Dance cause I’ve had enough
Dance to stop the screams
Dance to break the rules
Dance to stop the pain
Dance to turn it upside down
Its time to break the chain, oh yeah
Break the Chain, oh yeah
Break the Chain

(Repeat chorus)


front cover.inddJust as music is a powerful tool to create change so are films and books. Imagine one billion women rising to create an international peace zone. That’s exactly what happens in the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation by Perri Birney.

Birney infuses this epic novel with feminine echoes of The Da Vinci Code and The Red Tent, with her eyes on the prize of world peace.” Chronogram

PURE VISION is available in print and as an eBook on Amazon U.S, Amazon UK, Amazon CANADA, Amazon GERMANY, Amazon ITALY, Amazon FRANCE, Amazon SPAIN, Amazon JAPAN, Amazon INDIA, Amazon BRAZIL, Amazon MEXICO, Amazon AUSTRALIA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.


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               The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.                                     — Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau

Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau is literally a force of nature. She brings a heart-centered approach to every arena of her life, from her marriage to Justin Trudeau, a liberal member of the Canadian Parliament and son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to raising her two children, to being a social activist, right through to her position as Quebec correspondent for eTalk, Canada’s most-watched entertainment news program.

Listening to her speak, one can’t help but think she has a natural flair for connecting with people, especially to women and girls, who readily respond to the openness and transparency she offers. Sophie immediately demonstrates her willingness to be straightforward, speaking about her struggles as well as what brought her to the different aspects of her path as an advocate and a reporter.

“To make a long story short, I’m an only child,” Sophie states. “I was brought up in a very loving family and I was fortunate to have a privileged upbringing. We weren’t millionaires, not at all, but we never lacked anything and we led a good life. My parents sent me to camp and paid for my travels and studies, so and I was very well cared for. I’m still very close to them, and they’re also amazing grandparents. Yet, obviously, everyone has their own struggles and I had mine. In my teenage years, I was faced with dealing with an eating disorder, which of course was an illness, but it was also a symptom of greater wounds. And as any other teenager who is dealing with building a notion of self, I was having difficulty building mine when it came to who I was, why I was here, and what my place was in this world.”

As an only child, Sophie mentions feeling a special kind of pressure. “You are trying to answer to so many things that are asked of you and you’re trying to perform. I know I wanted to be good at everything. I did well in school and sports and tended to be a perfectionist. Actually, I was asking way too much of myself.”

Sophie notes that adolescence is a time, especially for girls, when bonding and intimate relationships are at the core of building self esteem. She recognizes that her desire to excel compensated for a deeper need to connect. “It’s very important to have a good social network. When I struggled for years with an eating disorder, I knew very well what I was suffering from. Every time I was into binging and purging, I was really feeling isolated in my mind and deep down somewhere in my soul. Today, as a thirty-six year old woman, and now a mother of two, I understand that I was looking for something deeper back then — for my place in the world. I had wanted to pack my bags, and just travel and explore,” she says laughing, “but obviously, you have to go to school, and there are rules to follow. But what I really wanted to do was connect with human beings.”

Raised by parents who were always sensitive to the suffering of others had its effect. Sophie mentions that even at a young age she naturally extended herself to children who were lonely or being taunted. “My parents always said I had a tender heart. And today, I’m married to someone who’s like that, too. My husband, Justin, and I are both moved easily. We know how fortunate we are, and that it comes with a responsibility. I also felt at a young age — although I couldn’t put my finger it — that I had to do something greater. Not just for me,” Sophie says, pausing to reassess, “but you know, actually it was for me — for me to become the person that I wanted to become. But when you’re a teenager, that’s all blurry, which is normal.”

After studying Commerce at McGill University and attaining a BA in Communications from the Université de Montréal, Sophie worked in advertising and sales for several years before deciding to redirect her course. “I was not finding my place in that world, and I wasn’t feeling happy in my jobs. At one point, I decided to go to radio and television school because I had a gift for sharing information and for speaking to people. So I went to school and did very well. I landed my first job as a journalist in a newsroom, writing the ticker — the news you see at the bottom of the screen. I worked night shifts and it was actually a cool job. Being in the newsroom was exciting — you’re in touch with what’s happening around the world so it was all very interesting. And then, a couple of months later, there was an opening for a cultural entertainment reporter on the same channel. I was called in to audition, and I got the job.”

Being a media personality provided Sophie with an additional opportunity to connect with people, but now on a much grander scale. Literally having a voice that could reach millions of viewers, Sophie disclosed she had struggled with an eating disorder. “I remembered journalists asking me, ‘Have you ever had a problem with your body image?’ When I actually told the Quebec and the Canadian public that I had suffered from an eating disorder, the response was so amazing. At first, some people would ask, ‘Were you completely insane when you came out with that? Didn’t you wonder what people would think?’ And to be honest with you, No. Because I knew that so many of my friends and so many girls that I didn’t know were suffering. And from that point, it became a snowball effect. I started giving speeches and being invited to host events. And as more time passed, I really started to invest myself in women’s issues.”

As Sophie notes, she moved into advocacy work as a matter of course. “I didn’t wake up one morning saying, ‘Okay, now I’m going to do this.’ It just came naturally. I started to get more and more requests to speak. What really struck me was the response I received when I met people after a speech, and how the women — mothers, aunts, grandmothers — came up to me with tears in their eyes and shared their stories. It just all made sense. The message became loud and clear: This is what you have to do.

Telling her own story was just the beginning. The open doorway Sophie provided, allowing people insight into her personal struggles, proved to be the passage she used to venture out into the world, acting as a voice for women and children in need.

One journey that was especially moving for Sophie was the trip she took to Ethiopia in 2006 with her mother-in-law Margaret Trudeau, Honorary President of WaterCan, a leading Canadian charity dedicated to fighting global poverty by helping the world’s poorest people gain access to clean water, basic sanitation and hygiene education. Their life-changing venture was captured in the CTV documentary, A Window Opens: Margaret and Sophie in Ethiopia.

As Sophie explains, the trip to Ethiopia with WaterCangave her further insight into the difficulties people were facing. “I had been to Africa and had seen suffering,” Sophie remarks, “but not in the way that I did in Ethiopia. We traveled through the country with WaterCan, an organization which among other things, builds wells and brings clean water to remote regions in Africa. When we were traveling, we stayed with families for many hours during the day, and we saw that women were actually victims of the water problem more than men. That’s because they’re the ones who usually fetch the water and put their lives in danger, walking miles and miles and sometimes meeting up with violence. Little children are also walking way too far and are involved in accidents. So once again, when it comes to basic human rights, women and children are often the first ones to pay.”

Sophie has also lent her voice to a number of other initiatives, including being a spokesperson for Shield of Athena, an organization which operates therapeutic services for women and children who are victims of domestic abuse and violence. Among their services, they provide emergency housing and offer a safe and empowering environment, employing social workers, educators and cultural intermediaries who offer multilingual services. In addition, Sophie encourages girls’ activism through Girls for the Cure, a student-led initiative of young girls from six independent Montreal-area schools — Miss Edgar’s and Miss Cramp’s School, Queen of Angels Academy, Sacred Heart School of Montreal, The Study, Trafalgar School for Girls and Villa Maria — who work together to make a difference in their communities. They offer a Student Scholarship Program which allows young women of participating schools the opportunity to develop projects focused on philanthropy, volunteerism and education. “In September, Girls for the Cure [watch the 2010 CTV video] will be doing an amazing event where thousands of girls will be uniting on Mount Royal Summit in Montreal,” Sophie informs. “They’ll be walking to raise awareness for women-related cancers and research.”

As Sophie clearly indicates, women’s issues are of primary importance to her, both in Canada and around the globe. She points out that even today, in 2011, over sixty million girls cannot lay claim to basic human rights, including access to education or personal safety. “When you think deeply about it, women today are being raped, violated, coerced into the sex trade, and humiliated for one reason — and for one reason only — because they’re women. That is unacceptable. And we’re paying the price worldwide since nations are becoming impoverished because women cannot fully participate. Obviously, there are some regions in the world where this problem is extreme, like in China and India, where we’re talking gendercide and infanticide with regard to girls. The situation is quite alarming. If you read the facts and know what’s going on out there, there’s no way that you’re not going to be touched by all of this, especially if you’re a woman.”

At the same time, Sophie acknowledges the importance of men’s participation regarding women’s rights. Respecting women and focusing on their empowerment does not represent a ‘women against men’ issue, but rather only helps to create a balanced approach to human rights in all sectors of life. “Each time I get to address an audience, and I see the men that attend these events, I always thank them because without them, without all of us holding hands together, where are we going to go with all this?”

As Sophie indicates, more men need to advocate for girls and women in order to turn the tide. “Unfortunately, when we talk about these problems, about gendercide and crimes against girls and women, especially within some regions of the world, these extreme actions have often been led by men. Obviously, there have been some instances, especially with regard to female genital mutilation, where it’s a vicious cycle. Women who have not known anything else actually encourage young girls and other women to get that sort of thing done.”

Nonetheless, the pendulum has been stuck on the side of patriarchy a bit too long. There’s no doubt that it’s an unbalanced paradigm, with disregard for the feminine creating its own deficit problem.

“I truly believe humanity is facing a huge imbalance between the male and female energies,” Sophie asserts. “We have disrespected, in such a deep way, the womb of humanity — women — and we are paying the price right now on all levels. We’re even seeing it in our pop culture. It’s so in our faces that it’s kind of hidden at the same time, because we’ve become accepting of it. Talking with young girls, I realize that there’s a culture of self-hatred that really has been rampant, and it’s actually normal to hate yourself when you’re a teenager today. That’s unacceptable. That is why we have to address these issues, and we have to do it locally, one baby step at a time.”

And those baby steps have led to much bigger strides. As Sophie travels have informed her, more and more women are coming to the fore around the globe, supporting one another and advocating for their basic human rights. “There are women’s movements all over the world, including in the poorest regions and places where women have not had a political voice,” Sophie states. “I think that’s because we’re in an era of information. These women now have more of the facts and they realize this is not right. So as much as in Canada as abroad, I think that these little cells of women, of energy, are feeling one another. I don’t want to sound too esoteric, but there’s definitely something remarkable happening and more and more men are beginning to address the situation. And fortunately enough, I’m with a man who shares my values and thoughts, and obviously part of his battle will be dealing this issue as well.”

Adding more women to the mix seems not only rational, but essential. Sophie emphasizes the importance of women’s roles as leaders, whether in politics, education, or any other sector of society, noting that women bring certain qualities to the table that benefit the whole.

“You know, there’s a reason why there are more women in volunteer work,” Sophie remarks. “There’s a reason why there are more women in social work. The reason is because in times of struggle, we tend to open our arms and build a social network, to come out with our problems and to talk about them because we need to. Also, women leaders have been shown to be more compassionate colleagues. Generally speaking, that’s been demonstrated. Of course, many women are occupying amazing roles in society, but there’s still a huge gap in the financial world and the political world.”

Sophie indicates it’s really about our future. Her panoramic view takes in the larger sphere of the human family where additional women in leadership means a more balanced paradigm, one that would help us take the next step as a noble humanity. That includes peace resolution work as well.

“You know, I don’t want to fall into a cliché because there are clichés out there,” Sophie notes, “but yes, I do believe that women have certain qualities — especially when you’ve become a mother or you go through your own struggles — that have allowed us to build a larger tribe to face our problems. And once again, if I go back to volunteer work, social work, health care, or nursing, I think there are a lot more women doing these types of things because some part of our bodies, not just our minds, are meant to create peace around us and to foster democracy and justice.”

Philosophically speaking, Sophie notes that we all have masculine and feminine qualities, and our internal dynamics have often set the stage for the larger societal problems we face. “When it comes to talking about gender discrimination, I think that the first thing you have to ask yourself if you’re a woman is how do I treat the man in me? And if you’re a man, it would be how do I treat the woman in me? I think that’s the first question you need to ask yourself, and the answer probably indicates how, as a human being, you interact with your environment as well as how you perceive others and the world around you.”

Sophie also enhances awareness of gender discrimination in her role as national ambassador for Plan Canada.

Plan International’s Because I am a Girl initiative is a social movement to unleash the power of girls and women to claim a brighter future for girls in the developing world.

And just why is focusing on girls’ empowerment so important?

“Helping young girls throughout this world is really at the core of the issue,” Sophie asserts. “First of all, we need to stand up for the millions of girls around the world who face barriers to their survival, basic rights and their ability to develop simply because they are young women. And when we invest in them we are directly reducing global poverty and suffering for the whole, for all of society. It’s incredible that right now, over sixty-five million girls are being denied even a basic education.”

          Girls and women are particularly affected by poverty. This is partly because they have less power to fight it, less access to the means to overcome it, or their entire families are suffering in poverty. Being born underweight, given little or poor-quality food and having little or no education can prevent girls from developing properly. Poverty can also force girls to work or get married at young age instead of going to school.        Plan Canada

“Plan Canada really believes in the Because I am a Girl project. We really want all young Canadian women to be aware of what’s happening because we feel that we have the power, the tools and the democracy to create movements that can help abroad and bring about social change.”

Girls advocating, giving public talks, driving transformative agendas . . . Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl clubs and speakers bureau engage girls to do just that, empowering and supporting their efforts to stand up for girls’ rights at home and abroad. “The girls give speeches and are really creating a social movement with others their age. There are website blogs and fundraisers and there’s also been a documentary made. So they’re using different kinds of media to really get out there and reach out to each other.”

With regard to Plan International’s other initiatives, Sophie explains there are current projects such as the one in Bangladesh, which supports human rights, including the protections of women and girls. She also mentions the Early Girl Child Marriage Project in Kenya which works to protect girls from this illegal practice. “There have been some documented impacts,” Sophie indicates, “and they have seen a reduction in teenage pregnancies and marriages. Also, in Burkina Faso, there’s a program called BRIGHT — Burkinabé Response to Improve Girls Chances to Succeed. So once again, it’s about education. Obviously, when you get to girls, you’re also getting to young boys and their families. So we’re trying to change parental views on girls’ education as well. That’s where it starts. If a girl is not educated you’re losing her whole soul and heart and mind. Not being educated means a girl isn’t able to fully participate in society, and the nation will be paying the price for that on every level.”

Plan Canada has also championed the presentation of a motion which was passed by the Canadian Parliament, proposing the creation of a UN Resolution proclaiming September 22nd as the International Day of the Girl.

“I think that because of the privileges we have here in Canada, we need to be leading the way on this matter,” Sophie states. Spearheading the initiative, Canada has now established the groundwork for a global movement. In fact, the call for the International Day of the Girl is imminent and can also be supported by signing the Girl Petition.

As Sophie reflects on her own advocacy work dealing with women and children’s issues, she remarks pointedly that no matter who she meets or what type of position they may hold, there’s are certain type of person that inspires and impresses her. “Women following their own passion. Their message and their energy are completely contagious.”

As eTalk’s Quebec correspondent, Sophie is also in a unique position to not only inform but to do her own brand of inspiring. “This job is an amazing tool and a window for me to connect with youth because so many of them watch the show. Besides doing interviews, I also talk a lot about the responsibility of public personas and stars to use their voices for something important because young people look up to them so much. And there are some people in the entertainment industry who are doing amazing things. I would say that celebrities like Angelina and Brad are putting it out there that it’s important to do things to make this world a better place. I also know many other celebrities who have started fundraisers and foundations and who are doing great work.”

Sophie also mentions finding inspiration through many adventurous avenues. She plays flute and guitar, composes songs, and loves to sing (perhaps we’ll hear her sing at an event one day).

“I also get inspired a lot from my yoga practice,” she reveals. “I think that it brings me to that little person inside of me that’s the same as in everyone else. As yoga philosophy mentions, that person is in a continuous state of gratitude and peace . . . a person that’s both male and female — the perfect balance between the two. Then there’s the feeling yoga gives me of being connected to everyone — from the people in my class to every human being on this planet. It’s a feeling that really pushes me on a deep, deep level. Also, in yoga practice, there’s always this little voice that comes across in its own language and vibration that makes me feel that everything is going to be okay. That good does prevail.”

Idealistic and passionate, Sophie inspires in a way that is both personal and touching. Even as she reflects on the advice she would give her own children, one can’t help but think that, on a universal level, the message is meant for all of us.

“If I were to say one thing to my little ones, I think I would tell them that the only word to live by is love . . . self love and love for humanity.”

As a reporter, an advocate, a wife and a mother, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau is a woman whose struggles have awakened her heart to the world, allowing compassion and tenderness to direct her course . . . a woman who understands that the light of courage is far more powerful than any darkness.


Photo Credits:  Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau headshot – Courtesy of CTV, Bell Media. Photo of Margaret Trudeau and Sophie in Ethiopia – Peter Bregg, 2006. Photo of Mutsumi Takahashi of CTV News, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau and Elena Kratsios – Courtesy of Girls for the Cure. Because I am a Girl Ambassador photo – Courtesy of Plan Canada.

Article written by Angelina Perri Birney, author of the blog, Powerful Women Changing the World, dedicated to women’s influence on world affairs. Angelina is also coauthor of the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation, available in print and as an eBook on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.


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            Feminist.com cares not only about supporting women’s accomplishments in the outside world, but about a woman’s inner growth and healing, underscored by the belief that fostering women’s personal empowerment is the first step towards being able to express our true power and individual special gifts in the world.

Marianne Schnall

Cultivating awareness and educating and inspiring women and men globally, Feminist.com is a dynamic online community that acts as a portal, funneling generative ideas while providing information and resources that address issues such as violence against women, gender equality, environmental sustainability, and peace.

And just who is the feminist behind this dot com? Marianne Schnall, founder and Executive Director, is also a writer and interviewer who has dedicated herself to building the organization’s ever-broadening horizons. Interviewing influential and powerful women and harnessing their inspirational messages has been her forte.  

As it turns out, 2010 was an exceptional year for both Feminist.com and Marianne. In December, Feminist.com celebrated its fifteenth anniversary, and along with that milestone, Marianne Schnall launched her new book, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness, and Finding Your Own Voice.        

Born in New York, Marianne says she realized early on she was going to be a writer, right from the time she won a city-wide contest in sixth grade for one of her short stories. “I always really enjoyed writing,” Marianne states. “I became an English major at Cornell, and then when I graduated, I worked for a literary agent. After that I applied for a job as an editorial assistant to the managing editor of US Magazine. One of the editors there started sending me out to cover industry events like movie premiers and award shows. So I would go and get on the red carpet with my little recorder and ask my questions. It was really fun and glamorous, and I had a great time doing it. I didn’t think it necessarily connected with what I really wanted to do with my life, but I got a lot of experiences through it. Certainly, that’s how I started with interviewing.”

Marianne also credits the March for Women’s Lives in 1992 for influencing her career path. “I decided to ask US if they would send me to cover it as a reporter. That was the first time that I interviewed people like Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, Jonathan Demme, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Cyndi Lauper. All of a sudden I found myself speaking to celebrities about a cause they felt passionate about.”

The March, as it turned out, was an awakening for Marianne on several fronts: the first with regard to her feminist consciousness—a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body; secondly, as an activist, she was able to experience the power of being in a community of people who cared about similar issues; the third awakening, as Marianne notes, was about the use of fame itself—celebrities using their renown to promote a good cause. “It was the first time that I felt that I was doing something that was really connected to my path . . . something that was meaningful, and I felt like I was talking to the real person behind the celebrity.”

Shortly after the event, Marianne left US and began doing free lance work. “When InStyle Magazine started up, I started doing their Cause Celeb column. That allowed me to interview all sorts of amazing people about their causes.” Marianne recalls talking with Bette Midler about the New York  Restoration Project. “They were cleaning up a park and she was there in her overalls with her daughter and her husband.”

Investigating this whole other aspect of celebrity became Marianne’s passion. While she was interviewing famous people about their causes and charities, her husband, Tom Kay, whose background is in solar energy, was surfing another wave. “Tom always had a very pioneering way of thinking,” Marianne remarks. “He decided to launch this site on the internet called Ecomall.com back before people knew what the internet was. I mean literally, when we first launched, people couldn’t find the site because they were spelling out the word dot. That’s how new it was.”

Venturing forth onto the web, Ecomall launched in 1994. Feminist.com took off soon after in 1995. “People didn’t even understand what we were doing. They didn’t have home computers, no one had e-mail, and no one knew what the internet was.” As Marianne explains, after having just interviewed Gloria Steinem and other feminists she found herself at a picnic one day speaking with a women’s studies major—a conversation which led her to acquiring the domain name Feminist.com. “I got the name before I knew what Feminist.com was going to be and before I would have ever said ‘I’m a feminist’. That wasn’t part of my identity.”

Marianne immediately called several friends and colleagues to help define what this budding organization would represent. Those friends, still on the board and advisory board today, include Amy Richards, Lauren Wechsler Horn, Karen Obel Cape, Susan Celia Swan, and Jennifer Meyerhardt. Together, along with her husband, Tom, they pioneered what literally has since become a “feminist Google.”  

“Back then, about 15% of internet users were women,” Marianne states, “so there were very few women on-line. Also, most organizations didn’t have websites. So the very first thing we did was to provide a service to have a free web presence for groups like the Ms. Foundation, Equality Now, Girls Inc., and V-Day.”

As it also turned out, Marianne relates, V-Day was actually founded at a Feminist.com board meeting. She recounts how she made the initial connection with Eve Ensler through the suggestion of a mutual friend of theirs, actress and activist, Kathy Najimy.

“Kathy just said, Her name is Eve Ensler. She’s a writer, she’s a feminist, she’s an activist. Call her. Don’t ask questions.” Marianne did just that and has shared a rich history with V-Day ever since. “Eve was just starting to do the Vagina Monologues downtown and knew she wanted to do it as a fundraiser to help stop violence against women. She came to a Feminist.com board meeting in my dining room. That’s where the term V-Day was coined and where the seeds for that first fundraiser happened . . . So I can really attest to what Eve has accomplished.”

The story is another example of how Feminist.com has grown, allowing structure to form naturally along the way. “The whole site has really developed organically,” Marianne maintains, “without a set mission or plan, which turned out to be a good thing because we could really change with the internet, with the number of women coming on-line, and also with where feminism was headed. We could be a little bit more fluid.”

Just as the definition of feminism has been broadening, Marianne indicates that Feminist.com is continuously evolving. She mentions how freeing it was not to approach the site holding a limited view. “There are a lot of definitions of feminism that I would definitely not sign on to. So I think that what has been wonderful about how Feminist.com has developed is that we’ve been able to see how we can use the site to correct misconceptions and how to present a version of feminism that is more inclusive—that doesn’t shy away from the little controversial elements and actually holds them up for dialogue and reflection.”

In addition, Feminist.com also looks for the voids and niches it can fill. “We’re launching a section called Young Voices in conjunction with Carol Gilligan,” Marianne offers. “She’s an amazing psychologist who wrote this pioneering book called In a Different Voice which is all about how gender roles start so early. Boys lose their authentic voice around four or five and girls lose it around nine or ten. The idea is that there’s all these societal pressures that, before you know it, make people lose their true voice. You see it so much in little girls. I have two daughters so I’m hyper aware of this type of thing, even though they’re so much more empowered and independent and centered than I was at their age.”

And giving those voices a platform is essential. Feminist.com’s new section Girls & Young Women appears to be not only offering messages of empowerment to the younger generation but also a space for their ideas to flourish. “There are two reasons why we reach out to younger women at our site,” Marianne says. “One has to do with just what we were talking about—a lot of these issues happen really early on. So we’re constantly looking for both content and resources that we can offer by, for, and about girls and young women. But also, there’s this misconception that the younger generation is just completely complacent and that there’s this kind of resentment thing going on between older and younger generations of women.”

Marianne mentions that, although there may be some truth to the statement, she believes the notion is mainly fostered by the media. “I think that it may look different . . . feminism . . . in the younger generation than it did for let’s say people of Gloria Steinem’s era . . . but I take issue with people who say that younger women these days are completely apathetic. That’s not my experience,” she contends. “It’s hard to speak for a whole generation, and granted, there are going to be exceptions to every rule. But there are so many amazing blogs and groups and things happening on college campuses these days, so I really don’t think that’s true. At Feminist.com we are constantly trying to find young women’s voices and groups that are doing amazing work, and we’re helping to promote them.”

Furthering a holistic view of feminism that encompasses being environmentally conscious is also an initiative.

               In addition to supporting humanitarian causes, feminism should also include taking care of and nurturing the Earth, the planet we all live on and depend upon for our sustenance and survival.     — Reflections [Feminist.com]

“I see it all as being interconnected,” Marianne asserts. “The definition of feminism that I hope that Feminist.com presents is this idea that it’s larger than just a gender thing—that it really is about our interconnection with each other and with the earth. What we do to the earth affects us. It’s a symbiotic relationship . . . So, for me, feminism is really about respect for all life and all of its various manifestations.”

As Marianne confirms, what we’re really talking about is raising our awareness and consciousness to a level that serves men, women and humanity as a whole. “It’s about love and respect,” Marianne asserts. “It’s just like the same way that having an eating disorder is self destructive—it doesn’t honor ourselves or our bodies—if we mistreat the earth . . . if we pollute the earth and put toxins into it . . . then that’s also connected to how we treat our bodies and the beautiful planet and animals that we live with.”

Marianne’s interviews have also placed her in contact with extraordinary women who are truly inspirational, linking feminism to global initiatives affecting the planet. “I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing two amazing environmentalists,” Marianne remarks “One is Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel peace prize for the Green Belt Movement. She planted forty-five million trees across Kenya. . . And then of course, there’s Jane Goodall. That was actually one of my favorite interviews. Who better to talk to about some of these themes in such a deep and thoughtful way.”

When exploring the subject, we can’t help but discover an important fact — Pillaging the earth is symptomatic of a larger problem which needs addressing: a disregard for the feminine and the abuse of women. Through columns such as those provided by Amnesty International, V-Day, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Equality Now, Men Can Stop Rape, and Nobel Women’s Initiative, as well as questions explored in the Ask Amy – Violence Against Women section, Feminist.com is offering resources to assist those who are victims of abuse as well to help on a preventative and educational level.

“Regarding violence against women, we have worked really closely with V-Day because of our long-time relationship with them.” Marianne also notes their collaboration has produced the Anti-Violence Resource Guide, which provides both international and U.S.-based resources. “I have to say, because I’ve interviewed Eve Ensler so many times and constantly post her work and V-Day’s work, I think there’s nobody better than Eve to make sure we’re remembering what’s happening in places like the Congo. Actually, out of all of the interviews that I’ve done, some of the ones that have been the most wrenching have been with her . . . And she doesn’t talk about it as just a women’s thing. It is that, but it’s also about if we’re treating women and girls this way, then that’s a symptom of an overall problem with humanity and with a culture that breeds people who rape and produce violence—with a culture that produces wars, like what’s happening in the Congo.”

Marianne also stresses the importance of not condemning men or making sweeping statements like, “Oh, all men are bad. It’s more about let’s have a thoughtful conversation.” That means including men in the dialogue and making sure they are an active part of the solution.

“We’ve had a column for many years called Men’s Voices, Men as Allies. It started out being done specifically by a wonderful organization called Men Can Stop Rape and then it evolved into including a diversity of male voices. It’s one of our most popular columns. Pat McGann and I—Pat works at Men Can Stop Rape—decided that it would be very useful and timely to devote a section to the whole idea.” 

As Marianne explains, this upcoming section—Men and Women as Allies—would provide a space for dialogue. Not only would it continue highlighting men and women joining forces on issues such as rape, physical violence, and gender equity, but it would provide a venue for “redefining masculinity and helping men see how constrictive gender roles impact them in negative ways.” It would give men a safe base where they could read about the issues as well as dialogue with each other, and just as important, dialogue with women. “It’s actually one of the projects I’m most excited about,” Marianne mentions, “because I think that, with the groups and people that we have in place to be partners, we can do something in a really thoughtful, sensitive, and dynamic way.”

And isn’t that the aim? Working toward creating non-violent societies, no matter where in the world, means embracing humanitarian values. For men to ally with women, for them to break free of stagnant and harmful societal roles, for men to view gender equality as a human rights issue as well as a women’s rights objective, and for men to be a vital part of prevention makes ending violence toward women and creating a more peaceful world finally seem attainable.

               Our mission is to empower people to re-imagine and transform the roles of women and men and encourage them to break barriers so they can be agents of social change in the world. 

Concurrent with the partnerships men and women are creating to address the problem, women’s groups are coming to the fore everywhere around the world, and like many of the powerful movements in history there seems to be a spiritual dynamic involved. Marianne addresses the phenomenon—what’s been called spiritual activism—as it relates to feminist causes.

“Well, I think that people are calling that the fourth wave of feminism,” Marianne states. “Actually, I try to get away from linguistics although sometimes they come out of my mouth, but I do think that there’s this spirituality-infused social justice movement that is connected to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. This idea that it really does start with our inner world and that we have to be the change we want to see. That’s what the Our Inner Lives section which we just launched tries to do—honor all the paths, whether you define that as spirituality or as a traditional, organized religion.”

               We are committed to creating a space that represents as many women as possible—women who embody a diversity of religious, faith and spiritual identities as well as those women with an unnamed hunger, longing, or confusion. Together, we translate our compassion into tangible paths to positive change in the world, recognizing our interdependence with each other and the earth.

As Marianne indicates, there’s an interconnection between our internal and external reality. Our Inner Lives emphasizes the commonalities between many of the world’s religions and its various spiritual traditions in the sense that most of them, at heart, try to promote compassion and love. 

“And it’s not just about going out and joining the Peace Corps,” Marianne enumerates. “It’s also about how you treat your neighbors or someone in your family who is being difficult and going through a hard time. Just finding ways, both little and big, to have more consciousness and mindfulness in how we’re going through the world.” Marianne regards the fact that it starts with some inner reflection—that we’re often unaware of what we can or should do. “One of the quotes I include in my book is from Natalie Portman who mentions that volunteering is more for her than it is for the people she helps. It’s very soul nourishing and meaningful and joyful—that sense of doing good.”

Feminism’s big picture encompasses so many diverse elements. What about the issue of including spirituality in the conversation? Can we go as far as to say it’s an essential part of the equation?

“I think it’s hugely important, but I think it’s delicate,” Marianne concludes. “It has to be very sensitively handled because I think, in the same way that feminism is one of those loaded terms, spirituality can be so misinterpreted.” Marianne mentions that at Feminist.com they’ve taken special care to have an advisory team that includes women from Omega Institute as well as others who represent different faiths and perspectives. She also makes a point of connecting regard for the spiritual with the need for men, as well as women, to respect and value their own feminine wisdom. “I always thought that Feminist.com represented the feminine energy in the world as being something metaphysically bigger than just the gender association of feminism. And that’s one of the wonderful things I think Omega does in their conferences, which are all about women and power—bringing forth this idea of feminine power and new paradigms of power—honoring values that are typically associated with the feminine, which doesn’t mean necessarily with women.”

Marianne makes the connection between spirituality and the need to honor feminine energy in our attempts to resolve many of the world’s difficulties. “It’s making sure that we are in touch with the feminine values that we all have—the masculine and the feminine, the yin and yang in the world.” Marianne notes the timeliness of the concept, making reference to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s important book, Half the Sky, and its global initiative. “Right now it’s becoming more mainstream to acknowledge the truth which is that helping, empowering, and educating women and girls throughout the world is completely interconnected with all of these other issues that we’re facing—whether it’s war or violence or whether it’s about poverty or the environment.”

It is definitely a vast, humanitarian effort in many ways. And in order to make any significant strides, we need to emphasize women’s leadership, especially with regard to peace initiatives. Feminist.com is highlighting the issue through its evolving Women & Peace section, which has plans to expand and will examine women’s roles in building peace.

And the reason for emphasizing female leadership is simple. As Marianne observes, women need to be an integral part of conflict resolution. “As over half the world’s population—as the mothers, the daughter, the sisters, the wives, the educators, and the leaders—we have to be involved in every aspect of the peace process in order to accomplish lasting peace. And also, just look at how domestic and political violence are connected. You can’t have peace in the larger world without looking at what’s happening behind closed doors. It’s the connection between the private and the public—how women are treated in a society. . . If you look at Afghanistan or at Kenya, girls aren’t educated . . . it’s seeing how these things are connected to why war and violence are happening.”

Throughout her assessment, Marianne stays clear of stereotyping. When speaking about “the feminine” in any arena, including peacekeeping, she stresses that she’s referring to qualities like compassion, cooperation, intuition, and expressing emotion, “and that it’s okay to cry if our son goes off to war and dies. Not that men don’t do that, but men have often been taught to suppress their emotions. Carol Gilligan talks about the first time a boy cries when he’s about four or five and he’s called a sissy and from then on thinks that showing emotion is wrong and unmanly.”

Derogatory remarks and unrealistic gender expectations have been a big part of the problem. Thus the struggle. As mentioned in Daring to be Ourselves, we don’t need to be wrestling with words, especially with the term “feminine.” We certainly don’t need to be feeling pigeonholed if we use it. Both women and men have feminine traits, and as Marianne notes, these qualities need to be celebrated as part of all of us. Could authentic living may be part of the answer? Sounds a bit simplistic, but allowing the feminine and the masculine to be expressed in our lives, whether we’re male or female, may finally help create the kind of balance our world desperately needs.

Marianne regards Omega Institute’s Women & Power conferences as being pivotal events that address this quest for balance. She acknowledges them as inspirational forums that help women believe in their ability to be leaders and voices of change. “I think that Omega is at the forefront of really promoting some of these themes that we’re talking about,” Marianne remarks. “I have such respect for that organization. Elizabeth Lesser [cofounder of Omega], who is also in my book, is a true visionary, an incredible person and author.” Marianne also makes reference to the Women’s Institute, now officially known as the Women’s Leadership Center.Carla Goldstein, who runs it, is a very good friend of mine. They are doing really exciting work and are a very close partner of Feminist.com.” 

At Omega’s 2010 Conference, Our Time to Lead, Marianne and Feminist.com cofounder, Amy Richards, taught a workshop together, Activism in Your Own Voice. “One of the things that was great about doing the workshop with Amy is we had everybody go around and say what their definition of activism was and what brought them to the conference and to our workshop . . . the women were so excited and happy to share their stories. Yes, there are these amazing people who speak at the conferences, but there are also some really amazing people in the audience.”

As Marianne concludes, women inspiring and motivating each other to keep the momentum of self-awareness and change going is important. Overcoming the fear of acknowledging their own voices—of becoming authentic—is a key step in harnessing genuine power.        

At the first reading and book signing for Marianne’s book, Daring to Be Ourselves, which was held at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock, NY, she cited a quote by activist and author, Loung Ung.

Courage is when you dare to be yourself.

Marianne found that theme popping up with most of the women she interviewed. She now reflects on what the quote means to her personally as well as within the context of feminism. “I think that for the book, it just emerged as the overlying theme,” Marianne remarks. “As I looked at all of the various quotes and messages, it was just very clear that it was that simple—just being who we are. It almost sounds ridiculous because it sounds like the easiest, most obvious thing we should all be doing and yet very few of us often are, or we’ve gone through periods of our life where we’re not.”

Perhaps, as Marianne suggests, that’s because there are so many forces affecting all of us—women and girls, as well as men and boys—which constantly inform us that we’re not acceptable as we are, ceaselessly urging us to change and make ourselves into something else.

Girls, in particular, are under constant pressure from the media about their body image. Marianne reflects how that stress affected her as a teenager. “I blew dry my hair straight every day, dyed it blonde, and dieted my way until I was borderline anorexic,” she divulges. “We’re all told we have to look like a super model or just why bother. But also internally, like Carol Gilligan says, we’re told from early on not to value our genuine voice. Sometimes I think what happens—and this happens to a lot of women and happened to me for quite some time—is that we have no clue who we are, and that’s a really lost feeling to have. I think we’re so on autopilot that women can go through their whole lives having no idea who they are and therefore aren’t in touch with what would give them fulfillment and happiness. What a waste and what an atrocity. So to me, it’s really that simple and that powerful—just finding your true voice and honoring your authentic self in all the various ways that you can.”

And if you bring your whole self to the task, whether that’s furthering a feminist cause or any other human rights issue, it makes the endeavor all the more powerful.

Marianne agrees with the premise. “Yes, that’s what naturally happens . . . like when we were talking about the connection between spirituality and feminism or spirituality and activism. Once you do this kind of inner work and start honoring yourself, it becomes this contagious thing. You can’t look at other people without seeing your common humanity and recognizing yourself. I remember—I think it was with my older daughter when she was in fourth grade—there was another girl who was saying unkind things again and again. I  found myself saying something so simple which really resonated, something like ‘You know, for this girl to act like that she must be a really unhappy person. I feel so bad for her because if you were a happy person, it doesn’t make you feel good to act that way.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you try, rather than fighting back or getting into a thing with her, just responding with love. You know, compliment her or just smile.’ As Marianne relays, her daughter told her the advice helped. “Now sometimes when things like that happen, I’ll just say, ‘Just respond with love,’ which is easier said than done. But sometimes it’s just about that . . . having compassion.”

Of the many fascinating women Marianne has interviewed, when asked to choose one who was particularly inspiring, she mentions Jane Fonda.  Just before their interview, Marianne read Jane’s autobiography, My Life So Far, which is about her personal journey—about her eating disorders, her marriages, being an actress and the pressures and insecurities that came along with her career. “But it was also about how it took her until she was in her sixties, post her divorce from Ted Turner, to really find her power and find her voice—to find out who she was. That was a big theme through my interview with her,” Marianne recognizes. “It just had a profound effect  on me because it really helped clarify the fact that the same thing had happened to me. . . It took me until my thirties to really start to wake up out of this society-imposed slumber that I had been in. So it not only was a personal revelation that way, but it also made me want to focus on making sure that we instill these messages in young women and girls so they don’t have to wait that long to reclaim their voices or, perhaps, not lose them at all.” 

Although it’s difficult for her to pick one quote from Daring to Be Ourselves that resonates with her own personal journey, after a moment of reflection, Marianne acquiesces. “It actually closes the whole book—the Alice Walker quote. It ties in with the overlying message, which has to do with finding your own voice and also finding your inner leader in order to produce change in the world.”

               We do carry an inner light, an inner compass, and the reason we don’t know we carry it is because we’ve been distracted. We think that the light is actually being carried by a leader or somebody that we have elected or somebody that we very much admire and that that’s the only light. So we forget that we have our own light—it may be small, it may be flickering, but it’s actually there. So what we need to do, I think, is to be still enough to let that light shine and illuminate our inner landscape and our dreams—especially our dreams. And then our dreams will lead us to the right way.       —  Alice Walker

Expanding on those words of wisdom, Marianne offers further insights to those of us who feel a bit dwarfed by the overwhelming needs we see expressed in the world today—whether they be women’s agendas, humanitarian issues, or global initiatives addressing peace and security. What exactly should we remember as we venture forward?”

“To have love and compassion for yourself,” she says plainly. “To take the pressure off that you can do it perfectly. . . It’s starting where you are and not thinking that you’re going to go out and found another V-Day. It’s literally just looking at your own family, your own neighborhood, and into your own community as you go through the day for ways to be mindful. It’s about how you’re interacting and the energy you’re putting out into the world. And . . . it sounds corny . . . just spreading love the best we can.”

Spreading love may just be a dare in itself. But if it’s a heartfelt desire, we’ll muster the strength to be up for the challenge. With enthusiasm and courageous effort, Marianne exemplifies that one woman is capable of doing just that—believing in a vision and becoming herself.


Visit Marianne’s website to find out more about Daring to Be Ourselves and for scheduled appearances.

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       Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood.  — Gloria Steinem

Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK

A radical, a crazed lunatic, unpatriotic, a communist. . . perhaps even a sorceress.  

Strong women speaking truth to power have always received some form of derogatory press. By the time either the media or more conservative, political zealots are through, an outspoken intelligent woman can be portrayed as the next Medusa.  

Medea Benjamin is no exception to the rule. Brushing past the slurs, an intelligent observer quickly concludes that Medea is no ordinary woman. With a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University and another in economics from the The New School, Medea has worked as an economist and nutritionist in Latin America and Africa for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health organization, the Swedish International Development Agency and the Institute for Food and Development Policy. Medea is also co-founder of the San Francisco-based human rights organization, Global Exchange, as well as co-founder of CODEPINK Women for Peace.  

So what turned “a nice Jewish girl” from Long Island into a political activist?  

“Now that goes back some,” Medea remarks. “Actually, I think it all began for me in high school. I remember when my sister’s boyfriend was sent to Vietnam and mailed home a souvenir of an ear of a Vietcong. I was so disgusted by it that it set me on a path of trying to understand why some people considered others lesser human beings. I wondered how we could reverse that. Also, there were real inequalities in the high school that I went to which resulted in race riots. So here I was in a supposedly quiet, suburban Long Island neighborhood that was suddenly racked in the sixties by race relations and war. That kind of thing certainly leaves a mark on you, especially if it happens earlier in life as it did in my case, when you’re just trying to figure out what you want to do and become, and how you want to live your life. All of it urged me down a path of trying to get people to like each other more.”  

Helping people to like each other can sometimes be a monumental task. Intolerance, abuse, greed, political gain . . . War is often the sad result of their erosive wear. CODEPINK Women for Peace is dedicated to turning the tide -– from funding war and aggression toward looking for new avenues for our resources such as green jobs and better healthcare. They are resolved to helping support policies based on diplomacy and compassion rather than those rooted in fear and suppression. From stopping the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to preventing new aggressions from arising, CODEPINK seeks to activate, amplify and inspire a community of peacemakers through creative campaigns and a commitment to non-violence.  

Oftentimes when we hear of such monumental endeavors, we tend to envision some huge campaign behind them. Not always the case. CODEPINK, Medea explains, started when a group of women concerned about the environment got together for a retreat that was organized by a group called Bioneers. “We sat around for several days talking about ways we could address the environmental crisis. During our breaks, we also talked about 9/11 and the US response—the bombing of Afghanistan. We discussed the pending war in Iraq and the color coded alert system that Bush had just declared. It was so odd and nobody knew what to do. We were laughing about it and saying ‘okay if it gets to orange is that when we get out the plastic tarps? When do we use the tape? Do we put it around ourselves or the terrorists?’ So initially, we had some good laughs about the whole thing. But of course, we also realized how serious it was. We could see there was all this negative male energy out there — Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and also George Bush. We felt we needed to inject some rational, loving female energy into the situation. So we put the group together, initially thinking we’d call it Code Hot Pink until we found that the URL was taken by a porn group,” Medea conveys, laughing. “So we dropped the “hot”, which was very disappointing to some of us, and we went with the name CODEPINK. The idea was to turn the color pink on its head from being this nice, feminine, sweet color to one that was very energetic, bold, and determined.”    

That bold determination has created initiatives like Women Say No to War, inspiring women around the world to become active participants in peacemaking and social change. “We wanted to mobilize women in this country, but we also found in the process that women from other countries were contacting us and saying it’s time we all work together across borders. So Women Say No To War is our attempt to take on issues that we can work on with other women. Some are joint projects like supporting refugees from Iraq who are now living in countries all over the world, but particularly in Syria and Jordan. We’re also helping to promote women’s voices in Afghanistan who are speaking out against the war, as well as working on smaller scale projects run by women that we feel are helpful in building community.”  

CODEPINK has actively supported women of the Middle East when they have risen up to oppose injustice. “In Afghanistan, when the Karzai government was passing a law in order to get more votes from the Shia community, the president, Hamid Karzai, agreed to a law that basically instituted marital rape. Some of the women in Afghanistan rose up to oppose it under very difficult conditions, and we were there to support them and to echo their desire to get rid of the law. Our efforts were successful to a large extent. Then there’s Iran. We have looked toward people like the Nobel Peace prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, for guidance with regard to good campaigns to support. We have also taken groups to Iran, Afghanistan, and to Iraq—obviously places that are oftentimes dangerous and difficult for Americans. That’s because we feel it’s important for us to meet directly with women from different countries so we can learn from them and have a deeper understanding of how we can best support their efforts.”  

Women-induced peace initiatives are creating imprints in other Middle Eastern arenas. CODEPINK, as Medea explains, is one of several groups which are taking on the gritty task of demanding humanitarian relief for the Palestinians virtually imprisoned in Gaza. “CODEPINK became very involved in Israel/Palestine after the Israeli invasion of Gaza that left over 1,400 Palestinians dead. We felt particularly concerned that US tax dollars and our military hardware was used in the attack. CODEPINK has also taken many delegations to Gaza in the last two years. It’s hard to get in which is why many other groups don’t try. We had a beautiful delegation of almost 100 people, including Alice Walker, that went in on International Women’s Day in 2009.”  

Medea also stresses the need for us to remember what’s actually happening in Gaza. “There’s a population of nearly 1.5 million people who are living in what’s equivalent to an open air prison. They aren’t allowed the freedom to go in and out of the area, really only surviving thanks to the United Nations and other charitable organizations,” Medea states. “So we’ve been trying to push the Israeli government to lift the siege. Along the way, we’ve made great connections with the women inside Gaza and have been encouraging them as much as possible, both politically and practically. We support projects like women’s crafts, for instance, so they can make a living. That’s what we do — back concrete projects as well as longer-term policy goals.”  

Yet real change in policy will never manifest while human beings are being held in bondage and humanitarian aid denied as the international community stands by, allowing it to occur without repercussions. The Humanitarian Flotilla situation is no exception. What have we really seen in the Obama administration that leans toward condemning such actions, especially with regard to the Israeli government?  

“We haven’t seen much change from the Bush administration to the Obama administration in terms of policies toward Israel,” Medea asserts plainly. “They’ve been somewhat firmer on the issues of settlements but continue to really turn a blind eye to Israeli violations of human rights.”  

          The U.S. government has been complicit in arming Israel and enabling its human rights abuses, including the ongoing siege of Gaza that has kept 1.5. million people living in the world’s largest open-air prison. In July 2008, the United States signed a contract worth $1.9 billion to transfer the latest-generation of naval combat vessels to Israel at U.S. taxpayer expense. Currently, Congress is in the process of appropriating a record $3.2 billion in military aid to Israel this budget year. This aid must be stopped.   CODEPINK – May 31, 2010  

Medea gives her assessment as to why the U.S. government continues to support Israel in such a biased way. “If you look at who controls policy, it’s really the lobby group AIPAC –- American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It’s really strong and well organized. On one level, you have to be in awe of their ability to influence policy. They even draft legislation and get it passed before we’ve even heard of it. It’s quite remarkable,” Medea states. “Along with the NRA and AARP, AIPAC is one of the strongest lobbies we have in the U.S. It gives tremendous amounts of money to the Democratic and Republican parties so it has a very fierce stranglehold on policy, always showing unconditional support for Israel. We’re actually mobilizing now to try to directly expose AIPAC and how it’s policies control American interests. When AIPAC holds its annual meeting this coming March in Washington, D.C., CODEPINK will have a counter gathering there at the same time in order to discuss what we consider a more even-handed policy.”

No doubt, confronting organizations such as AIPAC by shedding light on hard-nosed and unfair tactics are becoming more and more necessary. It’s also become obvious, as well as essential, that women’s voices are heard in any serious attempt to attain peaceful resolution.  

“Oftentimes women and children are the number one victims of war, and they are usually excluded when it comes to trying to find peace,” Medea remarks. “Take the example of Afghanistan where women’s oppression is used as a justification for U.S. military intervention, and yet when it comes to trying to develop a process of reconciliation, women in Afghanistan have had to struggle hard even to have a place at the table. CODEPINK has been working with the women there to push for them to gain that seat. It’s not easy because whether it’s the Taliban or the Karzai government or whatever, no one wants to include women in peace talks. So since most of the time women are not at the table, then the process often doesn’t take into account women’s needs. Using Afghanistan again as an example, any peace process has to include a guarantee that girls will be able to go to school under a negotiated peace settlement. For women, that issue is high up on their list. Yet if they’re not at the table, who’s going to voice those kinds of demands. That’s why CODEPINK is helping to support them in having more of a say. That’s why the United Nations passed Resolution 1325 which states that women must be part of any peacemaking process.”  

Although women’s roles are emphasized, CODEPINK is not exclusively an organization of women. Medea talks about men’s response to the organization’s mission.  

“The support we get from men, depends on what part of the world we’re in. Unfortunately, there are still many areas where women are treated more like property than like human beings. There’s still so much work to do to guarantee women’s rights. Actually, we have a lot of men that work in CODEPINK that are our allies, our colleagues. They’re some of our best activists. So even though we’re a women-initiated group, we have never been exclusively made up of women. We feel that this gives us a unique kind of position. We have the women’s perspective that’s front and center because it’s run by women, and yet we get the best of both worlds because we have a lot of good male ideas and energy behind our initiatives.”  

And some of those endeavors can take on a life of their own. People from all over the world converging in Egypt in order to cross the border into Israel to help the people of Gaza . . . Sounds like a stupendous feat meant more for a movie screen, yet a real life attempt was made during the Gaza Freedom March on December 31, 2009. What happened during that initiative and what was CODEPINK’s objective?  

“We had been taking delegations into Gaza through Egypt on smaller levels — about 100 people each time,” Medea explains. “The Gaza Freedom March was an attempt to scale that up. We thought that meant we might get something like 300 people joining, but it turned out that 1,300 people signed up from around the world.”  

Egypt is the route that the delegations have been taking to get into Gaza because the Israelis won’t let them in if they make the attempt within Israel. This particular time the additional people joining the march was a surprise for Egyptian officials. “The event became massive, and that really scared the Egyptian government,” Medea states. “They had been allowing us in with these smaller delegations, but since this one was so big, the government clamped down and said that they would not allow us into Gaza, and they would not allow us to be meeting in Cairo where everybody was converging.”  

The official Egyptian government explanation was that seven or more people gathering would be considered illegal. “So imagine,” Medea adds, “here we were in charge of 1,300 people from all over the world, and we’re told we can’t meet. So it ended up that we had a lot of demonstrations in the streets of Cairo that really shocked and rocked the government there. Because we were coming from so many different countries, officials were too embarrassed to really crack down on us the way they would have if we were Egyptians. As it turned out, they eventually allowed 100 people out of the 1,300 to go into Gaza with humanitarian aid.”  

And what about the possibility of holding another Gaza Freedom March? “What we’re doing now is going back to smaller delegations,” Medea conveys, “more manageable ones. In fact, the next delegation we’re taking will consist of about ten people. In terms of doing something massive, we would prefer doing that in Washington D.C. where we can try to influence the politics of our government and where we have more control over our ability to meet.”  

In the midst of her reflections on the Gaza situation, Medea reveals that it’s difficult to perceive how a resolution will come about. “It’s so hard to see, with the one-sided nature of U.S. policy, how we’re ever going to move in a direction that will give peace to the people who are living there now,” Medea remarks. “I still tend to feel very despairing about the future of that tiny strip of land.”  

Medea also recognizes the need to be lighthearted from time to time to alleviate the gravity. “We did a little parody of the peace talks in front of the White House the other day [Peace Charade 2010]. I play Hillary Clinton. We try to have some fun with this stuff so we don’t get too despairing. Doing protest after protest all the time — it can become overwhelming.”  

As the world watches the Israeli/Palestinian dilemma, many of us wonder what is happening among the women of Israel—Jewish and Islamic—with regard to their own ventures toward peace. Are more peace groups forming and are some of them working directly with CODEPINK?  

“There are a number of wonderful women’s groups,” Medea offers. “There’s one called Coalition of Women for Peace that consists of both Jewish and Arab women. These women have learned over the years how to work really well together. They hosted one of our delegations that went to Israel. At one of the separation walls, we did a very creative protest that consisted of Arab, Jewish, Israeli and American women, calling for the removal of these walls. We basically forced the Israeli military to let us go through one of the checkpoints which had been closed so that we could meet and embrace. It was a very beautiful moment. In general, when protests are led by women, it’s almost guaranteed that it will be peaceful. That really challenges the Israelis in their response, making it harder for them to react with violence.”  

Still, the occupation is affecting women and children on both sides, Israeli as well as Palestinian. “The other day, there was an attack on Israeli settlers that led to the death of four people, including a pregnant woman, and Hamas took credit for it. Credit . . . what a horrible term. It’s awful when you see civilians being killed no matter who they are, and in this case, a pregnant women was murdered. It’s very painful. There’s been worldwide condemnation of that attack, and rightly so. But what I have also seen are daily attacks of women and children in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and in Gaza. As a Jewish American woman, I feel that I have to speak out against those incidences because my government, the Israeli government, and the media tend to belittle the lives of the Palestinians. When a pregnant woman dies at a checkpoint because she was not allowed through to get to the hospital in time, that does not become worldwide news. When a woman in Gaza is killed by an Israeli bomb, that does not become worldwide news. So I feel that we have to speak out against all violence against civilians.”  

There are other ways in which the Israeli occupation, especially the siege, has taken its toll. “In Gaza, where the economy is disastrous, there’s about a fifty percent unemployment rate. So just trying to put food on the table is very difficult for women. Men are feeling impotent because they don’t have jobs and because they don’t feel they’re fulfilling their obligations toward their families. So you also see a rise in domestic violence. All of this, unfortunately, relates back to the lack of basic freedoms.”  

Yet, no matter how often women around the world hear about the situation in Gaza as well as in other conflict zones, it is becoming more imperative that we not only feel the outrage and compassion and desire change, but we actually become forces of that change—basically being less abstract and more concrete. In short, taking it out of our heads and onto the street.  

Medea addresses the concept. “One of the most exciting things for me about CODEPINK has been empowering so many women around the country and around the world to become active because we tend to complain a lot and oftentimes on the computer—writing to each other, bemoaning the state of the world and not getting out to really make change. It’s too easy to be an armchair peacemaker. So we’ve got to get people off their couches and away from their computers and out into the world, be that into the streets or into the halls of congress or into their local shelters helping poor women, wherever that is. We have to be actively engaged in changing this world. Actually, it’s the best possible antidote to depression. It’s very easy to get depressed when you watch the news or you sit around and exchange e-mails about how bad things are going, but it’s very inspiring and refreshing when you get out in the world and try to make change, mostly because you’re surrounded by other women—and men—who are doers rather than talkers. And that is very inspiring.”  

Seems like CODEPINK is appealing to the deeper qualities of women as a whole. There’s a spiritual element to how women are being addressed:   

            We call on women around the world to rise up and oppose the war in Iraq. We call on mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters, on workers, students, teachers, healers, artists, writers, singers, poets, and every ordinary outraged woman willing to be outrageous for peace. Women have been the guardians of life-not because we are better or purer or more innately nurturing than men, but because the men have busied themselves making war. Because of our responsibility to the next generation, because of our own love for our families and communities and this country that we are a part of, we understand the love of a mother in Iraq for her children, and the driving desire of that child for life. — Starhawk  

CODEPINK calls women to break free from learned roles and become more of what many consider to be spiritual activists. It seems to be a revolutionary call in its most positive sense.  

“It’s a call that really involves all aspects of our lives,” Medea relates. “How can we be nurturing in our homes and out in the world, how can we be compassionate in our communities and build a government that reflects that compassion? How can we find beauty in our daily lives and bring more beauty to the larger world? So it’s a very holistic kind of call that really looks toward an era of cooperation and negotiation over the use of force, as well as having that sense of cooperative involvement prevail in everything from our homes and families to our government policies and the way we live and work with each other in the broader world.”  

Yet, in order to create an era of national and international responsibility, we cannot avoid asking ourselves a simple question: How are the actions of our government affecting us as people? If we allow leaders to actively support, especially financially and militarily, nations that are consistently involved in human rights violations, we are basically signing our name to their agenda. In essence, we are condoning their actions by not speaking up to refute them and demanding change.   

But is the tide finally turning in our own country? Are men and women in the U.S. getting the message?  

“Yes and no,” Medea states. “I think that there was tremendous energy that people put into overcoming the Bush years and bringing in a new era. We pinned a lot of hopes on Barak Obama and then felt that after that huge rush of energy to get him elected that we did our job and we could go home and relax. That was a huge mistake because, unfortunately, there is no relaxing. This work is a constant. It requires constant involvement and vigilance, and I don’t say that in a negative, exhausting kind of sense. I say that in a positive, energizing sense. We need to remember that when we let down our guard, the forces of violence never lets down theirs, and we can find ourselves back where we were before.”  

It appears that people may have become a little too complacent since the election of Barak Obama, too willing to allow the policies to emanate from Washington instead of from the grassroots? “The energy we used to get rid of the Bush administration should have then been turned into positive energy to force the Obama administration to be the government that we hoped we had elected,” Medea asserts. “Instead, it went from how do we push against something we don’t like, i.e. the Bush administration, to just feeling like the Messiah had come and he’ll take care of it. Let this powerful, wonderful man, Obama, just do his thing and we’ll be okay. I think that, particularly for women, we should have known better, and we should have not let down our guard. Actually, it’s been very difficult for CODEPINK to organize since Obama has come into power. We still want to end the wars and bring our troops home. We still want to close the foreign military bases that we have–over 800 bases around the world–and invest that money in green energy, good jobs and education. We still want to have our government support basic human rights and close down Guantanamo and restore habeas corpus. There’s all kinds of things that we still have left to do, and yet we haven’t found the same energy among our supporters that we had during the Bush years.”  

Whether we hear it through the media or during town hall discussions, people have expressed a sense of deflation.  

“They certainly feel let down,” Medea concurs. “First they were elated. ‘Okay, let’s let Obama do it for us.’ And then when he didn’t do what we wanted, whether that was ending the wars or bringing in new policies that we desired on everything from jobs to the environment to immigration, we got disappointed and depressed. That’s not good for us as individuals and it’s not good for making the changes we want to see. That’s why CODEPINK is constantly out there trying to revive people’s sense of being active, engaged, and involved. Presently, we’re part of a big mobilization [One Nation: Working Together to Fund Jobs, Not War] that’s taking place on October 2nd in Washington, D.C. It’s being organized by civil rights groups and unions, and we’re bringing the peace message into that mix. It will definitely be bigger than Glen Beck’s and certainly not as white,” Medea adds. “The point is rather than just complaining about Glen Beck, we had to ask ourselves: How do we mobilize forces for what we believe in?”  

Perhaps part of the answer lies within a simpler framework—how men and women can become more pink.  

That may sound a bit too simple, maybe even frivolous. After all, when one thinks pink one does not normally think strong or unwavering. Perhaps, as CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin concludes, the color pink has taken on a special meaning and force.  

“Wearing some pink helps,” Medea says. “We had a lot of people who hated pink when we started who have now come to really love it, including me. I was not a pink person at all. I’ve learned a lot from the whole pink thing. It sort of brightens up my outlook a little more. People’s responses are certainly a lot more positive. Sometimes doing and saying something dressed in black tends to put out a little more of a dire, negative energy than if you’re conveying the same message dressed in pink. The color can be very disarming. It can disarm the police, it can pacify your adversaries, and it can make people want to join you because it’s more inviting and positive. So I would say in general, while we’re working on these issues of life and death, rape and violence, and so many other negative and heartbreaking conditions in the world, adding a little pink can bring some joy into our work.”  

That may be worth contemplating. After all, pink is the color of universal love . . . the color of approachability, harmony and inner peace. The color pink is connected with the heart, our source of compassion and human decency. It’s even been known to neutralize violent behavior—definitely a desirable result.  

Maybe we do need a color-coded, wake-up call:  The heart of humanity is blocked, causing fear, anger, and hatred. In short, it’s causing war.  

So pink may be the warning color we require, detangling us from the knots of domination and greed that have enabled us to squander human life. Perhaps what we really need is to be saved from our own ignorance.  

Now that’s a CODEPINK alert.  


Photo credits:  Introductory photo — Julie Brashares. Medea at the podium — Rae Abileah. All other photos — by permission. 

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                                         We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.                        We are spiritual beings having a human experience.          — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Carla Goldstein

The Omega Point. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin imagined such a critical threshold, where humankind would reach its highest point of socialization and consciousness, breaking through time and space to a new level of enlightenment. The organization’s name reflecting this idea, Omega Institute for Holistic Studies is dedicated to fostering movement toward that pivotal point of integration, encouraging both individual growth and social change.

Sitting in her office located amidst Omega’s sprawling, nearly two hundred acre campus in Rhinebeck, NY, Carla Goldstein, Director of External Affairs as well as Director of the Women’s Institute, describes how she discovered Omega and how that meeting transformed her life.

“I consider myself an advocate,” Carla relates. “That’s really been the bulk of my professional life. I’m a lawyer by training and spent many years on the public policy front. I worked in the New York State legislature as well as in the City Council. It was while I was working for Planned Parenthood that I discovered Omega. I found out about the Women & Power conference and it looked really interesting, so I decided to attend. I heard Jane Fonda speak that weekend. Eve Ensler and other great women were there as well. It was such a powerful event, the best conference I’d ever been to, bar none.”

Elizabeth Lesser, Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, and Sally Field

Carla found herself thinking it was a shame that those amazing women were not being heard more beyond the conference environment. “This was all happening pre-digital download and the internet had not become what it is now. That’s when it occurred to me that since Planned Parenthood was a global organization, we might partner with Omega to figure out how to get that content distributed in some way, so I approached Omega with the idea. This was all happening just when the organization first began its Service Week program, opening its campus to nonprofits to do their own retreats. Through Planned Parenthood, I went on a retreat along with a team of thirty leaders, and we all fell in love with the place. After that, I brought my family to Omega during Family Week. It was a very transformative time for us. That’s when I realized Omega really had something going on that was special.”

Carla expresses that Omega’s and her own desire seemed to be synchronizing. In the universe of her policy work, while people were talking about heartfulness, caring, community and childcare, Carla reveals her personal experience was that “there was something missing underneath the rhetoric—a depth of spirit and community. And as far as Omega was concerned, the organization was at a time in its development when it was feeling its ‘grownupness’. The mission to bring hope and healing to individuals and society had been expressed really one person at a time through various educational programs. Omega was now interested in figuring out how it could deepen its impact on the social/cultural questions. So meeting up with the organization at that time was perfect. I was looking for spiritual depth, and Omega was looking for political/social action.”

Since joining Omega, Carla has seen the organization realizing its goal. The Women’s Institute . . . The Omega Center for Sustainable Living. . . The Scholarship Program . . . building a program around Mindfulness for Educators . . . the development of a Veteran’s Week. “The road has led to really figuring out how to serve the greater good at a social level in addition to the individual level,” Carla states. “The way I see it is that coming on the heels of the 60’s and the 70’s there were really two paths to social change. One path advocated changing the social structures—the laws, the policies. The other was the Ghandi path, the eastern path. ‘We’re going to be the change.’ What Omega was coming to understand, as well as what I and many of our teachers have come to understand is that it’s not an either or situation. It’s a both and more situation. So the question is how do we really bring these different prongs together in an endless cycle.”

Seeing two sides of the coin, Omega recognized that a deeper balance within the world at large needed to be attained for successful social changes to take place—a new paradigm where feminine wisdom is valued. Supporting a balanced power paradigm that is neither feminine nor masculine, but a healthy blend of both, will help create a more peaceful and just world that honors our interdependence with each other and the Earth itself. Thus, the formation of the Women’s Institute, a dynamic and innovative part of Omega’s mission to attain that objective.

Empowering women around the world, the Institute supports them in developing their visions and their voice, recognizing that feminine wisdom is an essential element in any effort toward sustainability and global peace.

“The goal of the Women’s Institute is primarily to cultivate women’s leadership and empowerment so that women can be change agents,” Carla notes. “We’re interested in helping women who want to transform the power paradigm from being one of dominance and exploitation to one of cooperation and collaboration. We’re interested in not mimicking the kinds of leadership that we have grown up watching but inventing our own authentic leadership using our whole selves—mind, body, spirit, and heart—and doing it in the global context. The way that I understand it, where we are as women in the west today stems right from WWII. Since that time, when 6,000,000 women went to work and then left their jobs when the men came back from war, we have been in a largely adaptive relationship to power—conforming to the existing structures in relation to questions like ‘How do we get what we want? How do we hold it? How do we find our way? How do we navigate the power structures that exist that were created without us?’ But that’s changing. We’re now moving into a period where women are very interested in having power redefined to reflect our own unique values and visions. This is not to say that women are monolithic. We are as different as we are many, but nonetheless all of the social constructs were created primarily without any input from women, so we’ve been functioning in them in this adaptive mode and now it’s like ‘Well, wait a minute.’ Not to discard it all, but how can we infuse the power structure with our own visions? How do we challenge some of the assumptions upon which the system was based—a lot  of those assumptions having to do with the exploitation of women? So that’s really what the Women’s Institute is interested in helping women do.”

But it’s not only women’s empowerment that the Institute is promoting, it’s feminine wisdom.

By healing and promoting feminine wisdom in women and girls as well as in men and boys, all of society benefits.

“The terminology is all problematic,” Carla explains. “When we use the term ‘the feminine’ which we mean in the Jungian psychological sense, people think we’re talking about feminine hygiene products or a hyper-genderized sense of the feminine so there’s all these challenges around stereotypes due to the language. That makes it tough, especially for men. In reality, we’re trying to convey the word feminine in the sphere of nurturing, as well as in reflective and relational qualities. Gloria Steinem once said at one of the conferences that every human being possesses all of the qualities that are available—360° around the wheel—but we grow into them at different stages of our lives. So the best aspiration would be to help all humans experience all aspects of themselves. With regard to women’s empowerment work, it’s about helping women find their own authentic voice and visions. It’s also about helping them become more comfortable in their masculine traits. It works the other way around with men. Many men can be extraordinarily nurturing. So none of this is simply biologically predestined. The real question is how can we bring balance for everyone? Of course, from a resource point of view, the Women’s Institute is interested in empowering women, but helping to awaken, enliven and support the feminine in men will definitely be a part of our agenda.”

Emphasizing female leadership in the world is essential at all levels. Carla makes reference to Nicholas D. Kristof’s book, Half the Sky, which describes the brutal inequality that women and girls face in the world today as well as the powerful resilience of those who have been harmed, who literally changed their oppression into opportunity. “Allowing women to play key roles is one of the answers to many of the development questions that we have,” Carla asserts. “It makes sense. Actually, it’s kind of a no brainer. If you have all these human problems and half of the humans are not at the table to help solve them, then you’re really not utilizing the full of human potential. It’s very simple. We need more women in leadership positions. At the same time, it’s an oversimplification to say it’s just about the biology. A lot of the reasons why have to do with patriarchy and what the overarching system is valuing. So although we need more women leaders, it’s not just more women in the biological sense, but specifically, more women who are interested in bringing in the values of the feminine.”

Omega’s Women & Power conferences, cultivating those values, are dynamic events, inspiring and affirming women’s leadership and empowerment. “Of course there’s only so much one can do in a weekend,” Carla remarks, “but it’s definitely an inspirational event and acts as a confirmation for those of us who think Hey, I want to wake up and strengthen this part of myself. Also, the conference offers a sense of community. Even though technologically the web connects us more than ever, we’re very isolated from one another. We live in a hyper-specialized society and culture so you could spend your entire life just staring at a computer screen. That’s why one of the main goals of the conference is to bring people into community with each other and to build a movement — a social movement.”

And that movement seems to be emerging around the globe. An amazing number of women’s organizations are bringing women together to explore the power paradigm as well as to create some changes in the blueprint. Carla points out that “everywhere you look, even on the internet, if you google women and power conferences, you will find events all over the world now. The Women’s Institute is not unique in the sense that we are part of a growing movement. That’s another one of our goals—to share that information, to help people feel connected to something larger than themselves. It’s important for us to know that we’re a part of an emerging global network of women trying to change the path of history, trying to bring a different set of values and experience to the table as well as forging new pathways and new vocabulary for what is developing.”

That initiative vocabulary will have the chance to be explored at the next Women & Power conference scheduled at the Rhinebeck campus in September. OUR TIME TO LEAD is a call-out to women of all ages and backgrounds to become the leaders we have been waiting for. There is no ambiguity in the program’s agenda—the recognition that sustainable change is truly dependent upon more female leadership.

“I think I heard a statistic recently that women have only been officially part of 3% of all global peace negotiations,” Carla asserts. “The percentage is very small. There’s a problem with that. I think women have an enormous potential contribution to make toward conflict resolution. I have met some extraordinary women who have been key in the reconciliation process in their countries. There’s Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela who was important in the reconciliation endeavor in South Africa. I have just come back from Rwanda where I met Aloisea Inyumba. She was instrumental in the peace process post-genocide. One of the women coming to our conference this September, Leymah Gbowee, organized Christian and Muslim women in Liberia.”

Leymah Gbowee, as documented in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, was one of the main organizers of a band of several thousand women, who helped bring peace to Liberia after a 14-year civil war.

“So once again,” Carla stresses, “it’s a no brainer—tapping  the potential of women to bring the fruits of our wisdom to bear on the peacemaking table is essential.”

And what qualities did these women posses that magnetized their ability to achieve peaceful resolutions? “A willingness to process grief,” Carla reflects, “to be open to the other even though they may be classified as an enemy, to see the common humanity and to be committed to finding nonviolent solutions.”

In fact, many women around the globe are committed to using those attributes to realize peace in their countries. At the International Forum on the Role of Leadership in Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment that convened in Rwanda in May, an alliance of women met to regard the issues of achieving greater gender equality, human rights, and security for all.

As Carla mentions, as well as relates in her article (also accessed through her column at Feminist.com, Spiritual Activism), the Conference in Rwanda was focused on sharing that the country has become a world leader in women’s empowerment and equality. It’s the first country in the world where the majority of legislators are women—56% in fact. Even the head of their supreme court is a woman.

A stunning achievement. The establishment of so many women as leaders seems an incredible landmark.

“I think it’s complicated,” Carla remarks. “I’m not an expert in Rwandan history or politics, but what I discerned from what President Paul Kagame said is that women had a key role in the liberation struggle to end the genocide. I met several women there who were part of that–one of them happened to be a major fundraiser for the liberation struggle and one was a general. So it seems that personally, the President is committed to women’s empowerment. He was the commander of the revolutionary struggle, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. I was told by the women I met at the conference that during the process of organizing the RPF, he asked women to play key roles. Then, when he ultimately became the president, he insisted that the constitution require that 30% of the legislators be women, which is the UN recommendation. As we know, it turned out they exceeded that figure. The women also mentioned that President Kagame and the leadership in general view women as key to development, and that is why the country has succeeded in turning around from the crisis. So Rwanda is definitely setting an example for the world. In a country where nearly a million people were killed in a hundred days, they are now utilizing female leadership to rebuild.”

On May 16, Carla witnessed the One Million Women and Girls’ March for a Better Future which convened women and men, girls and boys, from across Rwanda. “The most impressive thing about that March was that almost half of the people were men. I did not get the feeling that they were marching to patronize the women, but to support their leaders and to support the idea of women’s equality.” When Carla asked their male guide why the men were so supportive, he said that it was because of watching the women in leadership: They have helped save the country and pulled everything forward, and the men are grateful.

Awareness of impactful events like the One Million Women March seems to create its own momentum. “If something happens in one part of the world,” Carla contemplates, “it becomes easier for the rest of us to imagine it happening where we live. ‘Well if they did it there, then we can do it here.’ It’s inspirational. My sense of all of these women’s groups coming to the fore everywhere around the world is that there’s an emergence. The why of it, like why now, we don’t know. I think there’s an evolutionary quality to what is happening, probably something to do with  the evolutionary nature in which we have lived and seeing that what used to work for us in the past is no longer viable. There’s also the issues around distribution of resources and the other challenges we face. The analogy that comes to mind is rotating crops. We started with fertile soil. Patriarchy spread through that soil and we were ruled by it. But now that system is failing. It’s breaking down. It’s done. So the new bed of soil has to have the capacity to allow many more people to grow. An essential quality to cultivate to that end is love—being able to nurture and understand our interdependence. The ability to do that is something women have been honing all the more, specifically because they’ve been surviving in a patriarchal system. So feminine wisdom, if you will, is what needs to be planted.”

Relying on those qualities, women are amassing globally, highlighting the issue of gender equality and underscoring its importance regarding the establishment and continuance of peaceful resolution and justice. Organic and growing exponentially, this powerful movement, like others throughout history cannot easily be explained. Many have asserted it’s a spiritual revolution that is creating the tide.

Considering the idea, Carla weighs the concept. “It’s too complex to reduce this down only to the spiritual. I think that it’s also a question of leadership. Martin Luther King was a leader and Gandhi was a leader. I think that people become leaders for a lot of different reasons, some of which are definitely spiritual, and some of which have to do with grief. It reminds me of the women in Nigeria, in particular this one woman who lost her seven children. She didn’t have any reason to live, yet she was determined to march. Then there’s Pastor Esther Ibanga,” Carla adds, “the woman who led the march of 100,000 people. A minister, she was definitely coming from a place of being a spiritual warrior. So I guess it’s a vocabulary thing for me. I believe we need to be careful and clear about what we really think is happening. One can always say there’s a spiritual dimension to what’s going on. ‘It’s spirit at work.’ But it’s important to also ask what else is at play. What are the other forces involved?”

Whatever they may be, each an every social action—all of the women and men who are working toward gender equality, every march, including the 1,000,000 women march in Rwanda—all of it has made a difference.

                The story of Rwanda and the wisdom shared by the 400+ women who came to the conference from around the world gives real grit to the possibility that we are finding our way out of the endless cycles of retribution, war, and conquest. I come away from this event with a profound sense of having been completely rearranged. It will take me some time to process the genocide of Rwanda, which also has brought me closer to my own history as a Jew, and to knowing that the seeds for love and hate lie in all of us. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with wise, accomplished, daring women from many different countries and contexts, who have helped build and heal their communities and create bridges over seemingly impossible divides, radically affirms my belief that women’s leadership is helping to change the face of human relations all over the world.       — Carla Goldstein

And women’s leadership is needed now more than ever. So much of the work regarding peace negotiations and creating the reconciliatory atmosphere post-conflict appears to be contingent upon making sure more women are at the peace and security table.

Perhaps, as Carla suggests, a big part of accomplishing that aim is unlearning what we have been taught about our capabilities. “We need to become a bit more gutsy,” she advises. “The world could look differently. A lot of things are based on religious storytelling and explanations that basically regard the nature of existence as just being the way it is—that it would be a folly for us to try to change things, that relationships between men and women have a natural or God-ordained hierarchy to them, that violence itself is natural, that survival of the fittest is the mode or mechanism of human existence, and that it’s a pollyannish view, a naïve view, that anything could be different. I think that since half of the human beings haven’t really participated in designing the system, then to say that the way things are is the only way they can be is missing half the beat. I think that part of the Institute’s work will be to encourage and to give women the confidence and the strength to bring their visions forward and to affirm the possibility that the world can, in fact, look differently than it looks today because we have not been a substantial part of the creators, the philosophers, or the visionaries. All of the storytelling about what life is and all of the structuring about how we will organize ourselves at a societal, public, resource distribution level as well as how we will solve our conflicts—all of that has been created without our voice by and large. Of course, the story can be very different if our voices are a part of it. So it’s really about that. It’s about being strong enough and brave enough to bring our voices forward so we can change the story.”

Yet, to make that transformation, there must be a breakthrough. Unifying around the globe, women’s voices are being powerfully unleashed to that end. As Carla and Omega suggest, it’s certainly our time to lead—not instead of men but with them. Together, we can design a new matrix, connecting and nurturing, creating a new paradigm that honors the feminine in us all.

* * * * *
Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist.
We are collaborators in creation.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Intoductory photo of Carla Goldstein – Courtesy of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. Photo of Carla Goldstein from Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations (2009) – by Dan Goldman. Photo of Elizabeth Lesser, Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, Sally Field from Women & Power (2004) – Courtesy of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies.

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               Violence against women and girls is not inevitable; it persists because it is allowed to persist, and it can be stopped . . . Together, we have the will, the conviction and the means to make the dream of violence-free generations of women and girls a reality.   —   Inés Alberdi, UNIFEM Executive Director

Nanette Braun

Women’s rights are, of course, human rights. So why is it that we seem to need to emphasize their reality? The answer lies in the simple fact that women’s rights throughout the world are constantly being violated. Access to education, employment, fair salaries, justice in courts, land and home ownership, physical and sexual safety—within all these spheres women have been discriminated against and violated. Thus, the need for specific laws and policies both created and implemented to uphold women’s rights is an essential factor in their being realized. And that also means we need organizations who are monitoring adherence to the underlying principles of these laws as well as reporting on women’s participation in peacebuilding. 

UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) works toward the advancement of women’s human rights and the achievement of gender equality worldwide. UNIFEM grounds itself on the premise that “it is the fundamental right of every woman to live a life free from discrimination and violence, and that gender equality is essential to achieving development and to building just societies.” 

Nanette Braun, Chief of Communications at UNIFEM, believes this as well. She begins by sharing some of her own background and what eventually brought her to UNIFEM’s door. 

“During my university studies in Germany, the Berlin Wall came down. At the time, I was a journalist writing for mainly German publications. It was a very exciting period—a time of big talks about a new world order, and people were looking very strongly at the United Nations. I thought I would like to join them, so I did an internship with the UN. Eventually, in February 1995 I started working in the Communications area. I first became involved with UN Volunteers, an organization that works with professionals from around the world who support the UN in areas like electoral and humanitarian missions as well as in development related works. As a journalist, I found myself covering UN events like the Conference on Population in Cairo, and since gender issues had always been a strong interest for me, I eventually joined UNIFEM and relocated to New York. That was seven years ago. It appears that the longer I’m with UNIFEM, the more important I find the cause. UNIFEM is a dynamic organization with a very important mandate, and I’m happy to be on board.” 

An important reference for UNIFEM’s work in support of women in conflict and post-conflict situations is UN Security Council Resolution 1325. “Resolution 1325 was a landmark resolution in that it first looked at the impact of war on women and viewed it from a security perspective,” Nanette states. “What we know is that war affects women differently than men. One horrific manifestation of the impact of war on women is the systematic and widespread use of rape—something we know is happening around the world.” 

Resolution 1325 highlights the following issues:   

  • The participation of women at all levels of decision-making.
  • The protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence
  • The prevention of violence again women through the promotion of women’s rights, accountability and law enforcement.
  • The mainstreaming of gender perspectives in peace operations

As Nanette reflects on how war impacts women differently, she emphasizes the need to look at related issues such as the process of peace negotiations and the composition of international peacekeeping missions. “There are far too few women involved in these negotiations—negotiations which will directly affect their communities and their country,” Nanette asserts. “Women are not in enough decision-making positions at either the national or the international level.” As noted, in many cases where sexual violence is the heavy fist utilized to beat the enemy, victims need special care. “We know that it makes a big difference for a woman who is a survivor of violence if she can speak to a female officer rather than have to speak with a male. “ 

But are UN resolutions like 1325 really making a difference? “It’s been ten years since Resolution 1325 was created,” Nanette states, “and there were other landmark resolutions that followed. In June 2008, UN Security Council Resolution 1820 focused for the first time specifically on sexual violence in conflict as a threat to international security. And it certainly is. It’s horribly effective. When rape and sexual violence are systematically used as tactics, communities are disrupted. Basically you destroy the social fabric that holds them together. This degradation and humiliation of human beings is what makes populations flee. With regard to the women who are violated, in addition to the shame, there is also the stigma attached to the rape itself and the resulting pregnancy. Women are very often shunned by their families and their communities.” 

The epidemic drama of widespread sexual violence will only be curtailed through watchdog efforts. Follow up resolutions—Security Council Resolution 1820 and 1889—which specifically relate to the two previous ones have resulted in a new UN office headed by Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallström. In this newly created position, Ms. Wallström will lead efforts to end conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated against women and children. 

During her presentation as the United Nations’ first Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Wallström stated: 

In my view, women’s security is the best measure of national security. 1820 acknowledges this. It affirms that steps to prevent and address sexual violence, are also steps to maintain peace and security. In a way, 1820 is itself an answer to the question posed by this panel. While important progress has been made on 1325, sexual violence has continued – even escalated. 1820 represents a sharpened response to a pillar of 1325 that remains woefully weak.

Nanette Braun also indicates that although the last ten years have offered very important developments with regard to Resolution 1325 and the resolutions that followed, there still remains a need to look into how to realize their aims more effectively.

At the moment, UNIFEM is part of an effort do just that—to develop indicators “to improve the ways in which we track and count the impact of conflict on women and their efforts to build peace.” As Nanette explains, “One example of an indicator with regard to Resolution 1325 is the number of female peacekeeping personnel in a given situation—the number of women in peace negotiations, the number of women as mediators. Through the indicator, we can look at the baseline and how things are being monitored. Indicators help us review whether a resolution like 1325 is being implemented, which is a very important aspect of driving this agenda forward.” 

An example of the ground level results of including more women in peacekeeping has already been seen in Liberia. “There is a police contingent of Indian women stationed as part of the peacekeeping mission there. Because it’s made such a difference to the women in the country, and they’ve felt encouraged by it, there is now a deliberate effort in Liberia to increase the number of women in the police force. The women themselves are also coming forward, saying they want to become policewomen. Also, Liberia now has a special unit on sexual and gender-based violence which is very important since it is necessary to have trained personnel in the police who know how to speak to victims properly. You need special training for that. You also need to know the services you can refer the women to. And that’s not only medical services, but also counseling and legal services. In addition, now Liberia also has a special court that only deals with sexual violence crimes.” 

Although Nanette notes that developments like these are extremely encouraging , there is work yet to be done. The goals of Resolution 1325 are still far from being realized. “More efforts have been made through the years,” Nanette remarks, “but I think we haven’t seen as much change as we would have hoped. Yet, the fact that it’s not only Liberia that is trying to increase things like the number of female police officers, and other countries are making similar efforts, is an encouraging development. In Rwanda, UNIFEM has worked very closely with the police and the military on addressing sexual violence so that you now have gender-based violence units within the Rwandan police force and an active campaign in the military as well. This means that both police officers and soldiers are presently being trained with regard to sexual violence issues before they go on peacekeeping missions. Representatives from other countries are actually going to Rwanda to see what the leaders there are doing and how their police force and military are addressing all of these concerns. This is most definitely an achievement. “ 

Another incidence of Resolution 1325 in action was the conference held in Madrid, Advancing Women’s Leadership for Sustainable Peace in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Worldwide, which was supported by the government of Spain and hosted by UNIFEM and the IWC (International Women’s Commission for Just and Sustainable Israeli-Palestinian Peace). The goal of Israeli, Palestinian and international women leaders who attended the conference was to end the occupation and achieve a two-state solution. “UNIFEM helped by providing a platform for these women to meet and exchange their thoughts, ideas and opinions. It’s very important that there is a dialogue between like-minded women from all sides. This conference highlights how women can be involved in peace negotiations as well as in setting an agenda for the future of their societies.” 

Nanette also notes that during the month of June, in order to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of Resolution 1325, UNIFEM, together with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Department for Political Affairs, and the UN Development Program, has organized Global Open Day for Women and Peace. In more than twenty post-conflict countries, senior UN officials are literally opening their doors to women peace activists and leaders. “This Open Day,” Nanette explains, “ is an opportunity for women to come forward and speak to the heads of peacekeeping missions in their countries and to voice their concerns and their recommendations.” 

UNIFEM has also launched a petition, SAY NO to Sexual Violence Against Women in Conflict, that people around the world can sign which will be used to show global support for the issue of ending violence against women. “There will be a high-level ministerial meeting in October on the 10th anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1325,” Nanette informs. “Before this meeting takes place we would like to show through these signatures that there is global support for Resolution 1325 and for its implementation. Everyone signing the petition helps make it a more powerful force in assuring that the resolution is carried out.” 

In fact, the history of SAY NO – UNITE TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN is a testament to the dedication of both UNIFEM and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s commitment to prioritize the issue of women’s rights violations as well as resolving the dilemma. 

“SAY NO started in November 2007 as a signature campaign,” Nanette relates. “UNIFEM put out a global call to make ending violence against women a top policy priority because it’s become an issue of pandemic proportions. This violence exists within every country throughout the world. It has nothing to do with whether that country is of the global north or the global south, rich or poor. We also realized that what was needed was something stipulated in the framework of the UN Secretary-General’s campaign on the issue. You need laws. You need national plans with enough resources to implement these laws and policies. You need more data, and you need more public events and more social mobilization. Also, you very much need to address the actual violence in conflict. So what UNIFEM did through the signature campaign was to appeal to policymakers around the world, requesting they make ending violence against women a top priority in their work. The response was astounding. Within a year, we had more than 5,000,000 signatures. Even many parliamentarians—the whole Tanzanian Parliament, for example— signed the petition.” 

When lawmakers publically express their will and intention to act on an issue, it’s a powerful statement. Nanette expressed UNIFEM was a bit overwhelmed, although positively, by the response. “We thought we would stop after a year,” Nanette divulged. “We were then urged by many of our partner organizations to continue, but to continue in a slightly different way. As I mentioned, the UN Secretary-General had launched a campaign on the issue, UNITE TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN. It was at that historic moment that we realized how we could bring our own constituency to the Secretary-General’s initiative. That brought us to the second phase of SAY NO which we call SAY NO—UNITE TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN. “ 

And SAY NO-UNITE focuses on action—individual and group. “UNIFEM’s partners wanted to be able to publicize the different advocacy actions occurring throughout the world. This resulted in providing partners with tools to build their own web sites, thereby getting the message out to more and more people. Obviously a web site allows even the smallest group to make others aware of the issues as well as to basically alert people to events that they are organizing. So now, if you fundraise you can talk about it. If you go to schools, like in Thailand, and start to interact with the school children and develop a curriculum together with the authorities, then others can be aware of that action. In the end, it all feeds back into the global whole.” 

And that’s the crux of the idea—individual and small group empowerment—linking the local to the global. “Being inspired and encouraged by what others are doing is an important aspect of building a web site and using the advocacy tools UNIFEM provides. If you find a particular action interesting, you can then replicate it. It’s a kind of cross fertilization. It also gives a platform for small, local initiatives that are driven by individuals. They can now reach a global audience.” 

UNIFEM has also seen the SAY NO project embraced by the European Parliament. “They took SAY NO as an occasion to adopt a declaration of zero tolerance on violence against women,” Nanette states, “and to call for an International Year within the European Union on ending this violence. So that is a breakthrough. It was adopted by the parliament through a majority decision so we knew that meant the parliamentarians were fully behind it. Eva-Britt Svensson, chair of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality has been instrumental in driving this agenda. She says that through the engagement on SAY NO, there is a new awareness within the European Parliament. Her own testament actually involved a quite moving moment. When the declaration was adopted in the European Parliament, she gave an interview and basically talked for the first time about the fact that she was a violence survivor herself which is why she is so strongly behind this agenda. Actually, on the SAY NO site, we have an interview and video of Ms. Svensson. She is a very avid supporter of women who have been in the same situation and gives them a lot of encouragement. Of course, in her function as a parliamentarian in the European Parliament, she is now able to carry this agenda forward .” 

And highlighting such an important message is of great importance. Nanette recognizes that no organization can stand alone and UNIFEM has a number of partnerships—enabling them to strengthen the advancement of gender equality through collective power. 

“One strong relationship we have is with Amnesty International,” Nanette mentions. “Amnesty has their own campaign on ending violence against women and has reached out to all their chapters. So basically, we’ve joined forces on that agenda. We’re also working with The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, The World YWCA, and a number of other groups. In the end, you can only work on an issue of this magnitude and drive it forward effectively if you have a network of partners. 

Making people more aware of these types of issues can be difficult. UNIFEM’s Goodwill Ambassadors—persons of international stature from the world of art, music, film, sports and literature—volunteer their time to accent important agendas to the public. Celebrated and famous individuals such as HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol of Thailand, HRH Princess Basma bint Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Hon. Mrs. Phoebe Asiyo, Chair of the Women’s Political Caucus of Kenya and Member of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, work tirelessly to advance gender equality. Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman, also a Goodwill Ambassador, is the spokesperson for the SAY NO-UNITE initiative. “We are very happy to have her on board as a Goodwill Ambassador who supports this cause so strongly,” Nanette says. 

Yet, although fame offers a powerful platform to proclaim the need for advocacy, all of us can use our voices to highlight and resolve a devastating and horrendous practice—the sexual violation of women and girls as a military tactic. And it’s all the more imperative that we do. Let us remember that those violating women have their own public platform—a world stage where they voice their agenda loudly and forcefully. They know that in the wake of war, a raped woman is a potent message: 

Flee or there’ll be others like her. We can get to your women, we can get to your soul. 

If we are to attain peace anywhere it means we must protect that soul. In the sphere of human rights, Nanette reminds us that “women’s rights are violated more often and to a larger extent. But in essence, we are still talking about the same thing. There is no divide. Women’s rights are human rights.” 

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Carol Hillman and Hildie

Eleanor Roosevelt’s message will always be relevant. A woman of power, a woman of influence, and a woman of principle, the resonance of Eleanor’s persona only seems to strengthen with time.

Today’s young women appear to be discovering Eleanor anew, and organizations like Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt—a project of Save America’s Treasures—are making certain that her legacy is protected as well as promoted. Founded by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998, Save America’s Treasures, a public-private partnership which includes the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service, aims to preserve the documents, structures and inspiring works of art that are a part of our American heritage.

Carol Hillman, chair of Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, recounts how the organization began. “Hillary Clinton asked Claudine Bacher, our founding chair, to oversee the project. Claudine then spoke to others including my mother, Elsa Resika, to get them on board. Not long before my mother passed away, she urged me to join in.”

The project, as Carol explains, consists of restoring and preserving Eleanor’s Val-Kill home in Hyde Park, NY as well as educating visitors to the historic site about her vast contributions. “Our goal is to ensure that new generations of American’s understand and carry on Mrs. Roosevelt’s legacy.”

Incredibly, the history of that legacy includes both how her mother as well as Carol was affected by Eleanor.

“My mother met Eleanor Roosevelt at a reception in New York City in honor of the play Sunrise at Campobello. Mom had Mrs. Roosevelt autograph a program and then sent it to me at the University of Wisconsin where I was studying. A year or so later, I hosted Mrs. Roosevelt at the university,” Carol relates with a sense of awe. “We invited her to speak and she arrived in a blizzard — the pilot told her she might not land in Madison but in Minneapolis instead. Nonetheless, she took the flight. She told the pilot she had 1300 students waiting for her and she would attempt to get to Madison, which she did. I met her at the airport with Governor Gaylord Nelson. As it turned out, her speech, which I chaired in the Memorial Union Theater, was a rousing success. It was packed to the hilt —standing room only.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, a strong and determined spirit, always did her best to deliver. Inspiring others—especially new generations of young people—to emulate Eleanor’s sense of integrity and her passion for justice drives Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, an organization of dedicated volunteers, to publicly acclaim Eleanor’s legacy, not only through the preservation of her Val-Kill home but through various media projects and events. In particular, the prestigious Following in Her Footsteps Award, highlights a life of public service, lived in pursuit of social justice, peace, human rights and gender equality – some of the groundswells upon which Eleanor Roosevelt rose to proclaim her ideals.

“Our Following in Her Footsteps Award really honors women who have taken on causes that were also very important to Eleanor Roosevelt such as women’s issues, health care, preservation of the environment, and human rights,” Carol Hillman explains. “In 2009, we bestowed the award to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for all of her work regarding health care reform, helping women and children, as well as her work in international relations.”

Secretary of State Clinton is not only the founder of Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, but also a formidable political leader. The former First Lady has forged new horizons in the area of gender equality, and like Eleanor, presents a strong and determined presence, one which encourages intelligent and practical solutions.

Women’s issues, including their leadership roles within all areas of human affairs in the U.S. and internationally, has been a central theme for Secretary Clinton. In March of 2009, along with President Obama, Secretary Clinton introduced a new position: ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, an office at the Department of State which works toward the empowerment of women at all levels — politically, economically and socially. Melanne Verveer is the first to fill this unprecedented seat. Secretary Clinton’s vision, as was Eleanor’s, works toward the empowerment of women and recognizes the importance of their leadership in all walks of life.

Carol Hillman also reflects on this issue, especially regarding how more female leadership can strengthen our chances of really establishing and securing human rights. “I think if you look at Mrs. Roosevelt, who said you must do the thing you think you cannot do, women are willing to do that and to collaborate, to compromise where appropriate and to take personal risks. These qualities, I believe, will help us achieve peace and human rights.” In her years as a businesswoman, Carol has seen this in action. “We tend to allow for more possibilities with regard to solutions. We’re a little more open to things having more than one answer. ”

Yet, women still have a way to go with regard to equality and being more established as leaders—politically, socially and in the business world. Carol offers one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes as a voice of advice.

          Women must become more conscious of themselves as women and of their ability to function as a group. At the same time, they must try to wipe from men’s consciousness the need to consider them as a group or as women in their everyday activities, especially as workers in industry or the professions.

Although Eleanor Roosevelt indicates that women must join forces in accomplishing their goals, she also stresses they must remain individuals in the workplace and in the world at large, so they can establish themselves on their own merit wherever they apply their talents.

But still, as we all know, outspoken women such as Eleanor Roosevelt are criticized harshly at times, even threatened. Carol remarks on how Eleanor is an example for women today even in this regard. “As she was being driven through West Virginia toward her speaking engagements, Eleanor knew the Klan was out and about. She rode past KKK rallies determined to reach her destination no matter what. Now that’s courage.”

And Eleanor consistently asserted that bravery and determination in numerous, unconventional ways, blazing a trail for women’s rights. “In the 1920’s, Eleanor joined the League of Women Voter’s,” Carol points out. “She spoke in favor of contraception availability. She advocated for fair wages for women. Her My Day column was unprecedented.”

In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first woman radio commentator as well as the first woman to write a syndicated column. She also proved innovative in how she employed her power to help establish women in what were male-dominated fields. When FDR became president Eleanor made certain women were involved in the process of establishing the New Deal. She ingeniously held countless press conferences which were only open to female journalists. The result: news organizations had to hire female reporters or they would be left out of the loop.

This ability to brilliantly manifest her ideas by acting simply and directly became Eleanor Roosevelt’s trademark. Her advocacy of women’s rights expanding into human rights, Eleanor’s vista grew even wider with what many consider her crowning achievement. As chairperson for the Human Rights Commission, she helped foster the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which sets the highest standard for human dignity and freedom. The commission’s goal was to create a document that would help prevent another world war and establish an international criteria for human rights recognition which would compel abiding nations to protect these rights.

As quoted in a 2009 Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt newsletter, Secretary of State Clinton made the following statement which appears appropriate for America’s present day challenges. We can all follow in Eleanor’s footsteps . . . The America that inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the America that we love and treasure, is still the shining hope of the world . . .” 

Still, with all of our nation’s current difficulties—the financial crisis, the disastrous Gulf oil dilemma—following in Eleanor Roosevelt’s footsteps would certainly be leading us down a different road. Respect for individual rights would be a foundational element with regard to much-needed policy changes.

“Something like the BP situation probably wouldn’t have happened if we were utilizing Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision for a just society,” Carol Hillman states. “More than likely, more government regulations would be in place. If she had anything to do with policy today, she would look after the people and would feel that the companies involved in such a terrible disaster needed to be accountable.”

Keeping Eleanor’s view in mind, it would also appear she would not have been too happy with our current immigration law difficulties. Carol cites Eleanor’s response to “the self-styled crusader” Gerald L.K. Smith in her My Day column back in 1953, where Eleanor took on, one-by-one, several points made by the clergyman and politician regarding his view of an ideal America.

          The next point would stop all immigration into our country on the basis that there are only enough jobs for Americans and only enough houses for Americans. We built this country on the labor of immigrants and on the humanitarian principles that the Statue of Liberty personifies. We said we were a haven for the oppressed of the world. We can no longer open our doors as we did in the early days because ours is now a highly developed nation, but we are still able to preserve some of our humanitarianism and to profit by the skills and the strength of a certain amount of immigration. It would be wrong, I think, to say that we should take no one into our country from now on.

Carol Hillman and Founding Chair, Claudine Bacher

Controversial . . . outspoken . . . gutsy. Eleanor Roosevelt embodied what many women today aspire to become. And most of us agree: Eleanor’s message is timeless. In October of 2009, at the 125th anniversary of Eleanor’s birthday, Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt’s Chair Carol Hillman and Founding Chair Claudine Bacher placed a wreath at the former First Lady’s gravesite in Hyde Park — an act not only reflecting their deep respect and esteem but also conveying their promise as guardians of Eleanor’s legacy.

And the “First Lady of the World” deserves such deference. As Carol explains, “She stood for the progression of women’s rights. Eleanor would have also wanted to see more care taken of women and children not only in this country but abroad as well.”

          In numbers there is strength, and we in America must help the women of the world.                                                     –MY DAY, October 22, 1946

Could our present First Lady set more of an example with regard to upholding that view. Could Michelle Obama use her position, as Eleanor did, to promote women’s issues?

“My hope is that the First Lady expands her horizons a bit more,” Carol asserts. “It would be good if Michelle Obama invested time into looking at issues regarding the women and children of the world, how they are taken care of in crisis situations, as well as health care and education.” Carol also expresses that if would also be beneficial to see the First Lady involved in preservation work as well. No doubt, Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt’s door would always be open and eager for her involvement.

But at the same time, we do not need to be the First Lady or a famous political leader to help make a difference.

          Let us remember that international achievement, nevertheless, depends on individual achievement, that what we achieve in our own surroundings will spread out like the ripples when we throw a pebble in an unruffled pool. So no one can say what happens to an individual is unimportant, for no one knows how some individual act may ripple out even into international channels.                                                                                        —Eleanor Roosevelt

Carol also reminds us that no effort is insignificant. “There is no small achievement,” Carol remarks. “Everyone has a part to play and that means each person can contribute. We cannot undervalue what anyone does since it becomes a part of the collective effort.”

Only by moving together can we achieve our greatest vision. Eleanor Roosevelt asserted as much. Even the establishment of human rights begins “in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Calling us to clarity, Eleanor’s words are succinct and unaffected. Today, her voice resounds through those who, like Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt’s Carol Hillman, uphold her ideals and principles. Gracious and deferential, Carol offers her hope and vision for the future. “I think Eleanor’s comment that ‘staying aloof is not a solution, but a cowardly evasion’ says it all. We must get involved and do the things we think we cannot do for the good of humanity, the world, and our country.”

In a world where evasion is a keyword in our Search Engine, as easy to attain as a push of a button, Eleanor’s assertion is a timeless one. “Eleanor Roosevelt was a passionate patriot as well as a world leader,” Carol affirms. “Her message to all is to take action, get involved, take risks . . . and do the right thing.”

Perhaps that’s exactly what we need. A simple directive from a fearless woman who took on the world as her own.

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