When I arrived at the Ms. Foundation for Women’s 35th Anniversary Celebration, guests were already seated and being served their salads. I had missed the first two opening welcomes, but my fortuitous timing landed me right in the middle of remarks by event Co-Host and founding President of the Ms. Foundation, Gloria Steinem. Grabbing my pen, I was able to get down her first quote, “There are now more enslaved women than there were in the 1800’s.
I looked around the room, and people were in rapt attention mode. Behind Steinem was a large screen, with her image projected upon it. I contemplated the symbolism of Gloria standing on the podium, alongside her larger-than-life size image. Like other public leaders, she has represented so much to so many. For countless women, she is the personification of their own struggle with gender issues. When Steinem contributed an Op-Ed to the New York Times (Jan. 8, 2008), it got over 900 comments. Now in this room filled with both Hillary and Obama supporters, the rancor of the Democratic primary seemed like a distant memory. You couldn’t deny the primal power of why everyone was there to celebrate the 20th Annual Gloria Awards. It was simply stated in the program booklet. The phrases included, “Women’s collective power to ignite change,” and “Equity and inclusion are the cornerstones of a true democracy, in which the worth and dignity of every person are valued.” Like a sprawling family gathering with cousins, aunts, parents and grandparents that are often at odds with each other, within that room was tremendous solidarity for feminist activism, social justice, leadership, and courage.
From the stage, Steinem paid homage to numerous women of accomplishment in their respective fields that were in the audience. When she was done, she encouraged everyone to interact with others, and that’s what they did. Laura Baudo Sillerman, an event “Grounderbreaker” and Co-Founder of Women’s Voices for Change said, “If there were a similar male-oriented evening, there would not be one-tenth of the risk taking that’s going on in this room. People are introducing themselves to strangers, because they care about the same things.” Seated at her table was Agnes Krup, a contributor to the WVC website. She told me, “I’m in my 40’s, and I’m realizing that I’m a feminist.” (I knew that when I read her blog “Romance and Responsibility.”)
Former President of the Ms. Foundation, and Founder and President of The White House Project, Marie C. Wilson (whose name graces the Young Woman’s Leadership Award) told me, “The beauty of tonight’s event is that twenty years ago when we started, people said, ‘No one will come out to see women leaders get an award.’ ” She leaned in and continued, “If people tell you it can’t be done, don’t listen!” She gestured to the room full of women intermingling. “This demystifies the notion that there is just a few women in leadership. There are loads of women ready to lead…in every area.”
Barbara Dobkin, whose Dobkin Family Foundation was one of the 35th Anniversary underwriters, agreed with Wilson’s assessment. “There have to be more women in public office,” she said. “When I was growing up in the 50’s, the possibilities for women were to be school teachers or social workers.” Dobkin has been instrumental in launching several organizations, including Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project, and The Jewish Women’s Archive.
The world of culture had its presence, demonstrating that activism takes all forms. The International Museum of Women, whose website features the words “Exhibiting Changes” (with text in four languages) and the mission “to value the lives of women around the world,” was represented by Elizabeth L. Colton and Dannie Tillman. Colton, Chair of the Board of Directors, related the goals of her institution saying, “IMOW is a 21st Century museum, a social change museum. We are connecting women from around the world. We are about issues and ideas, through using the arts and history – and women telling their own stories.”
As the presentation of the Award ceremony was about to begin, guests were ushered to their seats. For the recipients, there was a brief video about their accomplishments. The crowd was wowed by the story of 21-year-old Yunuen Rodriguez (winner of the Marie C. Wilson Young Women’s Leadership Award), and her involvement in taking on a Chicago Spanish-language radio station that had run an ad campaign depicting a rear view of a line of Latina women in short-shorts. The caption “25 pegaditas” (translation being hits/slaps) was positioned on their behinds. Working with Females United for Action (FUFA), an initiative of the Women & Girls Collective Action Network (a Ms. Foundation grantee), Rodriquez developed a public relations strategy that led to a sit-down with the station’s general manager, as well as an owner’s rep from the Miami-based Spanish Broadcasting System. The ads were pulled, and they gave FUFA airtime to discuss their agenda on how to combat violence against women.
Two “Woman of Vision” Awards were presented. Lucy C. Felix accepted hers for the work she has done in fighting for women’s reproductive rights in a “rural area, where women are hidden and afraid to come out.” The biggest barrier to health care services in this setting is lack of transportation. She worked with the Migrant Health Promotion program, created in 2001 with a Ms. Foundation grant, La Voz Latina (the Latina Voice). Felix used her background as a social worker in Mexico, to inform her role as a community organizer in migrant farm working communities in South Texas. She told me through an interpreter in a personal conversation, “I would like to thank God for making me a woman, so that I can understand the feelings of other women. I was born with a love and passion to help others.”
When elected Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation in 2002, Brenda Dardar Robichaux put her efforts into uniting her tribe of over 17,000 members who were living in six bayou parishes in Louisiana. The daughter of a Native American fisherman, she was one of the first non-white students to integrate her state’s public schools. This experience taught her that she wanted to make sure that “our people have a voice.” When 6,000 tribal members were displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, they were considered ineligible to receive FEMA assistance because the Federal Government refused to “recognize” the Houma. Drawing on her tribes’ strong matriarchal tradition, Dardar-Robichaux founded the United Houma Nation Relief Fund. In her acceptance speech, she credited the Ms. Foundation with helping her to develop as a leader.
Philanthropic honors went to Sy Sternberg and Jean J. Beard. CEO of New York Life Insurance, Sternberg received his award in recognition of the company’s strong support of young women. He pointed out that in 1880, New York Life began hiring women as insurance agents. Within ten years, a saleswoman in the Chicago office had racked up top numbers nationally. The Woman of Vision and Action Award was bestowed on Jean Beard, who has built a reputation on championing the advancement of women’s and girl’s status, the rights of the mentally ill, and those working to create “new paradigms.” In closing, Steinem said, “Thank you all for honoring the real grassroots.”
As the dinner started to break up, I approached Sara K. Gould, President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation. I wanted to further discuss the story of her personal evolution, which she had shared with the audience. Married at 20 years old, two years later she and her husband moved to Syracuse, so that he could attend law school. While he furthered his education, she worked as a secretary at the student union. There, she developed relationships with a community of women who saw different possibilities for their lives. Gould’s “aha” moment came when she realized that she was viewing her life through the prism of gender. She left the marriage, and went to graduate school at Harvard University, where she earned a Master’s degree in City and Regional Planning.
As the waiters began to nosily clear dishes, clusters of women remained immersed in their conversations. The energy and electricity in the air was still charged. My last interview was with Suzanne Braun Levine, the writer, editor of Ms. magazine from 1972 -1988, and author of the upcoming book (2009) Fifty is the New Fifty: Ten Lessons from Second Adulthood. “I don’t know a single woman that would like to go back,” she said. “You get to a point where you accept who you are, and you speak in your own voice.
A goal for women at any stage of life.