On June 17th, in the elegant setting of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, The Women’s Media Center held an awards event to honor ten women for their specific contributions to the field. The evening, hosted by Elizabeth A. Sackler, was presided over by WMC co-founder Gloria Steinem and the organization’s president, Carol Jenkins.
The space was packed with women active in old and new media, advocacy, and culture. Young women studying journalism were an integral part of the mix. Jenkins qualified the intergenerational component as “the highlight of the evening,” before stating that “a diverse universe of women in media” was a key goal of the WMC.
The honorees included Christiane Amanpour, Helene Cooper, Candy Crowley, Bonnie Erbe, Tina Fey, Rachel Maddow, Lynn Nottage, Gina Reticker and Abigail Disney, Pam Spaulding, and Rebecca Traister. Six of the women were able to be on hand to receive their awards.
Candy Crowlely, of CNN, was recognized for the work she did as a political correspondent covering the heated Democratic primary race and the general election. She admitted to the crowd that it had been a tough road. Crowley told me that when she received notice of the tribute, “Gloria Steinem were the magical words.” She explained, “I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for people like Gloria Steinem.” Crowley confirmed, “I think we’ve crossed a lot of barriers.” She related the story about her first job in the 1970s when she was advised that “people would never accept a woman’s voice as a voice of authority.” She noted with biting wit, “When my hair can get as gray as Wolf Blitzer’s, then I think we’ll be getting somewhere.” Accompanied to the event by her son, she admitted that she had “found [the] work-life balance difficult but rewarding.” She added, “You have to have kids that get it.”
To the Contrary host Bonnie Erbe, a fixture at PBS for 18 years, agreed that women had advanced as reporters. She noted, “When it comes to the Sunday morning [news] shows, we’re not there yet.” Erbe referenced the Presidential election as an example that “sexism is alive and well.”
Gini Reticker, the director of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, was appreciative of the honor because “The Women’s Media Center stands for telling under-reported stories.” The film portrays the struggle of Liberian women to end the violence in their country through demonstrations and perseverance. Christian and Muslim women linked forces to create a resolution to the nation’s civil war. “It was a story that was going to be completely overlooked and disappear. It was women who changed the country,” Reticker said.
Editor-in-Chief of Salon.com, Joan Walsh, believes “things are much better than they’ve ever been.” On the role of new media as a catalyst she said, “It’s a new landscape and women can make more inroads. It’s a big event that Rachel [Maddow] has her own show.” Walsh, however, did lament that women were still looked upon as “a diversity” and “not equal partners.” Throughout the night, Walsh received kudos from other guests on her toe-to-toe confrontation with Bill O’Reilly, where she had pointed to his role in dialing up the incendiary rhetoric on Dr. George Tiller.
LGBT concerns, reproductive issues, and the far right are addressed by Pam Spaulding in her blog Pam’s House Blend, which describes itself as “always steamin’.” Spaulding addressed how new media has played an essential role in talking about LGBT rights in disparate locations. “We operate as a community outside of the established gay organizations,” she informed me. “It allows us to have leverage.” Spaulding said that eradication of homophobia was her goal, but indicated that “without my readers, I’m just a voice out in the wilderness.”
Rebecca Traister, who scrutinized how the candidacy of Hillary Clinton had been a lightening rod for debate within both the general electorate and the feminist community, thanked her mother (who was present) for raising her as a feminist “by example.” Traister voiced how lucky she felt to have the support of Salon.com for her particular “beat.” She described “a huge young feminist media” stating that “women are online and using new media, which is giving women’s voices a space.” She continued, “I see a lot of women in the blogosphere who are meeting their journalistic expectations.”
Having started an examination of the gender dialogue through her essays, Traister is currently working on a book entitled Big Girls Don’t Cry, slated for publication in 2010. She suggested that the 2008 election was “the best thing to happen to the feminist conversation in decades,” characterizing it as a “reopening” of so much that has “been incredibly difficult and painful to talk about.” Traister was firm in her conviction that women had to have those discussions “if we hope to move forward.”
Lynn Nottage, Yale School of Drama graduate and a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, MacArthur “Genius” Award, and this year’s Pulitzer Prize for her play Ruined, spoke about her visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004. She went to Africa to get on-the-ground narratives from women whose lives had been impacted by the violence and conflict. She described the experience as “transformative.” What she learned served as the underpinnings of her drama.
Steinem expressed to those gathered why it was crucial for everyone’s story to be told. Using the metaphorical imagery of an ancient campfire, she said, “The media is the current campfire, and we need to make sure that we are all represented around the campfire.” She stressed the critical nature of ensuring that “all the news is visible, not just half.”
On a serious note, delivered with the tongue-in-cheek title “Dishonorable Mentions,” a list had been compiled pointing a finger at four factors that add to the invisibility and disrespect of women. They were:
• The Presidential Debate Commission: For its decision not to have women or people of color
as moderators of the final Presidential debates.
• Media Executives: For failing to create a diverse White House press corps.
• The Networks: For the lack of diversity among the hosts of the influential Sunday morning
• “Deadly Words”: A dishonorable mention given to media figures who use hyperbolic,
inflammatory and dangerous language against specific individuals, inciting violence against
Nottage struck a chord with every writer in the room when she recounted the story of her stay at Hedgebrook, the retreat that “supports visionary women writers.”
When she was there ten years ago, as a new mother who was feeling “blocked,” she opened a book that contained the names of women who had previously occupied her cabin. One of those people was Gloria Steinem. After the list, someone had written a version of the 1969 Judy Grahn poem, “The Common Women.” It gave her the strength to write.
I swear to you on a common woman’s head
A common woman is as common as a common loaf of bread
And will rise
It was an inspiring moment for all those women in the room who use words, film, and journalism to change the prism through which society views “the second sex.”
Photos courtesy of Women’s Media Center/Leslie Von Pless