Women Get Respect – Part 1

Red Buttons had a well-tread act that he used at celebrity roasts.  The punch line was about all the famous people in history that “never got a dinner.”  It was kind of like Rodney Dangerfield complaining that he didn’t get any respect.

On the evening of May 21st, women in New York City had the opportunity to come out and support two events that proved achievers of the female gender were getting their due.  A calendar snafu had some people scrambling to spend time at both gatherings…myself included.

I started at the Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century Gala.  The online newspaper describes itself as “the definitive source of substantive news — unavailable anywhere else — covering issues of particular concern to women, and providing women’s perspectives on public policy.”  This year’s recipients included several recognizable names including Anucha Browne Sanders, who won $11.5 million in damages for being sexually harassed by Knick coach Isaiah Thomas in a closely watched high-profile lawsuit; and Doris Buffet, who has awarded $50 million in grants through her Sunshine Lady Foundation, including college scholarships to survivors of domestic violence.  William J. Dean was the one man who garnered a coveted spot on the prestigious list.  He has spearheaded the birth of Incarcerated Mothers Law Project of Volunteers of Legal Service, where pro-bono lawyers counsel women on their legal rights and social services.

Before speaking with several of the honorees, I was able to catch Rita Jensen, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Women’s eNews.  She told me, “The women are awed to be selected, but I am awed and energized by them.”  She gave me some back-story on Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), whose name is attached to the special award “for Bravery in Journalism.”  Wells, who was born as a slave, went on to own a newspaper, which was destroyed in retaliation to an editorial condemning the lynching of three black Memphis businessmen.  Jensen, a leader in delivering information to an estimated 4 million Internet readers, reflected, “We have savvy, top journalism about a broad range of women’s issues, but enough women still don’t know about us.”  Their awards gala, which started in 2001, has given them greater visibility.

I was able to interview four of the 2008 recipients.  Sammie Moshenberg, the Director of Washington Operations for the National Council of Jewish Women told me, “I’ve been an activist all my life.”  She has worked for NCJW, the oldest Jewish Women’s organization in the country, for twenty-seven years.  For her, “it’s always been about social justice.”  Currently, she is working on a Benchmark campaign to “educate and activate the progressive Jewish community to get involved in federal court nominations.”  Moshenberg informed me that NCJW was one of the groups that had signed an open letter, repudiating anti-Obama rumors as “hate mongering.”  Although NCJW is a non-partisan organization, Moshenberg emphasized, “As a Jewish organization, we understand the danger of disinformation.”

The desire to help other women develop a strong core and positive self-image, has been the impetus for the work of Lillie Pearl Allen.  The youngest of ten children, her parents were migrant farm workers. She was the first person in her family to go to college and graduate school.  Allen related the anecdote about a formative experience in her life when she tried out for the majorette squad at her black college, in the South in 1967.  She was told that because her skin was too dark, she wasn’t tall enough, and her hair was not straight and long – her chances of success were limited.  For her, that was “an incredible moment.”  The realization that “even among my own people, there was something about me that was not okay” put her on the path to mentoring women, with the philosophy that progressive change is intrinsically bound up with personal growth.

Allen began to build a movement of people that was not based on the negative historical issues of race, gender, power, and class.  She introduced her Be Present Empowerment Model in 1983 at the First National Conference on Black Women’s Health Issues in the workshop “Black and Female:  What is the Reality?”  Nine years later, she founded Be Present, Inc.  On June 24-29, they will hold a “national convening” entitled Journal to Be Present: A Legacy of Leadership for Social Justice.  The goal will be to share twenty-five years of learned strategies for moving the social justice agenda forward.

The vocabulary of art is the vehicle that Lorraine Drammer Serena chose to contribute to the discourse about issues that profoundly affect women.  An artist and teacher, in 1991 she decided to “develop a project that spoke to the community” which became Women Beyond Borders.  Using a small wooden box as the means of expression, she spread the word to curators and artists around the globe.  A grassroots project grew to encompass over 50 countries including Rwanda, Israel, Vietnam, Cuba, and Uganda, and participants ranging in age from 4 – 90 years old.  Serena said, When you open the boxes, you open conversations.  It inspires dialogue.”

Working to reshape the discourse on Islam, Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, feels that she is uniquely equipped to be a bridge between Muslim and western societies.  As a woman who has been part of a Muslim culture (She was born in Kashmir, India.), she is cognizant of the tremendous responsibility that comes with the territory.  Her approach targets specific core areas, with media engagement and “reshaping the discourse on Islam” being key.  Khan is working to dispel stereotypes, particularly the extremist view that is often presented.  She has a blog on The Washington Post’s  “On Faith” page, where she writes to expand the American consciousness about the perceptions of Muslims.  Khan told me, “The Muslim Women’s movement has been gong on for some time.  Women’s history, in general, is one history.

Collectively, we can move mountains.”

Khan’s comments were echoed by fellow “leader” Liz Abzug, President and Co-Founder of the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute and moving force behind the 2007 New York City Freedom on Our Terms conference.  “Women are the peacekeepers,” she articulated.  “Women are the weavers and the fighters who always endure, and will in fact lead us forward in the 21st Century.”

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