A Different Kind of March Madness

As devotees of the hoops followed the ongoing matchups between competing college teams, I had my own March Madness.  With the month designated to highlight “Women’s History” and International Women’s Day, those with a story about women’s issues were hoping that this calendar demarcation would help them garner an audience.

Feeling like an accountant during tax season, I crammed as many panels, symposiums, and events into thirty-one days as possible.  There was never a dearth of concerns to be examined.

I heard Dr. Cissa Wa Numbe, Secretary General UNA of DR Congo, speak with emotion about the dire situation for girls and women in his country.  He related how a dying woman had implored him to “please make sure the world knows what is going on here.”  He referred to himself as the “voice of the voiceless,” as he described “girls and women who will never recover.”  He relayed how the Congolese army, which is charged with protecting the population, was raping women and girls.  “Our girls are dying,” he said. He implored his listeners, “Talk to your government.  We need help.”

On March 8, Sanctuary for Families presented “Sex Trafficking in New York: Prosecuting Traffickers, Confronting Demand.”  Taking on the part of the equation too often shied away from — men’s demand to buy sex — the panel hammered out points about why New York City is a focal destination for the sex trafficking trade.  For the attending audience, the term “abolition” was not a novel concept.

Two days later, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, the renowned Egyptian activist, doctor, and writer spoke at the Women in the World: Stories and Solutions Summit.  She was honored the following week at a small gathering hosted by the Women’s Media Center.  In that intimate environment, El Saadawi shared insights from seventy-nine years of living.  Her story of writing her prison memoirs on toilet paper, with the eyeliner pencil of a fellow prisoner, was an indelible image.

That weekend, a panel convened in front of a full auditorium at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, to discuss the new book Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust.  Moderated by Gloria Steinem, it featured co-editors Dr. Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel.  Along with other guests, they considered the connection between the gender violence during the Nazi era, and the current conflicts where rape and genocide are intertwined.

I tweeted and wrote pieces about several of these events, while taking notes for future articles.  The last Saturday in March, I joined a group of New York City based women who had come together for a WAM! one-day conference. The emphasis was on “gender equity in media access, representation, participation, and ownership.”  The question remained, “How do stories get out, and why are they marginalized?”

Jennifer Pozner, Founder of Women In Media and News (WIMN) and the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV, was on site.  We spoke about her book, which she described as being “for everyone who wants to understand how influential media is today, and why.”  Pozner wrote the book to “provoke a deeper conversation about the range of dangerous commercial and ideological messages that are being foisted upon women, under the guise of reality.”  She said that regressive messages create “a vision of the world where women have no choices — and don’t want any.”  Her text, which includes a resource guide and chapter on how individuals can transform media, has been taught at Princeton University. When Melissa Harris-Perry introduced Pozner to an audience, she stated that Reality Bites Back was doing for today’s culture what The Feminine Mystique did in the 60s.

Also present was Deanna Zandt, media and political tech geek who recently published Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking. Zandt outlined how in the past, all conversations were run by gatekeepers — usually white men.  She told me that the Internet has dismantled power structures, and that women finally have an opportunity to shape conversations in ways previously impossible.  However, she did make it clear that not all boundaries would be dissolved, and that without vigilance, there was the possibility of reproducing the same off-line hierarchies.

A round table of women bloggers started their panel by parsing that weekend’s New York Times article, “Washington’s New Brat Pack Masters Media,” which mentioned women solely as relationship companions to those profiled.  Their dialogue questioned if the female blogosphere was really a resurgence of female journalism.  Andrea Plaid asked, “Whose voice gets heard and for what reason?” — and urged “empowering our own space and shifting the ideas of what is media.”  Lori Adelman said, “My words can stand and I have power.”  Amanda Marcotte added, “Now you can be an irritant. It’s equalizing.  The Internet gives community and scale.”

In her closing keynote, Zandt referenced how Rebecca Traister, writer on politics and gender for Salon, had underscored the impact of the Feminist blogosphere in her trenchant book Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women.  While elucidating the internecine power struggles in the feminist community, many of her insights pointed to the impact of the new media writers. Traister specifically emphasized how “the Internet gave feminism something older women could not: an expansive new life and more abundant points of entry.”

Yet, regardless of generation, women have a tough row to hoe when it comes to getting traction on the kind of stories they want to write and get published.

I recently spoke by telephone with Ariel Dougherty, the National Director of the Media Equity Collaborative.  She told me that she sees the primary problem as mainstream media not recognizing “women’s issues as core issues.”  She noted that the Global Media Monitoring Project had found that only 24 percent of international stories are devoted to women’s issues. In a recently written post, Dougherty pointed out the failure of MSM to appropriately and accurately frame a story — thus giving disinformation to the general public.  The resulting bottom line, as Dougherty emphasized, is that “people are then completely misinformed.”

In Daring to Be Ourselves, a compilation of quotes by women interviewed by Feminist.com founder, Marianne Schnall, I took some solace in the section entitled “Women and the Media.”  Not that I didn’t already know that there was a major problem.

Jane Fonda states clearly:

“I think that the news can be more enlightening, richer, and more-in-depth about things that matter to women…Whether it’s Social Security, bankruptcy laws, the economy, the wars—they’re never looked at through a gender lens, and they all impact women differently than they do men…and we’re the majority of humanity.  So it’s as though people who do news now act as thought current events are gender-neutral, and they’re not.  They’re not.”

Echoing the frustration of those who are consistently endeavoring to cover the “unglamorous” stories of women with narratives that need to be highlighted, Isabel Allende reflects:

“The media could do a much better job, that’s for sure—especially the media that targets women.  Women’s glossy magazines, women’s TV series and programs, with few exceptions, are disgusting.  Human rights?  They couldn’t care less!  Their message to women is all about consumerism, looking sexy, and pleasing men in bed. And yet they have the potential to make profound changes for the better in women’s lives.  In the rest of the media, there are some great advocacy journalists and programs, but they are few.”

Without a concerted effort, the status quo will not change.  The coverage of women’s issues should not be a one-month a year affair.


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  1. April 27, 2011

    […] A Different Kind of March Madness 4/22/11 MGyerman.com: Reflections on a month full of powerful events and inspiring women. […]

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