On May 16, The New York Times ran a piece, “Feminism, One Conference at a Time” pointing to how women’s leadership conferences are on the rise and this movement/industry will only continue to grow. While many argue these conferences cater to the privileged few, I think they represent something absolutely worth supporting: more visibility for what we too often categorize and dismiss as “women’s issues” and a movement for gender equity that is quickly picking up speed.
Notice I call the conference trend a movement and industry because I think it can be both. Or rather the two can’t be pulled apart from each other, which, no, is not to say everything needs to be an industry. It’s more complicated than that. If there’s a piece I want to write about the modern women’s movement, it might be called, “It’s More Complicated Than That… and Hope Is Not Lost… and We All Need to Be More Comfortable with Chaos.” The title needs some work.
In response to The New York Times piece, Slate ran an important piece by Amanda Marcotte, “Corporate Feminism: Rich Women Congratulating Each Other for Being So Inspiring.” It’s a great title, and it paints an incomplete picture. Marcotte makes a slew of good points, points we would be wise to listen to, but falls short when she summarizes these conferences as being “more about feeling good than fixing problems.” We can’t reduce women’s conferences to “corporate feminism” just because corporations are involved.
I’ve been to a few of these conferences myself. I have mixed feelings about them, but I’m also thrilled these conferences are as high-profile as they are. I want them to be because I believe more often than not they do good work in the world and I think it’s important that women (and everyone who supports women) make noise. And these conferences may not change organizations, policies, and cultures that hurt women, but they change people who go on to change organizations, policies, and cultures. They bring together leaders so they can think together and they connect changemakers and advocates for women to one another so they can strengthen each other’s work and amplify each other’s impact.
My first experience of this was at The Women and Power Conference at the Omega Institute in 2009, an organization doing a heck of a lot of “self-help” stuff these days (much of it good) alongside movement building. I ended up at the same lunch table as Zainab Salbi and Elena Rossini, two women leaders doing fantastic things in the world—one a human rights activist, the other a filmmaker. Salbi’s words energized me. Rossini and I exchanged info after talking startup life, and have kept in touch, supporting each other’s projects as they’ve changed over time. If this kind of relationship building isn’t movement building, I don’t know what is, and women’s conferences are part of what make it possible. It’s not just the conference content that’s important, it’s the relationship building that happens there.
Later this week I’m headed to the S.H.E. Summit where I’ll be moderating a panel on why women’s leadership and participation across all sectors changes everything. Participating in the conference has to do with my career (I’m there on behalf of Take The Lead Women), but it’s also part of my activism. As an attendee, I’m looking forward to the fireside chat with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and panels like “Where Are the Women? A Look at Industries: Sports, Tech, Media & Beyond” and “Managing Money, Making Meaning.” You can livestream the entire conference June 5-6 for free here.
One thing you’ll notice about many of these conferences (and one reason they’re inspiring criticism), is the mash-up of women’s leadership and women’s rights-related content with all things “lifestyle”. I didn’t attend the Thrive conference Marcotte speaks about, so I can’t speak to the value of its content, but looking at the overall conference circuit, there’s plenty of hard-hitting content. And most of the talks and learning sessions that might end up in the “lifestyle” category aren’t “insipid” as Marcottte says. They just have to do with things like self-help (gasp! an oppressed group aims to heal!) or spirit or examining how we go about living our everyday lives in a culture that has historically been harmful to women and girls. My guess is these things either make us nervous or we don’t know what to do with them yet. Not all lifestyle events are trying to sell us something we don’t need.
I’ll never say lifestyle advice is movement building, but looking at how we spend our time day-to-day and how we take care of ourselves? Those things matter. The personal is and will always be political. If we want to do big systems-changing, culture-changing work, I’d argue sleep actually is important, yes. And as we begin to work more collaboratively, using more holistic organizational models for improving our organizations and communities, I’m not surprised our gatherings are becoming more holistic, too—in theme and design. I’m not surprised we’re having trouble separating research, strategy, skill building, conversation, and lifestyle-themed content. “Holistic” isn’t a dirty word. It’s not about yoga or yoga pants. It’s about attending to the health of the whole, the whole system, as in the whole body, organization, or community. We might say system or community that works for everybody.
What concerns me is this: Women are organizing conferences, it’s making people nervous, and even when it comes to women’s conferences–we’re all too quick to make something a problem about women, created by women. Too many of us dismiss women’s leadership gatherings as “corporate feminism” and/or “self-help” gatherings without stepping back and noticing the larger patterns. As people interested in the well-being of women and girls who are not especially psyched about conferences, our job isn’t to bash these conferences. It’s to make them better, more participatory, and more interesting. This may or may not mean less corporate.
In the women’s movement, or any movement for that matter, it’s easy to say change only happens one way. Top down, bottom up, inside out, outside in. But the truth is messier, sometimes frustratingly so. Change happens all sorts of ways and from different places, and different strategies are required at different times. We might look at the way we organize across our differences and actively explore new ways of organizing than criticize those women and men who are trying to change systems largely from within them.