Here is the full transcript for this morning’s talk:
Joseph Robertson (host): Hello, and welcome to today’s NOW Labz / Quipu.cc talk on Participation, in connection with the central themes of the Commission on the Status of Women conference and events at the UN. As with previous events this week, we will be posting comments from various participants sending in their ideas via email and chat, moderating for flow and relevance. Please, anyone attending, consider that you are free to comment at your discretion, and add your own ideas.
Angela Dorian: Hi Joseph, and others, I was part of the climate talk on Tuesday, and I wanted to jump back in for this talk about participation. My husband Hank was already an activist when I met him, and as I began to do more environmental advocacy, I realized that my own participation, my engagement, my citizenship, was an important expression of my selfhood, that I had not realized, consciously, was missing, though I could feel the lack of it.
Joseph: Thank you, Angela. I think that’s important. When we talk about participation, it is often thought to be restricted to voting rights and/or to political campaigning, for office, but we have to expand the definition of the word to really allow us to touch on all of the possible ways in which a person can interact with her world. How do you feel you have fared, here in the US?
Angela: I think the US does a pretty good job. I haven’t felt impeded or blocked at all in my efforts to engage, to organize, to lead, to protest. I have been able to have a voice. Getting involved in environmental activism was an important opportunity for me to find my voice, and to fully express the scope of my conscience and my character. I shudder to think of any case where a person is denied that possibility, because in matters of conscience, our voice is not just an expression of our ideas; it is an expression of our need to address a problem that needs addressing. For me, that right is what defines the nature of free speech, the reason for its inclusion in the structure of any legitimate democracy.
Joseph: Excellent! I can say my own experience engaging in public policy, as a citizen, and as an editor and journalist, has been similar. One realizes that having a voice means having the right to address problems of real relevance to the state of one’s position in the world.
Anne Stapleton Smyrna: Good morning. I want to thank you for this forum, and for opening up the discussions in relation to the issues at hand at the CSW to a global audience. I am writing from Bristol, England, and it’s important to me that we think about the global nature of this question.
Joseph: Welcome, Anne, and I agree about the global question. Could you elaborate?
Anne: Yes. Thank you. What I mean is: we haven’t often heard discussion of why the comprehensive global liberation of women, in all societies, to participate in decision-making, at all levels is relevant to those of us in the more affluent, industrial democracies of the world, except of course in terms of conflict resolution and international security policy. And it might seem academic, but I believe this is a practical consideration, maybe the most practical of all. And that is what we might hear from Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing at the end of the 18th century: if we exclude any group from the rights and privleges of full citizenship, then we degrade our own condition. We are a global society, and so whether or not women in Mozambique or Afghanistan have the rights of women in Britain, France or the US, is relevant to us. It tells us what kind of world, what kind of international power structure, we live in.
Denver Lessing: Greetings, Joseph. Full disclosure: I have had the privilege of writing for Cafe Sentido, one of Joseph’s publications, for some time. My interest here, today, stems in part from my work reporting on transparency. I agree with Anne. This is NOT an academic point; this is, in many ways, about the foundations on which we build civil society. How can we have genuine democracy in one place, if it depends, in part, on power structures, that forbid it elsewhere?
Anne: Thank you, Denver. That’s just it. If we are committed to open government, equality of personhood, citizenship as good governance, etc., then we need to make sure we are actively promoting the expansion of political rights.
Denver: Every time we interact with the world…
Joseph: Angela, do you see a connection here, to what you were putting forward?
Angela: I do. To my way of thinking, Anne’s point is more on the theoretical side, and it is possible to talk about the nitty-gritty of doing things in the world, but I agree on the whole with the point: we are incomplete, ourselves, if the system that serves us does not allow others to be their whole selves.
Joseph: Anne, Denver—is there room for Angela’s suggestion here that whole personhood, the right to self-determination in that inward sense, is part of the story?
Anne: I don’t know. I think that’s a sticky subject. Because… well, because… we can’t know for certain that power structures that bar access to some individuals or groups (or to all women) don’t actually rely on those excluded from the public sphere compensating by devoting their energies for self-determination to the inner life. This is, in some ways, the old-fashioned trap women were taught to fall into: cultivate all of your abilities, but only for use in the most intimate spaces; don’t have a public face or shame yourself by entering the public space.
Joseph: I teach Mary Wollstonecraft in a seminar at Villanova, and I know what you mean. The trap of conventional power structures is that they channel our energies into the thing that constrains us, telling us it is a form of empowerment or liberation.
Denver: Some people would say money does this similarly to how conventional attitudes can do it. For instance, Richard Branson wrote recently that entrepreneurs need to learn / trust / understand that business is not really about money. What an entrepreneur needs, he argued, is strong ideas, a commitment of focus and energy, and a willingness to build something around all of that. The money follows these qualities, but money cannot bring them.
Joseph: So, convention makes things look easy and appealing, to some with certain points of view, but one who is devoted to convention is wearing a straightjacket, or blinders, or the like…
Denver: In a way…
Angela: I would like to relate this back to a woman’s engagement in the sphere of decision-making. That particular convention that Anne is referring to—that a woman is too pretty or too delicate to have a public life, and that living by that standard is a luxury and a conquest—is a trap, but it is difficult to wriggle out of for a lot of reasons. I was looking at the transcript of yesterday’s talk, on lending, and I kept thinking about that idea of “de facto leadership” roles—that where women are empowered by microlending, perhaps especially in the most traditional of societies, change is happening because they are already, as a result, leading, making decisions, building value and creating the structure of a new way of living. That is what we are talking about today, I think. That is what participation does; it allows an individual that was formerly not influencing decisions to have a role in deciding what is done.
Evelyn Winston Perez: Hi everyone. Great ideas, Angela! I would like to elaborate. But also full disclosure; I have written for Cafe Sentido, and so am something of a “team member”, though we have not actually gotten together as a team. We’re a loose-knit bunch of sometime collaborators. I mention that, in that way, because I think it’s important. We live in a world where this is possible, where this talk is possible. I can write to you from Senegal, on my way from South Africa to London, and I can write to you as an African, as a woman, as a European, and as that other kind of citizen: a journalist. To me, it is important that we recognize that journalists are like proxy stakeholder voices, and that this is an invaluable service, but that we need to go further and not only open up the public space for a free press and for freedom of speech, but for real stakeholder influence in decision-making.
Angela: And I can’t think of a space where women are not, to some extent, stakeholders.
Denver: And does this apply to the business world, too? That we need to have more women participating at the top levels, to make business leadership more representative of market stakeholders, broadly? Is this a valid principle?
Evelyn: I think it is valid. Of course. But it is not the only thing. I would like to see real government-backed global support for moving women into the highest levels of influence, through academics, politics, media, industry and military office as well.
Anne: I think that’s really important: that we not perpetuate the notion that there should be spaces wher women are less likely or less apt to participate, if even by their choice. There must exist the women who can do those things, and who want to, and whose character reflects that potential. And they should be able to cultivate that.
Evelyn: So we come back to education. I think we need to think about the best way to actually move this way of thinking into the mindspace of a global village, of very diverse cultures and circumstances.
Joseph: I want to thank everyone who was part of this morning’s talk. We had some technical problems and lost our connection around 11:15, but I am very proud of the work we did today. The insights of the group are important, I believe, and as serendipity would have it, the closing comments of Anne and Evelyn are an excellent jumping off point for further discussion.
Can we take down barriers that still include a strong male/female bias in terms of social roles, even in the most liberal democracies? And can we plan policy specifics that, as Evelyn put it, “move this way of thinking into the mindspace of a global village, of very diverse cultures and circumstances”?