Feminism Redefined

May 16 2014, 4:00pm CDT | by

How do we want to define feminism in 2014? In the first panel discussion at the second annual FORBES Women’s Summit this morning, a four-woman slate moderated by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, gave personal answers to Fiorina’s thoughtful questions. The conclusions: Women should reclaim the term and think of it as the struggle for gender equality, while looking to their own personal experience for strength.

Fiorina, 59, looking perfectly fit in a tight-fitting  dress with black and beige panels,  introduced the session noting that while women have come a long way, they have quite a distance to travel before they find equal standing with men. First she touched on her own realm, the corporate world. When she was HP’s CEO, from 1999-2005, she was the only woman atop one of the nation’s 50 highest-grossing companies. Though there are two women in that group now—Mary Barra at General Motors and Virginia Rometty at IBM—still only 3% of CEOs in the U.S. are women, and only 16% of corporate board officers are female, she said.  But things are much worse when you look around the world: 70% of the people who live on less than $2 a day are women. “In truth women are the most subjugated people on earth,” she said. “There is surprisingly little outrage about it.”

At the same time, she said, “when women get engaged, more jobs are created. When they get involved in literacy, poverty eradication, with any problem in the world, things get better.” Yet she said that most people still think of feminism as a loaded term. “I’m old enough that I think of bra burning when I hear that word,” she said. After laying out the dilemma—pervasive inequality for women, and confusion about the meaning of the term feminism–she asked what the word meant to the four panelists.

First she turned to Khalida Brohi, 25, a Pakistani social entrepreneur and activist who runs Sughar Empowerment Society, a non-profit that teaches life skills and entrepreneurship in remote Pakistani villages, in addition to fighting global warming and advocating for rural women’s rights to own property (“sughar” means “skilled and confident woman” in Urdu). She was spurred to activism when she was just 16 years old and witnessed the so-called “honor killing” of a friend. The girl’s family killed her after she  married a boy she loved instead of someone approved by her family.  Brohi was the first girl from her village to travel to Karachi to go to school. Wearing glasses and a bright yellow traditional Pakistani headscarf over a long red and orange dress, she talked about how important the word feminist is to her.

“When we started to fight honor killings, the first word we heard was ‘feminism,’” she said. “It excluded me from society.” But Brohi said she has discovered that the word has great personal meaning for her. “Feminism is when you are 13 years old and pregnant and you say, ‘I want my daughter to go to a city and go to school.’” Her own mother did that for her and it transformed her life.

The next panelist, multiple-award-winning actress Felicity Huffman, 51, famous for her role as Lynette on the TV hit “Desperate Housewives,” which won her an Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild award, sees feminism in two parts. Wearing a form-fitting, bright turquoise, V-neck dress by fellow panelist Diane von Furstenberg, and spiked Christian Louboutin heels, Huffman said that one prong of feminism is “inquiry—something internal where you look at your ingrained assumptions.” The second part of feminism is “activism.” A feminist issue for Huffman, who has two daughters, 13 and 12, has been the icon of the “good mother,” who is infinitely patient, loves  being with her children every moment of the day, and puts her children’s and her husband’s needs above her own. “Feminism says, ‘wait, equality is important.’” Huffman also runs a lifestyle website called What the Flicka?

Diane von Furstenberg, 67, creator of the iconic wrap dress and head of DVF, a fashion brand operating in 70 countries, talked about how important her mother was to her own sense of herself as a strong woman. Wearing a beige and black wrap dress and a pale yellow blazer, Belgian-born von Furstenberg talked about how her mother instilled in her a strong sense of pride and strength as a woman. “She was in a concentration camp when she was 20,” recalled von Furstenberg. “My mother taught me that fear was not an option.” Her mother also told her that it was an advantage to be a woman. “I never felt smaller because I was a woman.” After making a hit with her dress designs, she said, “my life’s cause became empowering women.” For her, “the secret of feminism is to be proud to be a woman.”

The fourth panelist, Maysoon Zayid, an Arab-American comedian and activist of Palestinian descent who has cerebral palsy, talked about how feminism is part of everything else she stands for: “I’m disabled. I’m a woman, I’m Muslim and I’m from New Jersey [laughter from the audience]. The idea that ‘feminism’ is a bad word never occurred to me.”  Wearing heels, tight-fitting beige pants and a flowing black blouse, Zayid, who co-founded both the New York Arab American Comedy Festival and an organization that helps disabled and wounded refugee children, said she doesn’t worry about being the only woman to make a mark. She keeps advocating for the causes that are important to her, including  expanding the visibility of disabled people in entertainment.

Next Fiorina asked the panelists what has to happen in order for women to achieve equality.

Brohi talked about the need for women to connect with one another and how she appreciated being a panelist. “I never imagined myself being on a stage like all of you here.”

Then Zayid broke in and said that one of the most important issues for her is violence against women. She condemned so-called honor killings, saying we should change the term because there is no “honor” in a husband killing a wife or a father killing a daughter.

Von Furstenberg talked again about the importance of women recognizing their own personal strength. “I’ve never met a woman who is not strong, but sometimes women are afraid to show their strength. . . . We have to make a commitment to teach our daughters and tell every woman to believe in their own strength. You cannot be a victim.”

Huffman said women should reclaim the word feminist. “It’s been co-opted by a group of people whose values I do not share,” she said. “When I say I am a flag-waving patriotic feminist, I have a view of a woman with bad hair and bad shoes.” She went on to say that women should un-claim the word “bitch,” because “it’s so much easier to neglect, marginalize and abuse a bitch than it is a woman. We have to be rigorous in the way we talk about ourselves and others.”

Fiorina added that it’s important to expose the subjugation of women because it’s both immoral “and it’s also just plain dumb.” Saying she believed it’s important to include men in the conversation, she asked the panelists what role they thought the media played in advancing feminism’s cause or standing in its way.

Zayid came back to the importance of representing women with disabilities. “While we search for positive images of women, I see Kerry Washington and Diane von Furstenberg, but I don’t have anyone to look at,” she said. “I need a job. Maybe Felicity can put me on TV!”

Brohi said she thought the media could be a powerful way to combat honor killings by representing women as equal to men and capable of assuming leadership roles.

Huffman brought up the widespread use of the term “working mother,” as opposed to stay-at-home mother. “Look at how ridiculous the term ‘working mother’ is,” she said. “It’s as ridiculous and redundant as the term, ‘working father.’” She also said that people should reject sexist media. “We blame the media but we consume the media,” she said. “If you don’t like what’s being said, don’t click on the video.”/>/>

Picking up on that idea, Fiorina tied up the session. “We can be defined by what other people say about us or we can be defined by what we choose to do,” she said. “I think that is what feminism in the 21st century is all about:  that we know our power and we define ourselves rather than letting others define us. The world is a better place when women have the power to choose.”

 
 

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