This post is a series of reflections on the White House Summit on the State of Women, or #USOW. The aim is to critically reflect on many such celebrity-centric high-profile events that claim to be issue-centric, but really end up being more about groupthink and partisan-politics-centric. In the process, such events harm the issue by using up crowd energies but really achieving nothing at all except a series of selfies with celebrities. So agendas are damaged by being contaminated by personal agendas and partisan political agendas, as well as the taint of liberal feminist “happy talk.” I am writing this post because I believe that feminist politics are serious business that affect the everyday lives and deaths of vulnerable populations, and feminist politics do not deserve to be co-opted and deployed for partisan politics showcases. I appreciate that as a participant, my own career would be better served by rave reviews (I went there and it was awesome). But no, thanks.
Last week, at the White House summit on women in Washington DC, celebrities rather than issues were the glue that kept the program together. The event calendar was completely packed, as if by committee. The schedule kept going over. They held on to Michelle Obama till the end, otherwise some of us were ready to give up and leave. I’m mad that my phone was dead from too many selfies and tweets, and by the time Michelle arrived, I couldn’t get a ridiculous me-with-FLOTUS-on-big-screen selfie.
By 7pm, my companions and I were utterly exhausted with just listening to speakers. At a couple of points in the day, we were sent back & forth to “solution seminars”. The one I attended sure didn’t feature any solutions worth mentioning. For instance, the session I optimistically chose – “Revolutionizing Gender Norms” – featured Amy Poehler and Valerie Biden. The panel also included a representative from Mattel (with a beguiling foreign accent, so she sounded very smaht) who described how influential Barbie (Bah-bee) was for young girls, and how much thought Mattel is putting into this influence. I waited for the punchline: she concluded her presentation with showing how Mattel is working to change things – a commercial that showed young girls leading and ordering adults around and acting like adults, and then playing with their Barbies. In other words, feminism co-opted for cash. Like, are we that stupid?
All day I waited in vain for some chance to contribute our ideas rather than sit and listen to people repeat how great Obama has been for women.
The program was designed last minute (but Michelle is organizing it! So, come!) and was really hard to decipher. When is lunch? When is this speaker? That event? And what happens since we’re running so behind? When does Michelle show?
A long star-studded day – president Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Oprah, Nancy Pelosi, Loretta Lynch, Kerry Washington, Mariska Hargitay, Amy Poehler, Warren Buffett, and many other luminaries addressed the 5000 women gathered at the summit today. (The most engaging speaker by far was Michelle Obama. I have to say I’d be very surprised if she were to forego a political career in the near future. So watch for that).
The main goals of the event weren’t really to highlight the real issues that affect women but to highlight a) the Obama administration b) nonprofits, products, and programs related to women and girls produced by Poehler, Hargitay, Goldman-Sachs, etc. And also to drum up support for a loosely feminist-framed Hillary administration.
Overall I’d describe the event as a women’s Democratic Convention where the achievements of the Obama administration were repeatedly highlighted. Nancy Pelosi concluded her comments with “Let us all thank President Obama for….” which sounded remarkably like a prayer, and gave me the heebie-jeebies.
No opportunity to mention the future “Madam President” was lost – including by Obama.
Mariska Hargitay (whom I love) highlighted her Joyful Hearts Foundation, Amy Poehler reminded us of the Amy Poehler Smart Girls program, Goldman-Sachs brought in a line of successful businesswomen who benefited from their 10,000 Women financing programs, and so on. We admired the wildly successful business women who got Goldman Sachs cash, and sat thinking, like Tributes in the Hunger games, we could make it too. If we only tried hard enough and bought into Goldman-Sachs.
No opportunities presented themselves, whether in the large sessions or the small ones (the ones I attended) to ask questions or raise problems or critiques. In my ‘Solutions Seminar’, we were told quickly before the session started, that due to lack of time, the Q&A section of the panel had been cut. So sit back and enjoy your celebrities.
During his speech, Obama actually used the construction of “we” have to serve as examples against Them with their oppressive patriarchal structures and cultures. Excuse me while I hurl. In the Obama speech, I restrained myself with great difficulty when he made a resounding call for desperately needed social change, and I wanted to shout Yo! Mr. Hope! You had 8 years! And what’s with the drones and the deportations! Except I didn’t really want to be pursued by the Secret Service hotties just that evening.
The main take-away for me was the opportunity to network and chat with the activists and change-makers at my table, such as Dilshad Ali of Patheos, Hind Makki of Side Entrance, Aisha Rahman of Karamah, and many others. But we were instructed to remain at these tables for the duration of the day – which means we had no opportunity to network with anyone who wasn’t already in our networks. The only new person I met was a pediatrician from Evanston who was in the lone, snaking queue with us that morning.
I exaggerate. I had other take-aways too. The fact that most other women are far better at professional fashion than I am. Stunning, really, but also sadly dedicated to high heels in a long day of a women’s summit.
I also learned how to generate a photo-op for the powers-that-be, deploying diverse women change-makers nationwide without actually involving these women in any dialogue or change at all. If you or your friends were able to get a word in about how to effect real change, you’d be the exception. You’d be the backstage groupies.
In other words: how to co-opt feminist politics for a photo-op. Well-played, Washington, DC. Once again – well-played.