Every day in my work at Chicago Foundation for Women, I interact with a diverse group of women. From the staff, to our donors and volunteers, each woman represents a unique and motivating set of beliefs and ideas about the future of women. Although they differ in race and ethnicity, age, educational background, and professional experience, there is a common theme in our conversations that deserves a highlight: Advocacy is the key to systemic change for women.
One could argue that 1848 was the year the Women's Movement officially began. It was at Seneca Falls, and the first Women's Conference was held in hopes of tackling access to higher education, women's medical issues, and equal pay for women. In the 1960s, similar issues were the focal points of the movement, but more emphasis was placed on reproductive rights and a woman's role in her family. It's 2012 and we're still talking about the same issues -- women's health and pay equity. If anything, there appears to be a very concerted effort to reverse the gains that we have made in the past 60 years.
Despite the "war on women," most women I talk to are optimistic. We are focused on how to redirect the conversation and focus it on the issues facing women and their children everyday. The women I talk to, and work with, understand the power that can be unleashed through effective advocacy. Advocacy amplifies a woman's voice and starts a conversation about what is needed for change, while building new support for the work. Advocacy creates a force that unites communities.
For decades, women have been harnessing the power of advocacy to bring attention to the issues that affect them the most. Feminists like Gloria Steinem, activists and authors like Maya Angelou, and global leaders like Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State, have all used their influence and their experiences to promote a collective voice about their vision of women for the future. These women, and many like them, also used their voices to shift the conversation from what's wrong with our society to a dialog about solutions to fix it. The Women's Movement provided an honest and concise vision for women and girls.
Within that shift, there is noteworthy distress about the younger generation of women and if they will continue the legacy of the pioneers before them. Recently, Nancy Keenan stepped down from her position as president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country's oldest abortion-rights advocacy group. Keenan believes that new momentum and younger leadership of millennials is required in the Women's Movement.
Who are the new, vibrant and innovative young women who will take the power of advocacy and shift the status of women? What is their vision for creating and maintaining total change for women?
We can look to women like Ai-jen Poo, a labor organizer, who successfully works on policy initiatives and lobbying for immigrant women workers. We also have women like Sandra Fluke, women's health advocate, who has used her voice to bring attention to student health-insurance plans. And for those that think teenagers are too young to make an impact, pay close attention to Julie Bluhm. The 14-year-old gathered over 84,000 signatures for her petition that persuaded Seventeen magazine to end the practice of altering the body and face images of the girls in the magazine.
There's no question that women are headed in the right direction with the leadership of young activists at the helm. These women are equipped to carry on the legacy of advocacy that came before them in new and exciting ways. Our society needs to ready itself to fully accept the challenges and solutions these young women offer. Under their leadership, our world will be a better, equal and just place.
Follow K. Sujata on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChiFdn4Women