Women, Power, and Politics: What Are You Willing to Do?

02/01/2011 11:58 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The 92nd Street Y is one of those important New York institutions which I'm embarrassed, after so many years in the city, never to have visited. Until a recent evening, that is, when I found myself trudging through the bitter cold to hear a panel on Women, Power, and Politics. Part book-tour stop, part rabble-rousing call to action, the event was a conversation among writers Katha Pollitt of the Nation, Rebecca Traister of Salon, New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey, and activist and author Gloria Feldt.

This past August was the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. For 90 years, women have had the right to vote. But still, outlined Feldt, the panel's moderator, at the start of the evening, women make up only 17% of Congress, only one quarter of state legislators.

Yes, of course, there have been certain leaps forward. The Atlantic's August cover issue, "The End of Men: How Women are Taking Control―of Everything," outlined a few areas, such as number of degrees earned, in which women are even pulling ahead. The term "postfeminist" has been in use since as early as 1919, Traister writes in her recent book Big Girls Don't Cry, in other words before the 19th amendment was even ratified. The cycle of progress and backlash is seemingly intrinsic to the fight. But though it would (I assume) be choir-preaching to point out how far we still need to go, the questions of why progress is so slow and what exactly we should be doing are both tricky.

The audience assembled that evening in the mostly-full auditorium was made up primarily of white women over 50―including Kathleen Turner, who co-authored a book with Feldt. Although the 92nd Street Y is as often host to events like the upcoming Chocolate Fest: A Walk-Around Tasting--which the women next to me lit upon in the events catalogue--that night all were gathered to gain a little more understanding on the question of power. What does power entail? What does power mean to women?

Historically, women have had an ambivalent relationship to power. We aren't socialized to be comfortable with power, explained Feldt at the top of the evening. We've spent so much time on the negative receiving end of power that women have a tendency to "walk up to it, and walk back."

But the traditional idea of having power over something―another person, another group―is not the only way to think about power. Feldt made a great distinction between "the power over vs. the power to." The power to doesn't mean someone else has to be down in the dirt. It's about the ability to take action and accomplish your goals.

"If you have a goal and you know what you want to do, you can do it," said Lowey.

But what, exactly, are the current goals? As Sarah Palin and the 2008 election proved, as well as the most recent one in 2010, it isn't necessarily a question of just getting women into power, but the "right" women―women with liberal values who recognize, in Pollitt's words, that "women's rights are tied to their reproductive rights."

So what should we be doing? As the panel turned to questions from the audience, the difficulty of actually outlining answers became apparent.

Traister makes a clear argument for why single unified goals are extremely difficult in feminism: women are extremely different from one another. "The women's movement, throughout history, by definition, has been a contentious one."

But right now there is an ardent and vibrant aspect of feminism that didn't exist during the second wave, one that leaves room for all sorts of internal controversy: the feminist blogosphere. In the backlash of the 80's and 90's, "feminist" was an outsider label. Traister, though, catalogued many online publications, headlining with Jezebel, that are now bringing the conversation into the mainstream.

On stage, Lowey wrote down Jezebel in her notebook.

I felt a hand on my arm. "Is it jezebel.com?" asked the woman next to me.

"Feminism is happening online," said Traister up on stage.

"But it's not the same as showing up at your town hall meeting," cut in Pollitt.

Pollitt--who herself has a blog for the Nation--is not wholly dismissive of the power in the blogosphere, and she was careful not to say a word against Jezebel and other such publications. But she pointed out that there is a difference between picking apart pop culture in print and gathering in physical groups to stand up for your rights and change legislation.

The media is unquestionably a powerful tool. Obama's campaign made terrific use of social networking. Jon Stewart recently played an essential role, through his show, advocating to get health care for 9/11 responders. But there is a power to gathering in physical groups--a power I felt sitting in a galvanized auditorium on the Upper East Side. It's a power that 60's era activism was based in--which is not currently being encouraged in our culture. Still, there are groups to get involved in, many of which I learned about that night.

In addition to such organizations as NOW--the National Organization for Women, there is The White House Project, which works to advance women in business, politics, and the media. There are also The Women's Campaign Forum, and The National Women's Political Caucus. In Feldt's words, "Elections don't happen on election day, they start the day after the last election."

The question is, how much are we willing to get involved? It isn't always as appealing as a chocolate tasting, or even sitting at home and writing an article. But out of all the questions we could ask, that one might be the most important.