This spring I attended the Women"s Funding Network (WFN) conference in Seattle.* It was packed with fascinating plenaries and workshops, panels and open discussions.
I met women from Oklahoma and the Netherlands, Wyoming and Africa. There were young women, old women, white women, black women, women wearing suits, women wearing burkas. We saw willowy women with backs as straight as arrows and women who wore their white hair and wrinkles like badges of honor (which they were, of course). All these divergent women shared one thing in common--the desire to make life better for those who come after them.
For me, the most moving presentation was a Powerpoint of photography taken by Lekha Singh. Her images of women in war-town regions around the world are featured in Zainab Salbi's book, The Other Side of War: Women's Stories of Survival and Hope.
Singh went through her presentation, photo by photo, to tell the real life stories of the women she captured on film. And they were fascinating--and sometimes heartbreaking--stories.
She told of a woman forced to dress as a man in order to find work.
She shared the story of a woman who walked her children across the desert for days--amidst small arms fire -- to get to safety.
But perhaps the story that sticks with me so vividly was the one told of a young woman who courageously painted her fingernails. Why courageously? Because under the Taliban, Singh told us that women were not allowed to paint their nails and, if they were caught with evidence they did so, their fingers would be cut off. Cut off!
There was something about hearing these stories and seeing these photographs that made me say, "Whew. Thank God we don't have to deal with that kind of repression in the United States."
But then, as I sat on the plane toward home, the mountains changing into prairie, I started to think of things differently. It's true most women in the United States are not in constant fear for their lives -- and thank God. But, are we fundamentally different from other women around the world when we live in a representative democracy and only 23.5 percent of our state legislators are women and more than 50 percent of our population is? Well, it matters if you think those who make the laws we obey tend to bring their experiences, their biases, their viewpoints with them when voting on issues impacting our everyday lives.
Are we that different from these women and children in war-torn lands when women in the United States make only 77 percent on every dollar that a man makes? I suppose it matters if you know that single-parent families are disproportionally run by women, that 28.7 percent of these families live in poverty and, if you believe that the future of every child in our country, state and community is important to the well being of each of us.
Are we really that different when Viagra is covered by medical insurance but birth control pills are commonly not? That one in three women will be a victim of rape or abuse in their lifetime and that such an experience will undoubtedly alter who they become?
You know, the greatest thing I learned in Seattle is that the dignity of every person is important. I learned that it's ok to be damn angry that a woman can be abducted from a department store parking lot, raped and murdered. I learned that it's not enough for me to sit around and say, thank God we don't have to deal with that kind of thing in the United States.
It's time to do what we can -- give our talent, give our time, give our dollars -- to impact real social change in our country. Encouraging more women to run for office, voting for responsible women and men and supporting organizations like the Women"s Funding Network are all steps toward a better future for each of us.