Sarah and Susan Silverman interviewed by Norah O’Donnel at Women in the World (Photo: TueNight/ Margit Detweiler)
How do you break through stereotypes, boys clubs — hell, just flat out fear — and accomplish what you want to in this world?
“Be undeniable,” said comedian Sarah Silverman at the 2014 Women in the World conference in New York City.
“When women ask me how do you get into show business, or how do you do anything — be undeniable. It might not be fair… and you don’t want to get things because of fairness, just be undeniable — that’s how strides are made,” said Silverman.
This was just one of an army of righteous messages from this three-day summit of thinkers and activists from around the globe.
I was honored to attend Friday and Saturday as a representative of Gwynnie Bee, the plus-size women’s clothing site I wrote about a few weeks ago. As a longtime member and fan of the company, they offered to send me to the conference and I jumped at the chance.
Like a crash course in of-the-minute women’s issues (read: everyone issues), each day was packed with 10-30 minute panels — every single one riveting. (If you’d like to watch the panels, they’re available on Livestream here and on YouTube)
Friday was the most back-to-back day with 20+ panels on everything from Rwandan genocide to mothers against extremism to the highly informed Jimmy Carter on ending sexual slavery and injustice to women (wherein our 90-year-old former president actually used the word “oral sex.”) Amazing.
But I couldn’t wait to see and hear the brave women of Pussy Riot —the punk rock band who challenged Vladimir Putin and paid for it with two years of prison.
Interviewed by Charlie Rose and speaking via a translator, Pussy Riot’s Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova cited the importance of penal reform, the necessary division of church and state and the fight against censure and oppression.
“Our children, unlike Putin’s, live in Russia. We want a good future for them,” said Alekhina.
I would have loved a punk rock performance, but their insights alone kept most of us on the edge of our comfortable Lincoln Center seats. Here were two women that, despite threats and brutality against them from their own government (see Sochi), continue to speak truth to Putin.
When Rose asked them, bluntly, “Do you have no fear?” Tolokonnikova responded, “I think it is stupid to be afraid.”
A simple but potent point of view which was echoed throughout the day in other panels.
We met 50-year-old entrepreneur Bessie Mogale who started her own Tuck Shop in South Africa and earned enough money to send her sons — and herself — to college. “Don’t stay at home and feel pity for yourself,” she said.
Eugenie Mukeshimana told a harrowing story about hiding from the Hutu Militia when she was a pregnant 23-year-old, birthing her baby alone, with the aid of a rusty knife. That she survived the killing fields was nothing short of a miracle. Twenty years after the genocide, a panel talked about the Rwandan revival — emboldened by the rise of women — women who now outnumber men in public office and are on the rise in the fields of medicine and business.
But my favorite moment from Friday’s presentations was from a young poet named Senna. The Peruvian 17-year-old taught herself to write poetry despite living in a bone-poor mining town. Her father perished in those Andes mountain mines, but Senna continued to hone her skills as a poet.
“I know now that the fortune my father sought so haplessly was always buried in me, it was just a matter of finding it.”
Senna stood alone on stage as she shouted her lines to the rafters. Not a dry eye in the house.
But that wasn’t the best part. As a surprise to Senna, another poet was brought onstage — Marquesha Babers, a formerly homeless young woman from L.A. — to read her own poem inspired by Senna.
“This is for every girl who has taken two steps forward, three steps back, then gathered herself and jumped six steps ahead.”
This is where I really wished I’d brought a few boxes of tissues.
The two poets cried and hugged, and Senna noted, “I was always unappreciated, not given much… and now I know that I have Marquesha.”
The power of the community and solidarity of women — onstage, offstage, across cultures and even politics — was Friday’s glorious takeaway.
Saturday’s themes were a nod to “what’s next” for women. What messages are we telling our daughters? How can we foster their greatness and how are we taking action?
Actress Rashida Jones talked about the hypersexualized culture that young girls are subjected to today through movies and media. “We have to distinguish between healthy sexuality and sexualization.” Preach.
A panel on selfies prompted speaker and MSNBC’s Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski to remove her makeup onstage. She seemed a bit distraught after she did it but added, “Makeup can’t own you — it should be fun, it shouldn’t be everything that you are.”
In “How Hip Is Your Hijab,” moderator Zainab Salbi congratulated her varied panelists for showing the world the next phase of Muslim. “My personal hope is from young women like you. You are claiming your individual identity… a beautiful new voice is emerging.”
MIT Researcher and Mipsterz video creator Layla Shaikley, in sleek silver leggings and fabulous platform shoes — complementing her hijab, of course — noted, “Growing up as a Muslim I’ve always faced a preconstructed narrative… I grew up on a skateboard, I geek out, I’m into science… why can’t I tell my story? And I started thinking maybe I just will.”
It’s that “maybe I just will tell my story” mantra that pervaded the conference, demonstrating the not-easy-to-classify woman that we all are and strive to be.
Gwynnie Bee itself is a powerhouse of progress, by supporting women of all shapes and sizes to look and feel their best, and I’m thrilled they were able to send me and a few other members to this monumental event. Kudos to GB for realizing the value in supporting Women in the World.
To take action or get involved with some of the amazing organizations and causes from the summit, visit the Women in the World site.