Amplifying Women’s Voices




S

hould
we try to infiltrate mainstream media or put our considerable energies
into creating our own communication channels? An energized group
of 200 women writers, radio producers, and critics debated this
and other questions during the second annual Women and Media conference
sponsored by the Center for New Words in Cambridge, Massachusetts
on March 18-20, 2005. 


While
conference participants tended to answer the “inside or outside”
question toward the “build alternatives” end of the spectrum,
a good deal of energy focused on the nexus of the two options, specifically
increasing women’s by-lines in mainstream op-ed pages. A long-standing
question of why women, especially feminists, aren’t better
represented in the mass media was cranked to a new level of intensity
this winter by Susan Estrich’s recent campaign to pressure
the

LA Times

to increase its percentage of women editorialists.
Women average between 10 and 25 percent of op-ed writers in the
largest U.S. dailies. 


While
figures on rates of rejection by gender are not widely available,
a number of op-ed page editors have asserted that women submit only
one-tenth the op-eds and letters to the editor that men do. Feminists
contend that this reflects patriarchal training for females to defer
to the leadership of men and their general lack of access to time
and other resources. The supposition that there is a biological
basis to women’s reticence was given little credence by WAM
participants, though that angle has been well represented in dozens
of articles on the controversy published in March and April. Groups
such as Women in Media and News are developing a detailed database
of experienced women writers to ease the expansion efforts of mainstream
editors who are trying to include more women’s perspectives. 


One
of WAM’s key purposes is to give women the skills and support
to amplify their voices in all sorts of contexts. “Ms.musings”
blogger Christine Cupaiuolo led a workshop on setting up your own
blog, which succeeded in meeting its advertised goal of having everyone
make their first post to their new blogs within the workshop itself.
Conference workshops addressed the politics and infrastructure of
community radio, cartooning, book publishing, newspapers, and magazines
and zines, in addition to electronic media, such as blogging and
podcasting. Issue-oriented sessions included those focused on Muslim
women, lesbians, women of color, the right wing, poor and low-income
women, and pop culture. 


The
ambitions of WAM participants ranged from the independence of blogging
to the collectivity of public relations for movement groups. With
scores of organizations represented at the conference, and given
the existence of related conferences such as the Journalism and
Women Symposium (JAWS), one recurring theme was the need to minimize
overlapping missions and competition for resources. Coordinating
the timing of WAM and JAWS was proposed, along with the potential
of regional WAM gatherings. Many participants cal- led for electronic
coordination between feminist media groups, envisioning something
like a “Craig’s List” for resource sharing among
feminist media activists and producers. Women’s E-Media Center
(www.womensemedia.org) offered to serve as a resource listing site.



Another
recurring WAM debate weighed the pros and cons of nonprofit versus
capitalist structures for our enterprises. The nonprofit model dominated,
as seen in the fact that an entire panel was devoted to fundraising.
But even nonprofit advocates urged women to create strong business
plans identifying diverse funding streams, pointedly noting that
“foundations will not fund revolution.” In a follow-up
meeting on funding, Filipina activist Mavic Cabrera- Balleza, Communication
Program Officer of Isis International-Manila, noted that grant money
for women’s projects is tighter than ever but that feminists
could find funders for information and technology projects. 


Women
even debated the old question of whether or not to use “feminist”
as a descriptor of their projects. The

Minnesota Women





s
Press,

a bi-weekly newspaper, is unveiling a new masthead this
season, dropping the word “feminist” from its tagline
in the hopes of expanding beyond their loyal feminist readership
to include less politicized readers. In an editorial announcing
the change, editor Editor J. Trout Lowen writes, “We think
this change will resonate with young women, many of whom don’t
identify as feminists first and foremost. Many of them have told
us they see themselves and their lives as bigger, bolder and more
complex that any single label.… Sadly, we must also admit that…there
are some women who share the feminist values of equality and justice
for women worldwide who don’t feel comfortable sharing our
feminist identity. We hope they find kinship in our independent
spirit,” as expressed in the new tagline “Independent
news of independent women.” 


The
paper is funded largely through advertising by Minneapolis-Saint
Paul women’s businesses. Lowen, in a follow-up posting to the
Women and Media listserv, used the recent editorial change at

Ms.
Magazine

to reflect on the economics and politics at the heart
of “inside/outside” debates in whatever movements and
contexts feminists and other social change agents face, “Can
we afford to talk only to those who think just like us?” 


Advocacy
aimed at pressuring mainstream media to more fully represent and
include the perspectives of women and other mar- ginalized communities
was another prominent theme at the conference. In one workshop entitled
“Root Causes, Our Cures: Women’s Activism for Media Justice
and Reform,” women detailed today’s mainstream media mess
and discussed the problem’s roots in capitalism and the structures
of oppression which limit people’s ability to challenge the
mainstream and create alternatives. 


Inja
Coates, one of the workshop leaders and director of Media Tank,
described the work of the Philadelphia Grassroots Cable Coalition
to hold Comcast and other cable companies accountable for their
legally mandated support of public access resources. Noting communication
is recognized by the UN as a human right, the Philadelphia coalition
is remarkable for the diversity of its constituents including welfare
rights, labor, and consumer advocates—such as the Kensington
Welfare Rights Organization, Communications Workers of America,
and PIRG. The Coalition has issued a Code of Conduct that calls
on Comcast to set an example for smaller cable companies by adopting
public interest positions in areas such as consumer pricing, customer
service, worker rights, community access TV, and open access internet. 


Jill
Nelson, freelance journalist and author of

Volunteer Slavery:
My Authentic Negro Experience

, gave a well-received keynote
address slamming mainstream media’s capitulation to Bush administration
deception. Citing a friend’s decision to withdraw her commentary
from NPR when a producer challenged her contention that Bush is
a liar, Nelson urged those of her audience who work in the mainstream
to be prepared to find other ways to make a living rather than submit
to political whitewashing. Neither did she hold out any hope for
change under a potential Democratic president in 2008. The Democrats
are “losers” and the system is “broken,” she
declared. Even if someone with the personal and political integrity
of South African Nelson Mandela were somehow to win the U.S. presidency,
Nelson noted that no one person would be able to fix the chaos that
has become our national predicament.





Nelson,
an African American, characterized the years of the George W. Bush
administration as a time when more and more people have become “niggerized.”
Referring to 9/11 as an event that taught white men what it is to
know fear, Nelson welcomed into the “niggerized” community
those women who have not experienced the fear that people of color,
gays, and poor people have lived with for all or most of their lives.
Nelson urged white women to “anticipate the higher price that
people of color pay for speaking out radically” and act in
a solidarity informed by close scrutiny of white supremacy and white
privilege. 


Nelson’s
admonition to build a “human cloak of fearlessness” and
to create our own media resonated with the crowd. From blogs to
news wires to newspapers to op-eds, women strategized the multiple
ways to increase the power of feminist opinion and institutions. 



ColorLines

senior writer Daisy Hernandez led the closing strategy session of
the conference. Urging feminist writers to understand that journalism
is the work of community, she listed several insights she credited
to her mother. Among others was “la que sabé, sabé,”
(the one who knows, knows) which Hernandez elaborated to mean get
the grassroots story, find out what people are talking about on
the bus, and know what’s happening on the block. 


WAM
organizing committee member and Beacon Press editor Gayatri Patnaik
noted she was “so completely taken with the conference”
after attending the inaugural WAM in 2004, that she eagerly joined
the organizing committee with the goal of seeing women of color
participating more in the 2005 conference. Noting presentations
by radio activists Sonali Kol- hatkar and Deepa Fernandes, journalists
Daisy Hernandez and Jill Nelson, and book publisher Jill Petty,
among many other women of color, Patnaik felt that the goal had
been “absolutely achieved.” 


Argentinian
American Rita Arditi echoed the sense of determination that was
palpable throughout the weekend when she recounted a saying by one
of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: “La unica lucha que se
pierde es la que se abandona” (“the only struggle you
lose is the one you abandon”). Judging from the huge burst
of postings to the WAM listserv after the conference, the energy
harnessed by WAM is being put to good use.





Loie Hayes is
a freelance book editor and writer living in Boston.