A Force of Feminists

A host of sparrows.  A brace of pheasants. A leash of foxes.  An ambush of tigers.  An aerie of eagles.  At the Power Shift debate in Oxford this week, Amanda Poole proposed that the collective noun for feminists should be “a force.”  A force of feminists.

Think a speech on international trade is dry, with no interest for the women’s movement? Think again. Arancha González, Executive Director of the International Trade Center, delivers her forceful argument.

And so we were. The conference was opened with a stirring speech by Arancha González, Executive Director of the International Trade Center, who made a compelling case for the social injustice and deep economic illogic of excluding half the human species from global trade.  Her points were delivered with a subdued fieriness that gave each well-substantiated point the impact of a small, sharp spike.

From there, we were off and running.  The “rapid fire” sessions that have become a required part of the Power Shift opening delivered the desired effect—it’s a kind of mental cleansing ritual designed to reset everyone’s thinking so that new frameworks can be born.  Markus Goldstein‘s research on women who “crossover” into men’s industries gave us a term that was used through the rest of the conference—especially for people who “crossed over” to become feminists or “crossed over” from traditional feminism to understand the importance and power of the market as a new front for the force.  We all loved Amy-Willard Cross’ Buy Up Index, which has already taught Power Shifters to check the woman-friendly rating before buying.

But perhaps the most impressive talk was the most unlikely:  Allison Friedman, of the Global Fund to End Slavery, delivered a speech that charged us with moral outrage over human trafficking, yet nevertheless also outlined a businesslike action plan that companies can use to fight this scourge. I have made a pledge to myself that I will try to take on some of those steps, perhaps with the help of the Power Shift force. Allison has promised a blog for Power Shifters to have the action steps at their fingertips, ready to push out to their networks.

Intense practical engagements followed, in which the participants learned and problem-solved their way through the benefits of supplier diversity, avoiding rights violations in global supply chains, and the promise of purpose-built consumer goods for poor women.  All the while, the view plainly in sight was to empower women by giving them equality in the market, much as our great-grandmothers envisioned giving them equality through the vote. Perhaps it was because the intentions of the Power Shift force are so obviously heartfelt and their projects so profoundly innovative that previously skeptical “old style” feminists surprised themselves (and me) by staying right through the entire conference.

Maggie Berry (WEConnect), Laurie Adams (Oxfam), and Sumana Hussain (Department for International Development, UK) are just a few of the potential “crossovers” from the multiple sectors included at Power Shift.

The inclusion of a market effort under the umbrella of what is considered “feminist” is, in many circles, the most controversial thing about Power Shift.  For the past forty years, feminists have railed against the market as if this basic human phenomenon was the cause of all women’s woes.  Yet, as I suggested in my opening speech, the market is, at base, the aggregated point-to-point agreements between two humans (or two human groups) to exchange goods and services. Thus, the practices of exchange are inevitably scarred with the same inequalities, in thrall to the same prejudices, and executed with the same thirst for status that typifies human interaction in every domain.  The charge of Power Shift is to find ways to eliminate the market rifts and barriers that perpetuate the subordination of women by changing the practices of exchange. Nothing more and nothing less.

Nowhere was Power Shift’s agenda more clearly in accord with the historical agenda of the worldwide women’s movement than in the debate at the Oxford Union.  I had feared that the topic (“This house believes that feminism needs rebranding”) would bring out the worst in people—ugly anti-feminist jokes or defensive feminist rhetoric.

I should have known better. The debate teams were composed of thoughtful, educated people with a passion for social justice.  Each of them entertained the question with the light heart but serious intention with which it was originally written.  The result was a stirring exchange, punctuated with witty phrases, followed by eloquent and impassioned contributions from the audience.

Each team made it clear that the feminist movement has a record that is inspiring, effective, and distinguished. No one proposed that feminism had failed or should be abandoned. Instead, the issue was how to make feminism more inclusive and whether some kind of repositioning was in order, especially to include the market-based effort now underway all over the world.

Sue Lawton, a founder of WEConnect and a tireless advocate for women’s participation in world markets, explains to the room at the Union that the feminist movement has rebranded itself in every generation, in order to expand its scope and bring its focus in tune with the concerns of its times.

Though arguing from opposite sides, the two men on the teams, Author Josh Levs and British Politician Mike Thornton, both showed profound respect for feminism as a movement.  Josh invoked feminism as a brand in the original sense—a “burning” and “dangerous” sign.  (I loved that.)  The young men who stepped forward afterward from the audience were equally adamant about the importance and vitality of the movement.

At the end of the debate, 94 members walked through the “no” door, indicating that feminism did not need rebranding, while 63 walked through the “aye” door to suggest that feminism needed to be changed in order to be made more inclusive for nonwhite and nonWestern women, as well as for businesspeople and the marketplace movement.

If we had any doubts that we were “a force,” that vote settled it.

At the historic Oxford Union, the audience listens intently as an MBA student from Nigeria appeals for feminism to be expanded in a way that women all over the world can feel a part of it.

Afterward, we gathered in the Hogwart’s lookalike dining hall at Balliol (Josh Levs sat next to me in “the Dumbledore seat”).  Though we were tired and tipsy at the end of the meal, the room became electrified from the first few sentences of Jacki Zehner‘s speech. She took us through her personal narrative, which began with a sexual assault in her first financial sector job and ended with the founding of Women Moving Millions. Her innovative thinking about using money, whether investments or donations or purchases, to claim women’s power in all domains has been a powerful influence on my own thinking, as well as that of others there.

The Interbrand team taking a selfie in the dining room at Balliol. Look like they are having fun? You should have seen the rest of us.

The next day we continued our practical sessions while collaborating on the action step for 2015–to produce a report on whether and how to brand the women’s economy.  Andrea Sullivan, Sarah Lent, and Paula Oliveira of Interbrand were brilliant professionals, guiding us through the steps of brand strategy—but I could tell they, too, were  swept up in the moment, becoming one with the force (and having a great time, too!).

At the end of the day, we prepared our polling on the brand strategy (more on that soon).  Then, we sat down as a group, as we always do, to reflect on what we had just experienced and make plans for the next Power Shift.

Melanne Verveer and Ann Cairns sat with me on the stage, discussing what the Power Shift approach to “leadership,” the 2016 theme, should be.  We are going to foray into another country for Power Shift 2016—into the wilds of America.  The topic will be timely there, in the run up to the elections with a woman likely to lead, but “leadership,” as a topic, has become hackneyed by too many glitzy, but empty events.  So, we focused on the ways we can do this topic with the distinctive Power Shift edginess.  Many good ideas for including “off the beaten path” notions of leadership and more engaged activities were offered.  Stay tuned for the Power Shift take on leadership for women!  Power Shift will be held at Georgetown University on May 4 and 5 in 2016.

At the final planning session, Melanne Verveer (middle) and Ann Cairns (right) talk with the audience about how Power Shift should unfold in Washington DC this spring. Melanne was the first Ambassador-at-Large for Women’s Issues and is now Executive Director of the Women, Peace, and Security Institute at Georgetown University. Ann is the President of International Markets at MasterCard Worldwide.

Power Shift leaves you feeling like you have been through an activist wind tunnel.  The audience engagement makes the experience so intense, so intellectually challenging, and so inspiring, you fairly itch to get started on doing something.  These people and the movement they are making indeed constitute a force.

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