Rosie O’Donnell uses a video camera to document the future of the women’s movement at the Freedom on Our Terms conference at Hunter College.
By Julie Bolcer
“FEMA had a fake news conference last week,” mused Rosie O’Donnell on Saturday afternoon in her keynote address to the Freedom on Our Terms conference on equality for women and girls held at Hunter College. “Nobody gave a shit. You know why? Because Dog the Bounty Hunter said the ‘N’ word.”
Actually, the bungling federal disaster response agency had concocted its press briefing on the California wildfires days earlier, on October 23, more than one week before news broke about reality TV star Duane Chapman’s racist tirade. However, most people in the audience of more than 500 people embraced O’Donnell’s larger point about the triumph of sensationalism over substance.
She had distilled feminists’ sentiment that tectonic shifts in the media landscape have contributed to unexpectedly slow progress for women’s rights since 1977, the year of the historic National Women’s Conference in Houston.
Although many people are unaware of the National Women’s Conference, the gathering in Houston in 1977 was the first and only time that the federal government has sponsored a gathering of women for equality. With $5 million in funding from Congress, the women’s conference drew more than 22,000 people, including 2,000 delegates elected by the states, who sought to create and ratify a National Plan of Action on a range of issues relevant to women’s lives.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Houston conference, and to develop a new plan of action for the twenty-first century, the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute hosted the Freedom on Our Terms conference last weekend at Hunter College. O’Donnell, Gloria Steinem, and Attallah Shabazz, ambassador to Belize and the oldest daughter of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, were among those who addressed a group that was quite diverse, except for a near complete absence of males.
In 1977, Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY)— named by President Jimmy Carter to head the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year—led a crowd noted for its variety of races, backgrounds, and most of all, opinions on contentious issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment, lesbian rights and abortion.
“People went on the floor against each other,” explains Liz Abzug, a co-organizer of this weekend’s conference, about the 1977 extravaganza spearheaded by her late mother. “The pro-lifers were screaming on the floor against the radical lesbians and the feminists. Right there, in the same place, you saw that confrontation, and it was reported. Here, when do you ever see something like that?”
That’s an excellent question, and one that Feminist Majority Foundation President Ellie Smeal, women’s human rights activist Charlotte Bunch, journalist Carol Jenkins and others approached in a panel discussion on Saturday that approached the spirited air of 1977.
Back then, media issues were on the agenda for feminists, who in their National Plan of Action expressed concern about the marginalization of women’s news stories and women’s lack of decision-making roles in media corporations. Still, it seems that no one could foresee the backlash in response to the progress they would make at Houston.
“We probably did not anticipate how strong the right wing would be,” concedes Bunch, who attended the 1977 conference as a delegate from Washington, D.C. “I think we didn’t realize how far the right was going to go to get in control of the media and reverse the images of some of these things.”
Maybe thanks to the previous generation’s difficult lessons, younger feminists at the Freedom on Our Terms conference seemed quite aware of the dangers of today’s media consolidation, and sounded eager to harness the possibilities of new technologies. In fact, one of the most highly anticipated workshops was called, “OurSpace: Exploring the Role of the New Media and Evaluating the Role of the Old Media.”
During a breakout session on Sunday, some 30 girls aged 12 to 17 from regional high schools met to submit thoughts for consideration in a final agenda to be developed by the Freedom on Our Terms conference. The young women cited unrealistic images of women’s bodies in the media, and loathsome restrictions on their Internet activity. “They don’t like the assumption that girls aren’t smart enough to be active but safe online,” said Emily Bent, program director for Girls Learn International, Inc.
Perhaps this technological bravado also suggests why O’Donnell resonated with so many at the conference on Saturday. She wielded a tiny video camera that she panned on young participants while she declared, “You are the future of this movement.”