As a journalist, I always know to listen for the most critical gems from my subjects after the official interview is over; it’s in that final outbreathe that people really reveal themselves.
The same felt true for the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, where one of the last conversations, “Activism Anew: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the War on Women,” brought out an overflow crowd and some fascinating insights from my fellow panelists: MSNBC commentator Irin Carmon, Congresswoman Jane Harman, global strategist Hibaaq Osman, and Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Nancy Rubin. As moderator Peggy Clark—executive director of Aspen Global Health and Development—expertly questioned us on a wide range of related topics, I saw a clear pattern emerge.
Our capacity to realize gender equality in the 21st century depends entirely on our capacity to translate across demographic difference.
For decades, the most beloved refrain of the women’s movement has been various versions solidarity sentiment—finding the personal in the political among similarly disenfranchised women, affirming one another’s experiences and worldviews, and creating a sisterhood. To be clear, there will always be a need for this kind of gathering, this kind of radical affirmation, and this kind of profound “you, too?” discovery.
But what we need most desperately now is not entrenchment among those like us but hard-earned common ground among those who live very different lives. Gender equality is no longer about pointing out the ways in which women’s suffering is universal. It is about pointing out the ways in which increased gender equality everywhere can free and strengthen women and men, the rich and the poor, those in the Western world and those in the Global South.
The most obvious bridge we are building is between women and men. At first, many men experience a feminist consciousness as a sort of women’s studies take on the “guilty, righteous protector”; at this stage, men position themselves as the “good guys,” wanting to protect women from rape, jerks in the workplace, and other obvious forms of sexism. In some ways, this is a very safe choice. The man is still the hero; his toughness on sexism enhances his traditional masculinity.
But increasingly, men are recognizing the ways in which their own liberation—economic and emotional—is tied up in the eradication of sexism. A wave of writing on fatherhood is the first sign of this evolving consciousness. In the 70s, the book Free to Be You and Me asserted that “mommies are doctors”; today, the cutting-edge message is some version of the inverse: “Doctors are daddies.”
Another bridge that we are crossing more frequently is intergenerational. In my early 20s, I couldn’t go to an event that had anything to do with gender without hearing some venerated trailblazer complain from the stage that there were no young women in the movement any longer. A decade later, I rarely hear that sentiment expressed—and certainly not at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Instead, young women are figuring out new ways of making themselves seen and heard—mostly online—and older women are increasingly open to meeting them where they are. It would be difficult to ignore a generation of young women who held Facebook accountable for pro-rape pages, made Seventeen Magazine agree to stop airbrushing girls’ faces and bodies, and continue to hold administrators accountable for sexual assault cover-ups at universities across the nation.
The next step in this evolving friendship is to make sure that younger women have the resources they need—money, wisdom, numbers—to build a sustained movement, not just ad hoc, reactive campaigns. Older women know far more about movement building by virtue of their years and struggles; brought together, the online and the offline, the young and the wise have never had the potential to create such scalable impact before. (There is a great example of this online-offline marriage in Texas this week!)
We are building other critical bridges too—and we touched on many of them in Aspen. We need more ways for women and men from the Western world and the Global South to communicate, support, and exchange organizing lessons with each other. And we need women and men of different racial demographics to reach across those boundaries with more authenticity and complexity than our 24-7 news cycle currently affords—one that labels people “racist” without interrogating the structural foundations of these scourges. Finally, we need to recognize that class inequality still undergirds everyone’s experiences of sexism; creating a more economically just society will inevitably result in a more gender just society.
The paradox here is that the better we get better at being productively uncomfortable, the more we will find ourselves back where we started—at solidarity. Articulating and communicating the ways in which sexism affects all of us differently will lead us to see the ways in which we can all benefit in different ways from its eradication. Our commonality is rooted not in our experiences of sexism, which vary widely, but in our shared potential for healthier, happier, and more authentic lives.