Guest Column by Rachel Wasserman
Reflections on the state of women by the Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta executive director
As a social activist whose No. 1 passion is empowering women’s voices, June 14 was like a whirlwind dream come true for me. At the invitation of Jewish Women International, I was one of 5,000 attendees at the White House’s first Summit on the United State of Women. As I reflect on my experience, I want to share my thoughts and the summit’s highlights.
Upon taking office, President Barack Obama created the White House Council on Women and Girls to ensure that our priorities are considered in every agency, in every one of the administration’s policies and programs, and in pieces of legislation he supports. The summit, which was co-hosted by the council and the Office of the First Lady, celebrated the progress that has been made and highlighted continued areas of work toward true gender equality.
The summit focused on a few key areas: violence against women, health and wellness, economic empowerment, entrepreneurship and innovation, educational opportunities, civic engagement, and leadership. If these issue areas sound familiar, it is because they are also the ones we address through our Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta grant allocations and educational programs.
Throughout the day I was privileged to hear speeches from Vice President Joe Biden, whose passionate speech about violence against women was so chilling, you could hear a pin drop; Warren Buffett, who, along with Goldman Sachs, has invested in 10,000 female small-business owners; Lilly Ledbetter, who emphasized the importance of having more women in leadership; and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who led us in a chant: “When women succeed, America succeeds!”
I also heard remarks from celebrities who have taken on the issues of women and girls as their own: Mariska Hargitay, Patricia Arquette, Connie Britton, Tory Burch, Kerry Washington — the list goes on. The summit also included “ideas for action” presentations from dozens of change makers from around the country.
The highlight of the day for me was when the president addressed the audience. As he walked onto the stage, he proudly announced, “This is what a feminist looks like!”
The president spoke for a long time, and through humor and sincerity, he reflected on the state of women, the policy changes his administration has supported, and the work that is still left to be done. He said, “Progress is not inevitable. … Our progress has been the result of countless men and women.”
He noted that “we’re still boxed in by stereotypes of how men and women should behave. … We need to keep changing the attitude.”
He shouted: “We need equal pay for equal work! We need paid family and sick leave! We should guarantee paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave too. That is how you value family. It is accounting for the realities of how people live today.”
He affirmed everything that we know, everything that we discuss at our meetings, everything our network stands for.
Unfortunately, I had to leave for the airport before Oprah and the first lady spoke, but I caught the whole thing on a live stream.
I also attended two breakout sessions, labeled solutions seminars. The first was called “Leading on Leave: Solutions to Increasing Women’s Workplace Participation,” and I learned from politicians, small-business owners and managers of large companies (EY, Patagonia, Spotify) about the ways they have made paid family leave work: “The worker wins, the employer wins, the community wins.”
The second seminar was about pay equity, during which I learned about case studies from the city of Boston and from large and small businesses about the bold steps they took to ensure equal pay for equal work.
At both of these sessions, one thing was clear: Although there is still a lot of work to do on a national and local level, change happening, we can learn from and replicate success stories, and there is a growing light at the end of the tunnel.
The ribbon woven throughout the day was clear: These issues are not women’s issues, and they are not family issues. They are community issues. They are economic issues. They are moral issues.
When governments and businesses put women at the top and prioritize women, girls and families, they are more successful.
When we at Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta sit down to discuss educational programming, potential advocacy efforts and issue areas for grant allocations, we are joining a train that is already running. There are amazing people — politicians and celebrities, yes, but also regular people like you and me — working tirelessly toward gender equality, and the work we do is a part of that effort.
I was so inspired both by what we have done and by what we can do.
The first lady closed her conversation with Oprah by saying, “We can never be complacent and think that we have arrived. The work continues. The question is ‘What are you going to do? What are you going to change?’ ”
I look forward to answering those questions with Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta.