SMC's Wo/Men's Conference Is a "Tool For Dialogue" and a Step Toward Change

Attendees with babies At the age of 6, the writer and feminist activist Amy Richards volunteered to sing the national anthem before her kindergarten class and proceeded to belt out "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar." With that same spirit, she joined SMC as the keynote speaker for the 4th Annual Wo/men's Conference, held in the Soda Center on March 3. This year's conference was dedicated to exploring women's leadership through a series of 15 workshops, each headed by women leaders in the arts, politics, business and academia.

Richards kicked off the event with her keynote, titled "Change Begins With You." In it, she addressed the fact that, over her 20 years of service to the feminist cause, she has found a greater emphasis on political change and the creation of laws than on "the self" and challenging our own beliefs. She cited examples of instances in which gender equality exists on paper, such as in Title IX athletic rules, but the reality is far from equal. However, she did not censure women for not being able to achieve more progress. Women are already subject to enough pressure, Richards argued, compelled to be either good women or good feminists.

"We only value excellence in women," Richards argued. This is why Oprah and Hilary Clinton are seen as the singular models of female success, standards that the majority of women cannot achieve. And this is why women who are Princeton graduates are criticized for choosing to be stay-at-home moms, because they are perceived to be wasting their education and their potential for success.

"Feminism," Richards said, "is having access to make informed choices – regardless of the choice you make." Likewise, Richards encouraged the audience, both women and men, to "redefine leadership and power in your own unique ways."

Students, professors and speakerNonetheless, Richards emphasized the need for women to take the lead and embody the change that they hope to effect, regardless of the particular roles they take on. If the First Wave of the feminist movement was the struggle for women's rights to citizenship, and the Second Wave was the fight for laws to protect that citizenship, then the Third Wave – the historical moment we are participating in today – should be dedicated to the actualization of those laws.

On that rousing note, the audience went on to the first of three workshop sessions. In the "Let's Get Political" workshop, participants heard from women in positions of political influence. Linda Best, the president and CEO of the Contra Costa Council, interviewed Assemblymember Joan Buchanan and Moraga City Council Member Karen Mendonca on their experiences as women in public office. Mendonca shared the story of how her mother's encouragement motivated her to run for office. Buchanan said she entered public service as a "labor of love" for her five children, starting with the district school board in 1990.

She explained that being a mother gave her a perspective, and a capacity for compassion, that benefited her relationships with fellow political leaders. Both Mendonca and Buchanan clearly demonstrated how family and professional work can be harmoniously united rather than being mutually exclusive spheres that distract from one another. Women can balance both and succeed, they said.

This theme was carried out in a panel discussion titled “Opting In," led by Women's Resource Center Director Sharon Sobotta, which explored how women can balance parenting with meaningful work. Sobotta, who recently gave birth to a baby girl, said she was learning that a woman can “be a feminist, have a job, and be a mother" at the same time.  

Other workshops covered topics ranging from gender identity to self-image, from reproductive justice to creating artistic spaces for women. In the “Living a Congruent Life” workshop, panelists discussed how to incorporate food, fashion and finance into a values-driven lifestyle. Another workshop linked the Occupy Movement to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, including the search for economic justice.

3 students The conference brought together a large and diverse group of participants. Beth Hampson, who organized the event with Professor Monica Fitzgerald, said the conference had "doubled in size in just one year." Fitzgerald estimated that around 150 people attended, "scholars and activists from all over the Bay Area," including students from UC Berkeley, USF, Mills College and Diablo Valley College.

SMC senior Elizabeth Roland called the gathering a "necessary tool for dialogue," which benefited enormously from this diversity. And Linda Beavers of Oakland, said the conference gave her a chance to “focus on values and women’s issues,” she said. “Knowledge is necessary to improve yourself to be a better person. We are forever evolving.”  

By Indrani Sengupta '12

Photos by Monica Fitzgerald

View more images from the Wo/men's Conference.