JAWS Diary: Janis's Panel Comments

by Janis Cortese

Now given that there were a lot of panels, and that there is a lot to comment on, I'm going to have to be briefer than I want (yes, this huge page is actually shorter than it could be!). Onward to the panels and talks.

It's important to keep in mind the fact that this page is filled not only with the comments of the panelists and speakers, but with my own impressions as well. Beware attributing my own opinions to the speakers and panelists.


The Second and Third Waves of Feminism (Saturday)

Given that we were attending because of the Third Wave and Second Wave panel and that one of us, Sidra Vitale, was going to be speaking on the panel, it's not surprising that my strongest memories were of that panel and the open question session that followed it.

Other members of the panel were Jenny Spinner (Hartford Courant), Mylene Mangalindan (Bloomberg Business News), Kyle Foster-Newton (Fayetteville Observer-Times), and Jackie Spinner (Washington Post).

Sidra was articulate, as always, and put forth the case that the third wave consists of women who internalized the ideals of the second wave so well that they are self-evident to us. "Of course I'm as good as a man. Hell, I'm better," is the order of the day with the third wave. Many of us shy away from the label of feminism, but that seems not to be because we want to distance ourselves from feminism, but that everyone appears to have a different definition for what it means. One of the women on the panel said that when she is asked if she is a feminist, the first thing she wants to know is what the questioner's definition of feminist is -- and that there are some that she disagrees with.

Sidra also made the point that the third wave isn't necessarily as well educated about the second wave as the second wave is, and that the view of feminism that we got was filtered through the Reagan 80s and hence very distorted. If we say that we aren't feminist, we are disavowing not feminism itself but that caricatured image of feminism.

In the question and answer session after the panelists were finished speaking, One of the journalists stood and asked specifically which definition of feminism was the most problematic for third wave feminists. I then stood and stated that for me it was pretty much "anyone else's," a remark that the audience seemed to appreciate. I also made the point that many younger feminists got the idea that the second wave considered that they had already "done" feminism, and that all that remained for us was to sign on the dotted line -- and that this made it very hard for us to identify as feminists if we felt that we were merely signing our name to a long list of stances that we had no input into.

Another second wave woman stood and remarked that the second and third wave wasn't as different as we might have though -- and that the panelists soudned no different from the second wave when they were our age! This was very heartening to me.

Overall, my impression after this panel was that the difference between the second and third wave individuals themselves was much less than the difference between the second wave organizations and the third wave individuals. NOW might take an official anti-gun stance, but none of the women in that room seemed to be too taken aback at my support of gun rights, for example. In any panel discussion like this, there is always a tendency after the panel for the speakers and the audience to stay around and mingle. You know the way it is: the panel ends, and the audience gets up and starts to mingle, with people coming up to one another and saying, "About your question . . . " and things like that. One common comment that I heard from second-waver after second-waver was, "Frankly, I don't care if you call yourselves feminists or not, what matters is what you do," "I don't care if you use the word feminism, you all are feminists," and "It was wonderful to see and hear such assertive women, and very validating to the second wave to see how completely you internalized the message." The "vast" gulf that comes up between who is and isn't willing to call themselves feminist is apparently a crack in the sidewalk when it comes to individual second and third wave feminists. It's the organizations that need to get ahead of the wave here!

Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation, made an excellent point, however. Third wave feminists may have internalized the ideals of the second wave, but it's also important to externalize them -- to act outside of one's own skin. I've noticed this myself about a lot of young women who define their feminism as, "I can get a job, I can make money, I have more opportunities." I I I, me me me. It's important to keep in mind that, as a feminist, it's not just about getting you more money and opportunity. It's about working to make sure that other women also have those opportunities! Feminism doesn't just stop at your own skin, or your own bank account.

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"Running As a Woman" -- a woman president (Saturday)

The speakers for this panel were all very interesting and accomplished women, including Ruth Mandel (professor of politics, Rutgers), Marie Wilson (president of the Ms. Foundation), Pat Harrison (co-chair of the Republican National Commitee), and Linda Witt (co-author of "Running As A Woman"). All of them stated that it was very common two or three decades ago to talk about a woman president by the turn of the millennium, but that the year 2000 apparently hadn't been as far away as they all thought it was going to be all those years ago. It came up very quickly, and it now appeared that while a woman will be running for the 2000 elections, it was very unlikely that that goal would be met.

However, all women agreed that excellent gains had been made and that the likelihood was such that it was no longer thought of as a major earthshattering event. Many people that they had spoken to in the course of their work, including some that they would have thought would be stereotypically hostile to the idea, were overwhelmingly in support of a woman president.

According to the panelists, and I agree with then, the major stumbling block appears to be the paucity of women in the Senate and House, and women governors. There are many qualified women, but the standard path to the White House begins in many instance in the governor's mansion, or in Congress. All panelists agreed that the likelihood of a woman president would rise quite high with an increase in the number of women governors, representatives, and Senators. (Right now, there are 12% women in the House of Representatives, 9% women in the Senate, and only three woman governors, so if you think women are equal in politics in 1999, think again.)

Pat Harrison (who I liked a lot, despite the fact that I'd rather get dragged over carpet tacks and dipped in nail polish remover than vote Republican -- maybe it was because she was a paisan) made the point that images of women in popular media was very important in making the idea of a woman president less a fable than an entirely plausible possibility. She specifically referred to Glenn Close in Air Force One saying, "Bomb `em!" which endeared her to me inexplicably.

Marie Wilson spoke of the White House Project, a project designed to promote the idea of a woman president, and to name specific women who were qualified to hold the position, and she was very engaging and articulate. I now understand the project a lot more than I did when I first encountered it. She stated that initially, they were going to call it "Why Not A Woman?" before they found out that that name was turning people off in droves. A very third wave reaction: what do you mean, why not a woman? What a question to ask! They also were concerned that the officials and candidates they mentioned might not like being associated with something that was turned out by the Ms. Foundation; they might feel marginalized or handicapped from association with "those bra-burning crazies." Instead, she was pleased to find out that all women were excited to be considered, and some even called and demanded to know why they weren't on the ballot! Apparently paring it down to the 20 that they settled on was a tough process.

Wilson also made the crucial point that we need a wide choice of women candidates. One woman can't win -- the men are seen as their positions on the issues. The woman is seen as "the woman." Think of it: "Here's Bill Clinton, he's a new Democrat. Here's Bob Dole, he's a stolid conservative. Here's Jane Doe, she's a woman . . . " That one fact will swamp any attempt to address the issues. Two women is no better -- the media paints that as a catfight. Three, though . . . that's the magic number. Three women is when people stop seeing gender and the issues can finally come to the fore.

In the ensuing question and answer session, Kim stood and made the point that in a scenario-planning session which she had attended for the purpose of positing new technology, four groups were present and assigned to plan out four separate scenarios -- and all four groups had independently posited a woman president in 2012. Interesting -- and encouraging.

After the panelists spoke, and after the question and answer session, Marie came up to all of us to talk (which tickled us pink, let me tell you!), and I was finally able to make a point about the White House Project that had bothered me from the day that I first found out about it: the positions on the various candidates that they offered on the issues weren't given! This has driven me nuts about the project from the start, and I was finally able to bring this up with Marie -- and the answer she gave me both surprised me and made perfect sense.

It seems that the second that they began to put up issues and give the various candidates' positions on them, they were marginalized. This is apparently a common occurrence in the media. They had wanted to ask about their positions on things like reproductive choice, guns, homosexuality, the military, and so forth -- but the second they tried, they were zeroed in on for that alone. Instead of asking the candidates if they supported abortion rights, they tried couching it in more vague terms: "reproductive health." No good -- in the eyes of the reporting media, they were immediately narrowed down to a pro-abortion site. Even the words chosen for the issues would reveal their own leanings: if someone asks you whether you are pro-abortionist, you can rest assured that they are conservative. If they ask about reproductive choice, they are liberal. If you are asked whether you are pro-gun, chances are the questioner is against gun ownership; if the term "pro-second-amendment" is used, they are more likely in favor of gun rights.

This annoyed me (why should one be marginalized just by talking about the issues?), surprised me (I hadn't guessed that the marginalization would occur at all), and made perfect sense after Marie had explained it. Because of the predictable reaction of the reporting media, the project is forced to give less information than it should to the people who are interested in it. Such is the nature of the beast, I suppose, but it still drives me up a wall.

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The Filmmakers' Panel (Sunday)

I'm going to discuss each of the films in their reviews, and that's where I'll put my commentary on the filmmakers' panel.

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Women and Technology: a talk by Anita Borg (Saturday)

Anita Borg's talk was exciting -- particularly to the four of us, given that we are all IT professionals of one flavor or another. She discussed the dangers of a unbalanced (all-male) view of technology, how the gender imbalance inherent in the way we do technology presently impacts its creation and form, and how the idea of a female-driven technology strikes some current male members of the tech fields as "narrow" (technology for over half the population is narrow, thinks the male IT professional who spent his entire thesis on one switch that 90% of the computers in use today don't even contain).

The main driving point of her talk seemed to be that technology itself was different by virtue of being overwhelmingly created by men -- and it's a point with which I agree. Many IT professionals seem to subscribe to the sound-bite that "technology is gender neutral," and Borg made a special distinction in the ways that that comment can be interpreted. Does the speaker mean that technology wouldn't be any different it women created it? Or do they mean that anyone can use it? The two are vastly different, and she gave several examples of how.

One of the main examples she gave of the way that the shape of the very technology had been determined by its being designed and tested entirely by men was the shape of a computer itself. If you look at a group of boys using a computer and a group of girls, the interaction that's created is very different. In a group of boys, if you have one boy sitting at the computer and a few more around him and examine the interactions, you'll see a line of attention between each boy and the computer. With girls, you'll see a line drawn between each girl and the computer -- and also between each of the girls. The computer is the sole focal point for the boys, while it is regarded as a participant in an already-existing group interaction for the girls.

How does this shape the way the computer is designed? Well, think about the monitor -- a flat thing directed toward one user. Think about the keyboard -- a single-user device. Why is it that each CPU gets its own keyboard so that only one person can interact with it at a time? Had computers been designed by women, it's far more likely that the first personal computers would have been created with the ability to handle multiple inputs from the very start of the technology. Box-monitor-keyboard, a shape that we take for granted today, would not even have existed.

An example of how men are missing the boat on the applications of new technology -- and how this hinders the ability of the technology to reach its full potential -- is demonstrated by the reaction of a woman and a man at the potential of a digital "wall" in a home -- one that might permit a family to interact in a vastly expanded way. Students might feel that they were present at a family's Sunday dinner despite being away at school. Ailing parents at a nursing home might be able to interact with their families at dinnertime. Grandparents might be able to be "present" for a child's birthday party -- all through virtual walls in each person's home, room, apartment, or dorm. The women with whom Borg had spoken about this new technology saw the life- and society-altering potential of this technology immediately, as well as how it could impact every aspect of social and family life.

The men who heard of the technology, however? Their first thought was that now they could play "Doom" on a whole wall instead of a monitor! Wow!

*sigh* Missing the point, and missing the boat. Twenty people who buy the virtual wall for themselves alone means twenty products, and twenty separate attention lines from the wall to the individual user. Take into account the separate interactions between the people, though -- and suddenly 20! (twenty-factorial, or 20x19x18 ... x2x1) interactions are involved -- and your potential market goes through the roof!

And yet, despite the obvious fact that a woman-run company might be able to make a killing on the marketing of a virtual wall given its ability to impact and influence all aspects of life -- venture capitalists still refuse to give money to women's companies, and hence miss out on the billion-dollar possibilities of such technology, with appeal to every single market from homes to boardroom and hospitals. And without money, these products are never developed.

Borg also made the special point that more women are "technical" than think they are -- and that the tendency among many women to turn off our ears when people start talking technology is going to get us in deep poop. Many people wouldn't hesitate to challenge a Ph. D. economist or even a doctor when they express an opinion, and yet those same people tend to back off in intimidation when people express opinions on technology and computers. "Oh, I'm not a technical person. I was never good at math," says this person (and women are way too likely to pull this self-effacing stunt), as they back away from the topic and cede the whole territory to the geeks and the socially-maladjusted. The point that she made was that this can be and is incredibly dangerous, that it leaves the development of technology, likely to influence our lives in the coming century even more than the government, to an incredibly narrow and non-representative slice of the population as a whole. We would never want a government that wasn't representative of the population as a whole, government that didn't give everyone a voice. Hell, we were willing to shoot at people to get one! And yet here we are, ready to cede all of technology which will influence our lives even more than government in the years to come, to the white monied male geeks. She specifically stated, and all of us agreed with her, that it was unbelievably dangerous to leave this territory to this small, overwhelmingly white/young/male subset of the human race -- and that we will pay for it in the end.

A point that I wish I had made was that we are already paying for it. Take airbags as an example of an invisible technology (meaning that you don't really think about it until you put it to use) that has resulted in death and grave injury and dismemberment through being developed only by a bunch of straight white geeks. Airbags were developed around an average user height of 5'8" -- the average male height! And they have killed women and children. Think of the heart and cancer health studies that were funded and carried out only by men -- leaving us at a vastly increased risk for death. Think of the thalidomide trials that never even considered what the risk to a woman, and a pregnant one at that, might be. Think even of the new voice-recognition cellphones and automobiles that can't recognize a female voice as well as a male one because only the male geeks on the research team tested it. Then tell me that technology would have turned out the same no matter who created it.

Marketing idiocy also influences this artificial and harmful bias. Many bits of technology -- computers, cellphones, and other little gadgets -- are developed to follow the shape that the marketing gurus in these companies tell it to follow, and this shape is much narrower than you think. It might seem self-evident to you (and me) that women would buy cellphones in large numbers, but do you know how the marketing droids in Silicon Valley view that?

That women don't buy the newest gadget in the first week it's out. Women are "timid," and won't buy new technology out of some girly "fear" of it. Hence, if you want to make a fortune in the first two weeks that your product hits the market, you'd better aim for what's called "early adopters." You know who they are -- those geeks who slobber over the dorky little toys in the "Sharper Image" catalogue, and who buy the newest overpriced piece of chip- and LED-laden junk without even knowing how to use the damned thing.

Monied, upperclass white males, in other words. Instead of viewing women as timid little shrinking violets who are afraid of new gadgets, the truth is that men are spend-happy tech gluttons who buy the newest toy in the market unthinkingly before they even have the slightest idea how they're going to use it. And most of these toys wind up gathering dust in their closets. Kim made the point that many designers will put unnecessary lights and buttons on their gadgets to make them appealing to men! Women are not timid, but practical. We won't waste our money on a silly toy until we know we need it and how to use it. We aren't early adopters -- but once you sell us on something and we integrate it into our lives, just you try prying it out of our hands.

But the geeks and marketroids don't know this, and moreover don't care. And women let them get away with it -- because we're so used to backing away from anything technical and leaving the arena to the white male geeks.

This was Borg's main point -- and she urged all of us, technically adept and not-so-adept, to challenge any of the Geek Priesthood when they tried to foist technology and design off on us. They design it -- but no one knows how well it works than we do, each and every one of us.

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In the White House: a talk by Maria Echaveste (Saturday)

Maria Echaveste is the deputy chief of staff in the White House, a crucial position that acts as the interface between the White House and the outside world and the media. She was fascinating to hear, and her talk involved all manner of subjects, from why so many qualified people were shying away from running for public office, to what it was like to deal with the impeachment and how it affected the efficiency of the staff, to the Puerto Rican prisoners who were recently released, to her own experiences as a Latina in a position of no small power in government.

She was naturally supportive of Bill Clinton, given that she works for the guy, and carried a favorable impression of him -- one that I share even given that I voted Libertarian in 1996. She remarked on the absolutely hellish and unreasonable intrusion of the media into all aspects of civil servants' public life, and how it was getting so bad that it was beginning to take a severe toll -- and one that the public will pay for -- on the quality of people who were willing to run for office. In her opinion, many of the finest and most qualified people were also the ones who were the least willing to subject themselves and their families and friends to the nearly apocalyptic levels of intrusion that even running for office would entail, no matter actually winning. This also spills over into people who aren't elected but merely appointed to their positions, since appointees are often used as political footballs who are scrutinized closely and subjected to an unreasonable level of irrelevent examination before being confirmed.

She noted that the impeachment had slowed the release of the Puerto Rican nationalists who had been given sentences that truly were out of proportion to their crimes (I won't go into it here, but hit CNN for a good starting point on the controversy). She also stated that many Latino representatives had not been invited to speak with Clinton about the impending release because the White House wanted the release to be done clean -- they didn't want it to come across as if it had been a political football swapped between members of the American political system. And she expressed frustration that the very same people who should have been happiest with Clinton for the release itself nonetheless found multiple bones to pick with what they felt was the way it had been done. (The same Latino representatives that were anxious to speak with Clinton over the release were annoyed when it occurred and felt that, had they been able to speak with him, they could have won an unconditional release instead of the standard parole-type release that was granted.)

Echaveste also addressed the way that the diversity that had been the hallmark of the first Clinton term of office was regarded in the second term. "Hey, we don't have to worry about reelection, so now we can appoint people based on merit instead of race," seemed to be the reaction to the 1996 victory -- which struck not only Echaveste but also everyone else in the room as a monumentally stupid thing to say. Echaveste made the point that hiring with an eye toward diversity created a more qualified government to start with, since it resulted in a government that looked more like the nation itself. Personally, I feel that if they won reelection in 1996, that means that they were doing something right -- why suddenly shift gears? Also, the whole point of hiring people with an eye toward diversity is that people who were otherwise qualified weren't being considered. Hiring with an eye toward diversity corrects the initial assumption that a Latina (or any other member of a minority) can't do the job to start with.

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Copyright Janis Cortese 1999.