Young Feminist Leadership Conference in DC – Day 1

by | March 22, 2010
filed under Feminism

The Conference was held at UDC

I’m sitting at Union Station waiting for the Amtrak to take me home from DC, where I’ve been for the past 5 days. Being here during the passage of an historic health reform bill was the icing on the cake, but one other thing I said I’d report to this blog on was the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 6th Annual Young Feminist Leadership Conference.

The conference was primarily geared towards college students from across America, but  I was interested in reflecting on how organizations like FMF do feminist organizing and get young people motivated, and I’ll reflect on that in more detail in later posts, but for now here’s a recap of some of the cool happenings at the conference!

Naturally the agenda, especially for the first day, focused on rallying support for health reform and against the Stupak Amendment. Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority Foundation, opened the conference and introduced the first speaker: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Norton joked about the Washington Marathon, which had caused people to be late for the conference, saying: “Every woman must win the marathon we are running for health care.” In a rousing speech she exhorted the young feminists in the audience to “keep organized”. “Many will be looking at your generation,” she said, “They are counting on you going to sleep in 2010…They believe you are a short-term phenomenon.”

After Norton, Katherine Spillar, VP of the FMF, spoke about the organization’s work organizing to fight violence against abortion providers and publicized their new adopt-a-clinic program. She pointed out that the clinics they work to protect “not only provide abortion…they provide vital treatment such as prenatal care for poor women in this country.”

Next, a representative of the group SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Heath Collective, Heidi Williamson, spoke about an ad campaign in the South sponsored by Georgia Right-to-Life, which accuses abortion providers of conspiring to promote genocide of African-Americans.

Williamson noted that groups like Georgia Right to Life try to exploit the racial wedge in the women’s movement. She argued “we need to talk about women in a broader context than just their uterus” and look at women in the context of their lives in order to ensure “that we’re effectively advocating for ourselves in all the oppressions that we face.”

And the morning plenary ended with a bang with FMF President Ellie Smeal’s rallying cry on health reform. Recalling her work lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment Smeal drew parallels, pointing out that American women pay 48% more for health care than men and that 80% of plans don’t cover maternity. On the ERA, she contended: “It wasn’t Phyllis Schafly that defeated us; it was the insurance companies.”

“The corporate interests of this country have been the enemy of women’s rights,” she argued. Smeal praised Nancy Pelosi, saying, “She will go down as one fo the strongest Speakers in US history” and criticized the tendency for women politicians like Pelosi and Hillary Clinton to face ridicule and sexist commentary when they try to step up.

In between sessions I met some really energetic and inspiring young women from across America. Two girls from Houston were thrilled about having elected America’s first open lesbian Mayor last fall. They had started a FMF campus club last year that already had 75 members. Two high-schoolers from LA had fund-raised to make the trip out and were determined to take back practical lessons to start their own club and organize for choice and against Prop 8.

The first workshop I attended was about organizing LGBT issues on campuses. Katherine Spillar talked about her work with Equality Now opposing Prop 8 in California and pointed out that “among young people, the amendment was soundly defeated…[but] we lost an older generation.”

Stacey Long of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force outlined the major legislative efforts they’re working on, including the Employment Non-Discrmination Act, anti-bullying protections, repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, ending discrimination against same-sex couples in property sales and adoptions, and repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Suggestions from the panel and audience members for action included tabling and protests on campus, as well as simpler actions like speaking your mind in class. One panelist let us know about people going into Army recruiting centres and trying to enlist while openly gay.

At this point I stopped taking notes for the day, but the rest of the sessions were also very informative and inspiring. As one panelist in my first session said, “We have to keep working…You may be tired, you may see it as the same old, same old.” I definitely feel like that a lot of the time, but this conference really helped me re-charge and get ready to go back to Vancouver and keep standing up for the rights and issues I believe in. The conference was also streamed live and 26,000 people tuned in on the Saturday. If my reaction was at all representative, we might have a huge number of inspired young feminists on our hands!

-Jarrah

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