Monday, March 2, 2009

Channeling the spirit of Susan B. Anthony

This article was published on my column on the WORD here:

By Jerin Alam, President, Hunter Women Rights Coalition

I and eight students from the Hunter Women’s Rights Coalition attended the annual National Organization for Women Conference in Seneca Falls, New York November 7-9. The conference also marked the 160th Anniversary of the first organized women’s rights conference in America. The experience left us in awe.

We heard dynamic speeches of the great feminists present, including Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney,

Ellie Smeal, Executive Director of the Feminist Majority and Past President of NOW, Olga Vives, National NOW Executive Vice President and Originator of NOW’s Merchant of Shame Campaign that exposed the discriminatory business practices of Wal-Mart, and Martha Burk, Author of Your Money or Your Life, and Former Chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations.

We felt great Hunter pride being the largest college group present, as well as having one of the only male feminists there, our very own Steven Beard, Secretary of HWRC.

There were many highlights of the weekend, including a trip to the First Presbyterian Church in Seneca Falls, the place where Alice Paul first proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Moving speeches by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Eleanor Smeal strengthened our commitment to feminism. We sang along with singer Sandy Rapp, especially during the songs about reproductive justice. Even after returning to Hunter, we were humming the tune and repeating the lyrics, “Get your laws off me … I’m not your property.”

We had goose bumps when the Seneca Falls mayor reminded us that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton may have walked or sat where we were. We laughed as I kept trying to channel the great feminists, who are important figures not just for feminists, but also for all Americans.

Another treat was the Susan B. Anthony impersonator, who had a wealth of knowledge about the icon. Renee Muza, treasurer of Hunter Women’s Rights Coalition, had a lovely conversation with her during dinner, delighted by her insight about the American leader.

After dinner, it was a testament that the “f” in feminism also stands for fun, because many of us let loose on the dance floor. It was a bonding experience with the male and female feminists, all working toward a common goal.

I was honored to be a co-presenter in one of the workshops, “Young Feminists Working for Equality: Keep the Movement in the Fast Lane: A How to on Young Feminists Mobilizing.” My co-presenter, Susan Stanton, spoke about her experience as an intern in Washington, D.C.; she gave useful advice on how to work with local and national politicians to further our agenda, especially on lobbying the government for equal pay issues.

One very useful tip was sending unique letters to our representatives to garner attention. Diane Zuniga spoke about young feminists on campus mobilizing around LGBT issues. Rachelle Suissa, CUNY graduate student and Vice President of Brooklyn-Queens NOW, spoke about mobilizing young feminists in the community for fundraising.

My presentation centered on getting funding from one’s own home campus and developing strategies and tactics to combat violence against women, including the difficulty in getting people interested in this difficult topic. It was a lively event, and I walked away learning from my co-presenters and the attendees.

After returning to New York City, we all discussed the play Keep Your Eyes Open, a Best of Fringe Most Outstanding Ensemble award-winner; it gave us hope and reminded us why we fight this battle. Feminism can often seem lonely and isolating, with the popular portrayals of feminists as man-hating, angry crazies. Being surrounded by feminists felt validating and energizing; meeting the 11 year olds who produced and put on the play reminded us why this fight is so important.

These youths have insights that some 30-year-old people do not. It was incredible to watch these young feminists perform, describing their difficulties not being able to eat as much as the boys, being judged for their clothing, misogynistic lyrics in popular music, and a host of other problems both girls and women can relate to. Avigal Nisim, a HWRC member, commented on feeling envious of the young girls, impressed by the knowledge and insight they possess at such a young age.

Apart from the amazing experience, the conference reaffirmed my belief that feminists need to be committed to bridging the gap and working together, even when our viewpoints diverge. One issue that divides feminists and the rest of America is the question of reproductive rights. I am strongly pro-choice, but HWRC has had success working with pro-life feminists on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. The feminist movement would be much stronger if we tried to focus on common ground, instead of allowing the opposition to divide us on diversity of opinion.

The entire Hunter group felt the seven-hour car ride was well worth the trip. Apart from the speeches made by down-to-earth feminist icons, the camaraderie we felt has continued long after the event; we were able to bond together as Hunterites. The trip made me confident there will be many people to continue the feminist work needed here at Hunter in the years to come. Some of the members who attended have become more involved with feminism as a result, and the active members brought back many ideas, including working to push the ERA.

We have to thank NOW-NYS President Marcia Pappas for all her help getting us to the conference. The biggest treat for us was the complimentary membership to NOW, thanks to Marcia and the others involved. From the financial help to her hospitality to her help in organizing the conference, we cannot thank her enough.

We also have to thank Trudy Mason, who helped bring Keep Your Eyes Open to the event and helped us Hunterites by trying to schedule a private tour for us to the historic places nearby. We cannot forget the Hunterites who made the trip possible, including Undergraduate Student Government, Student Activities, Dean Michael Escott, and Vice President Eija Ayravainen and her office. Without their financial and administrative support, the trip would be canceled.

I would recommend everyone to get involved with NOW and attend the NOW-NYS conference next year. I can guarantee an unforgettable experience, filled with hope and activism.

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