On the 166th anniversary of the Women’s Rights Convention and the Declaration of Sentiments, July 19, 2014, Professor of Women’s Studies Betty Bayer moderated a panel discussion on the question of equality or liberation to a full house in the Guntzel Theater of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Titled “Troubling Convention: Does Equality Ask Us to Settle for Less?” the passionate and informative discussion looked at social, educational, historical, religious, political and economic convention’s hold on women’s capacity to realize and envision civil liberties and gender justice. The complete discussion can be heard online.
“I was happily struck by how our panelists brought to light the many, many different ways they work toward equality in their organizations and institutions. No two panelists were of like minds on equality or liberation,” says Bayer. “How refreshing to hear panelists dive into the topic, revealing their differences from one another, and how crucial it is for us to have panels of women discussing practices and visions of equality and liberation.”
Panelists included Noemi Ghazala, superintendent of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park; Susan Henking, president of Shimer College; Betsy Mullins, president and CEO of Women’s Campaign Fund and She Should Run; and Jill S. Tietjen, president of the Board of Directors of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
In opening the discussion, Bayer said, “To ask, ‘Does equality call on us to settle for less?’ is to ask a big question, but one that I think needs to be asked. Is equality as we talk about it today what was envisioned in that historic document of the Declaration of Sentiments 166 years ago?”
Panelists first grappled with the current idea of equality and liberation. Mullins explained that for her, it is “What this country is founded on- the idea that where you were born, your gender, your race, your culture, your background- should not inhibit your ability to excel in whatever your life is, whatever you want that to be. To me, we are ultimately, truly liberated when we have the ability to have all the choices as individuals.”
Also among the topics they discussed was whether as leaders they believed working toward equality was about bringing on more numbers of women (opening the doors for representation) in organizations, or about reinventing the institutions themselves.
Henking noted she was hired as an affirmative action hire for all four of the positions she has held in her career in higher education and concluded, “To be able to go back and look at who we are and who we are historically to strengthen the diversity of what we are doing, that matters for all of us.”
Ghazala agreed and pointed out that the National Park Service is responsible for 402 sites that tell the history of this nation, among them the Cherokee Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and Manzanar Japanese Internment Camps. “We must represent the nation because every single one of those 402 national parks tell the story of this nation. It must be those people who have been impacted by those stories who ought to at least have the opportunity to tell those stories.”
“We have to both fix the numbers and change the institutions,” said Tietjen. “One of the things that I truly believe is that a society that values the women in the society therefore values all members of the society. And that when you start having the percentages of women at a level that approaches parity that then we will see change in the institutions.”
Participants were as enthusiastic about the opportunity to discuss this topic as was the audience. And, they are ready to continue.
“Today’s world requires us to reach across areas of expertise to lead. As Shimer’s president I learned an immense amount from my peers,” says Henking. “In many ways, the discussion illustrated the best of liberal education — embracing agreement and disagreement, sameness and difference and moving forward together. Truly a ‘great conversation.'”
Bayer adds, “This panel underscores the importance of having women leaders talk about more than mentoring, about turning equality talk into practices that inform how one builds institutions and organizations. What a treat to moderate this panel. I look forward to continuing the conversation with these panelists and to adding more voices to the conversation.”
The discussion took place as part of the Sentiments & Declarations lecture series. The series is hosted by the Park and the Women’s Hall of Fame in conjunction with Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Sentiments & Declarations events are co-sponsored by the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, Women’s Studies, the Offices of the President and of the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Vice President for Student Affairs at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
“Although it is true that women have come a long way since that first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, there is still a long way to go,” says Tietjen. “I look forward to that day in the future, hopefully in my lifetime, when it won’t be a surprise that women are in positions of leadership and authority and that they won’t be labeled as a ‘woman engineer’ or a ‘woman CEO.'”
Click here to listen to the discussion.