TEDxWomen 2011: "The Conversation Continues"

by Marcia Yerman

The Paley Center in New York City and Los Angeles jointly hosted a jam packed twelve-hour day on December 1, under the banner of TEDxWomen. Pat Mitchell, who had instigated TEDWomen in 2010, spearheaded and hosted this year’s event which was billed as a “cross-disciplinary program” focusing on how women “think, work, communicate, collaborate, learn and lead.” Using the established TED structure, the talks were brief but pithy. The audience was expanded to over 100 linked events around the world (hence the X=independently organized). A live stream of the talks—and a constant flow of Tweets—amplified the conversation.

There were four sessions: Resilience, Relationships, Rebirth, and Reimagine. Strong representation was in evidence for young girls and older women, leaving some questions about if there could have been more content aimed at those in their thirties and forties. However, there was plenty of information, uplifting moments, and food for thought to keep the program vibrant and engaging. With the goal of using the platform to “spread ideas about women,” the mission was successful.

Gayle Tzemach-Lemmon, journalist and author, started the proceedings off with a combined narrative about the courageous women of Afghanistan and the struggles of her mother and grandmother. She said, “Women can make a difference. When we change the way we see ourselves, others will follow.”

The work that Rachel Simmons has been doing with The Girls Leadership Institute was a standout. She discussed how girls are under pressure to please others, striving for perfection and popularity. They grow into young women who don’t assert themselves, get paid less, and fear being seen as aggressive. Sharing the stage with her was Claire Sannini, an 8th grader.

Pointing to the subliminal messages that are sent to children about who they can and cannot be, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, director of Miss Representation, pondered why there was still an “emphasis on looks for girls and leadership for boys.” She called on those in media and Hollywood to change the way they portrayed women and girls.

On the health front, surprise guest Barbra Streisand was on hand to deliver the fact that since 1984, more women have died of heart disease than men. Streisand opined that there was a “boys club in the medical world.” “How can you treat a woman for a life threatening ailment based on male statistics?” she queried. In 2008, Streisand endowed 5 million dollars to Cedars-Sinai for the creation of the Barbra Streisand Women's Cardiovascular Research and Education Program. Ironically, back in 1991, Dr. Bernadine Healy coined the term The Yentl Syndrome in a paper asserting that women were handled differently than men in the management of coronary heart disease. Streisand introduced Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, who underscored that “heart disease is now a women’s epidemic—with one out of two women being affected. She suggested, “Doing research and getting the word out is helping to bend the curve.”

The introduction to the Rebirth segment featured a performance by Iyeoka Okoawo, a Nigerian-American poet and musician, whose goal is to “move the world one poem at a time.” Jane Fonda led this portion, speaking about the “Longevity Revolution” and pushing back on the “age as pathology” syndrome. For her, the issue at hand was with women living longer, “how do we use this time?”  Referencing “aging as rebirth,” she suggested that part of the task was to review the preceding years to “free yourself from your past and change your relationship to yourself.” She referenced how neural pathways become hardwired in old patterns, but that if you can re-vision relationships—pathways can change and be the new norm.

Dr. Laura Carstensen also addressed the “graying of society,” noting that studies show older people engage with sadness more comfortably and view injustice with compassion, but not despair. Dr. Michelle Warren offered insights that a generation of women was suffering “due to a fear of hormones.” Dr. Mehmet Oz, a crowd favorite, shared a video of the first MRI of a female orgasm. His main takeaway was the importance of physical activity and how bone strength was helped by resistance exercise.

In a dialogue with Salamishah Tillet, Gloria Steinem displayed her usual wit in response to questions. On the issue of aging she joked, “My funeral will probably be a fundraiser!” However, she seriously touched on deep concerns, such as the importance of the role of women of color in the history of feminism. Steinem lamented the fact that “we put movements in silos, when the adversaries are all the same.” Once again, she promoted her belief that there was a need to “attribute an economic value to care giving”—which makes up one-third of the work in this country.

Two of the most intense presentations were delivered by girls. Girl Up, featuring Project Girl Theatre, had Fonda in tears, pronouncing, “They give us hope. That’s the future. Who says there’s no young feminists!” Ivy Navarette and Shayna Welcher shared stories about their experiences as former gang members and how they turned their lives around by becoming involved with the LA Homegirl Café, where they are actively learning skills in the restaurant industry.

In the concluding portion, the “Google girls” were definite stars. All three had placed first in their respective age categories for the Google Science Fair. Listeners were agog with their depth of knowledge, as they explained their “projects.” Journalist Lisa Ling, anchoring the closing portion, suggested that they were the true celebrities of the future—not reality show personalities.

Shamila Kohestani, recounted her struggles in Afghanistan and her life under Taliban rule. Becoming the founder of the first female soccer team in her country had changed her personal landscape. It was chilling to hear her relate, “It was difficult playing soccer in a stadium where women were executed for crimes." She added, "I want my story to be a source of hope. Please take a moment and think about how valuable your freedom is."

For those attending who were older, the message was “the mistakes and experiences that we have had, make us who we are today.” For the younger women starting on their road, there were ample role models and the knowledge that they could be powerful in their own right. Tiffany Shlain, artist, filmmaker, and founder of the Webby Awards, emphasized that women will thrive in the new world of communication. She said, "It's not the World Wide Web, it's Women Wide Web!” As part of her wrap up she concluded, "If you want this world to be better, you have to believe in humanity."

Los Angeles bade farewell to New York with the aphorism, "Interdependence. We are connected.” Judging from the atmosphere in the auditorium by late evening, women were feeling that energy.