It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the women’s movement started to come out of its recent doldrums. For some time spanning a decade or so, roughly from the late 1990s to the late 2010s, a good number of women’s groups seemed fragmented and strapped for new ideas, funds and supporters. At the same time, rather than pick up the torch, young women walked away from the word “feminist” in droves.
“The movement became weighty and obsolete,” a Washington activist and executive who asked not to be named told me recently. Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, a fierce advocate, shared a similar concern, saying, “I am worried and depressed that the women’s movement is dead. I think those of us who are in the trenches recognize we’re in a tough place.’’
But now, emerging from that tough place, leading organizations, mentors and advisors are shaking off “old” thinking and seeking pragmatic ways to re-energize the movement. No doubt Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial 2013 book Lean In, urging women to step up to fight for their career goals and challenging men to contribute to a more equitable society, was a jolt to the system. Sandberg, who at 45 is the billionaire chief operating officer at Facebook, went on tour and leveraged her book’s success into a nonprofit movement to empower women and break down gender stereotypes.
In recent conversations with leading activists, it’s clear that Sandberg, whose husband, Dave Goldberg, died unexpectedly last month, fueled two trends now driving the movement: the need for men to advance women in the workplace and share the burden of domestic responsibilities like childcare, and the importance of economic factors in women’s progress.
Alyse Nelson, the president and CEO of the Washington-based Vital Voices Global Partnership, told me, “Most people have woken up to the fact that real progress isn’t lopsided — men and women have to be equal parts of the equation.”
That may seem to contradict the posture of independence taken by the embattled women of the mid-to-late 20th century. But the message has evolved with the generations. Maz Kessler, founder of the New York-based Catapult, a crowd-funding company for U.S. and global women’s projects, says this is a new phase. “The gender justice movement,” as she calls it, “cannot survive without men participating.”
When Deborah Gillis, a 50-year-old Canadian, became president and chief executive of New York-based Catalyst last year she worried that, despite successes, her research company was not breaking down enough barriers for women. Like many others, she figured that men, who held all the cards, were needed inside the movement, not on the sidelines.
“We had to find a ‘backdoor strategy’ to get them engaged,” she told me in an interview at a Chelsea restaurant.
With that in mind, Catalyst launched a men-only training program last summer, aimed at managers and executives in corporations like Dell and Walmart. So far, at least 120 supervisors have gone through the six-month training. More groups have enrolled for fall and spring 2016 sessions, paying fees Catalyst declines to reveal. Called Men Advocating Real Change, the program resembles sensitivity programs, challenging men to acknowledge sexist and racist biases and behavior and helping them to understand female dynamics in the workplace. Presumably this intensive re-education will enlighten male managers who will, in turn, promote and support women. And, the economic logic goes, the talent, diligence and insights those women bring to the table will make those companies more profitable.
“We are making a shift from raising questions to making change, from problems to solutions,’’ Gillis said. “When men see other men championing women, other men are encouraged. There’s a ripple effect.”
Economic equality goes hand in hand with all that, though in the past it often took a back seat to more emotional and personal issues like abortion. But on the heels of the recession and inaction in Congress, pocketbook issues including equal pay and paid leave are now being pushed to the forefront in political conversations. Hillary Clinton is making paid leave a centerpiece of her presidential campaign and Senator Gillibrand has introduced a bill that includes paid leave and universal childcare, measures that she says would especially benefit working women and single mothers.
“Women’s issues are finally being understood as economic issues — which is long overdue,’’ says Jess McIntosh, vice president of communications at Emily’s List, the country’s top fundraiser for Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights.
“Gender discrimination in pay, the ability to care for a sick kid without losing your job — these are critical issues for women, but also critical issues for the economy as a whole,’’ McIntosh says. While abortion rights remain a litmus test for Emily’s List, the bread-and-butter issues are getting top billing these days.
Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, has made it clear that Emily’s List wants what female voters want — equal pay, paid sick leave, minimum-wage increase.
A 41-year-old former Montana political operative, Schriock ushered Emily’s List into the 21st century when she succeeded Ellen Malcolm, founder of the 30-year-old organization, in 2010. During her five-year tenure, Emily’s List has reached three million members and raised more than $60 million in donations in 2014, up from 500,000 members and $38 million.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Sabrina Schaeffer, the executive director of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, a Washington-based research group with an economic focus, applauds the women’s movement’s emphasis on economic issues. She says the move is smart and timely and that she fears it will catch conservatives “flat-footed.”
Conservatives are stuck on wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage, she told me. “Those issues are outdated. We should be ready to talk about paid leave, those issues that affect women, especially single women. Republicans need to be able to offer alternative ideas. They need to understand the issues. They need to engage.”
On a world scale, the universal watchdog U.N. Women is also turning up the volume on economic issues. “Create more and better jobs for women” is the number one mandate on the Top 10 List of the new U.N. Women Progress Report of the World’s Women.
Taking into account major achievements in the 20 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 — like better education for women and girl — the new report concludes that those changes, though important, have not yet brought about sufficient forward economic movement for women.
“We have the focus on economic problems,” Shahra Razavi, chief of research and data at U.N. Women, said in an interview at headquarters in New York. Besides creating jobs, goals include closing gender pay gaps and strengthening income security. Razavi made clear that economic and social problems are linked and listed the main obstacles women face: low-level occupations, low status and low wages. This consigns millions of women in developing countries to poverty and powerlessness, but there are also millions of American women relegated to low-level, low-paying jobs.
Global and national organizations are looking at innovative and bold strategies. “We’re seeing differences in how people and organizations approach women’s advancement,” Nelson of Vital Voices said last week by email. “Some think human rights will follow from economic freedom, some think it’s the other way around. What we’ve learned in nearly 20 years of working on these issues is that women leaders know their communities better than anyone and they’re putting sustainable solutions in place every day.”
Vital Voices is now taking a targeted approach. “We’ve realized that we can have the most impact by making long-term, tailored investments in individual women leaders. We search the world for women leaders who have a daring vision … Then we partner with them to make their vision a reality. I think this approach is what’s missing most today; we need to focus on what’s working, we need to invest in women leaders who are moving their societies forward.”
Maz Kessler at Catapult, which funnels targeted donations to some 150 projects from Texas to the Philippines, sees signs that the women’s movement is coming back. “The movement has been very weak, fragmented, but it is gathering strength again,” she said.