A couple weeks ago I came across the article “Feminism, One Conference at a Time” in The New York Times and I found it fascinating and empowering.
Fascinating because it outlines how the feminist movement has gone on to inform an entire industry—that which is, at its core, built upon social gatherings. Indeed, the role of women in hosting and facilitating events is a long-standing paradigm. But this is something on a whole new scale. According to First Research, which conducted its most recent quarterly update on May 5, 2014, the trade show and event planning industry in the U.S. posts an annual revenue of approximately $12 billion. That’s a far cry from luncheons and cocktail parties of 1950s housewives (after which a more robust feminist movement would emerge).
Of course, that is not to say that this multi-billion dollar industry is built entirely out of historically female roles, nor that it is solely supported by women, nor that it is even explicitly an extension of women’s work. I don’t want to come across as narrow in making an assumed association between the two. If you read the article, though, it’s clear that a “women’s event circuit”—which would seem a natural modern-day iteration of more traditional female activities—is becoming an influential part of the “broader conference industry that labor statistics predict will balloon over the next five years.” Within this same vein, it also is important to note that this multi-billion dollar industry, while social in nature, is about so much more than socializing.
Which brings me to what really amazed me about the piece: empowerment. One of my favorite topics that The First Turning touches on is what I call “The Velvet Armada”—the group of women in Congress who are dispensing with tiresome political machinations and are actively, tirelessly working for change in American legislation. And, in doing so, are redefining leadership for the nation.
Reading this article, I was reminded about how The Velvet Armada is as much a spirit of the times collectively embodied in women everywhere as it is a specific group of women politicians. The good work of women is something that is rippling across the entire world—in entrepreneurship, philanthropy and technology to name but a few of the sectors called out in the article.
I felt empowered by the women coming together at these female-focused events, which are in fact often referred to as “empowerment conferences.” Women aren’t just uniting in the name of some same-sex sentimental need to connect—though the implicit sisterhood certainly is a draw for many women who hold more influential positions in male-dominated fields. (The sense of camaraderie and the positive effects of a shared identity should not be undervalued.) But these events are providing women with outlets and platforms for working toward specific and very real causes. Conference networking, which is something that men have been doing for years, is something women are now taking over and reimaging to be bigger and better than ever before… not unlike what The Velvet Armada has done in the traditional boys’ club of Congress.
What is more amazing, though, is that not only are women empowering each other in these meetings of the minds—finding assurance in their intellects and abilities, building upon their strengths, establishing strategic relationships, becoming leaders—but they are being empowered by companies and organizations in unprecedented ways. The article references the example of Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast, and a conference on international women’s rights she launched five years ago. At the time she managed to eke sponsorship from one company, Hewlett-Packard, and held the free event at a small Manhattan theater. Today, the conference takes place over the course of three days at Lincoln Center, filling 2,500 seats and reaching countless more individuals with its international offshoot events.
Though these pioneering women will undoubtedly continue to rely on each other as they engage tough issues and work to achieve their goals, it shows significant strides that they can now rely on a stronger cultural foundation and resources of every kind—that they are being given megaphones through which to amplify their voices.
Gloria Steinhem described the evolution of women’s gatherings in the article as something that was first put together by women alone, then became sponsored by the government, and now is paid for by a corporation. The simple description outlines an incredible trajectory. Though there are some who dislike the commercialization of these events, I think the fact that corporations are investing in them speaks volumes both about their impact and reach and their staying power. As Glynnis MacNicol, co-founder of the women’s networking group TheLi.st, says, “There is such a hunger on the part of smart, accomplished women to be taken seriously. It’s refreshing to see conferences and the zeitgeist reflect that.”
In the article, Brown is quoted as saying, “I think women are looking to be inspired.”
It seems to me, though, that women aren’t the only ones. The world is looking to be inspired—and it’s looking toward women to lead the way.