1. To Thine Own Self Be True
Elizabeth Lesser opened the 2015 Women & Power Retreat, asking us to question the monuments in our parks and history books that memorialize war. "Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are," she quoted José Ortega y Gasset as she imagined a world filled with statues to teachers, caretakers, bridge builders, and creators. Force, she said, is not the penultimate definition of being bold.
"The world needs to thy own self be true to women. Not some perfected ideal," she said. Elizabeth reminded the audience that we have, in the short time we are alive, two real purposes: to study the fingerprint of our own soul and to see and respect the soul in each other. If we can grant full person-hood, full soul-hood to ourselves and to every person we encounter, she said, "Then light will show you where to go....This is our great challenge as women who want to change the world: to not just get power but once we do to make it different." Communicating, forgiving, mediating: these are true ways of being bold.
2. Practice What Matters
angel Kyodo williams brought members of the audience into their somatic experience, reminding us that our bodies know the truth. Though our media, politics, and culture tell us that we are apart from each other, we know better. "If it's true that we're not relational, then why would we care about the global scene or what's happening with other people?" angel asked. She invited us to "disrupt the disconnect" and organize ourselves around what matters, what is really true, for each of us.
"Women have a unique opportunity to reclaim what is empirically true for human beings: that we are wired to cooperate, to be generous, that it is our deepest truth that we are interconnected," said angel. She invoked the women all over the world who are agitating for the truth—to change the stories of dominance, separation, and self-centeredness—and reminded us that feeling apart from others is an effect of our disconnect from our own truth, and that compassion is a practice that comes from feeling into ourselves first. "When we stop cutting off parts of ourselves that are under-cared for, we don't have to cross a wide ravine of difference, we discover the other right here," she said.
3. Creativity Is Your Birthright
"Unused creativity is not benign," said Elizabeth Gilbert, opening her talk with a quote from a conversation she had with Brené Brown. She illuminated, "Your creative engine is a furnace of power. If you don't bring it forth, it doesn't idle in neutral, it becomes a burden."
Do we have the courage to honor our creative impulse? For Elizabeth that means being guided more strongly by curiosity than fear. But it's not about vanquishing all fear. Elizabeth reminded us that fear is appropriate in many circumstances. "We're doing fear a disservice by not respecting it and thanking it for wanting to protect us," she said. We need to make friends with fear, but not let it steer the wheel in our creative lives. It's the same with the demon of perfectionism, which Elizabeth said, "Never stopped a man from doing anything." It may be a fact of our consciousness but it is not allowed to drive our actions.
Elizabeth invited us to be more entitled in a healthy way, saying it is our birthright to leave our thumbprint on life in the time that we have. She outlined her approach: One, I am a child of god—there is a story happening in this universe and I'm allowed to participate in that. Two, I am a human being tapped into 40,000 years of creativity. Three, I am a writer—I have a contract to fill. Four, I am a woman blessed to have been born at a time and in a society when we have the most agency we've ever had over our lives. So we must use it.
4. A New Etiquette
Bonnie St. John asked us to focus on how we do fit in, instead of how we don't. She recalled her childhood circumstances, some of the most challenging imaginable, and her triumph. "From the person who didn't belong anywhere, I became the person who belonged everywhere," she said.
How do great women lead? In every way imaginable—and in their own unique ways. Bonnie walked us through statistics about young women and women of color and how they relate to "leadership roles" as defined by mainstream culture, encouraging us to reimagine those roles. "Becoming a leader is bringing myself to the party and changing what the party looks like," she said.
Transforming leadership and workplaces also means developing a "new etiquette" for having conversations on difference. Conversations we need to have because when we're not comfortable with something, we don't talk about it, and so we're ignorant. Bonnie outlined her strategy. One, ask about difference. Two, validate others' experiences without comparing them to our own. Three, educate ourselves about other women's issues different from our own. Four, include diverse examples in dialogues and research. Five, stand up for all of our sisters. Difference is a collective strength that we have to own, we can't move forward if some of us are left behind. "We can't be color blind, we have to be color mindful," she said.
5. The Future Belongs to Everybody
María Teresa Kumar and Shirley Velasquez spoke about the experiences of Latinas in the United States, and the importance of a future built inclusively for everyone in the nation. Shirley recounted her father's detainment and near deportation at the hands of immigration authorities, and how she shone light on his story and secured representation, highlighting the importance of legal opportunities for people normally left out of the room. María walked the audience through her personal journey of learning to navigate Congress and negotiate at corporate tables. She shared that bridging two cultures her entire life uniquely gifted her with abilities and strengths to organize and lead on a national scale—gifts and skills, she reminded us, that most children of immigration grow up learning.
The United States is a nation that has grown in leadership through its transformative population and cultures. Today, as we grapple with symptoms of a world changing quickly, María encouraged, "This is a perfect moment to hit reset." Both women emphasized that including Latinos—the second largest and fastest growing ethnic demographic in the U.S.—in our national conversation is a benefit to the entire country. The strengths of each population and generation are strengths added to the whole. María, speaking to national leadership said, "We don't have time for only one leader, there's too much massive change that needs to happen. We need lights all over the country." Shirley, speaking to personal leadership advised, "Help others be heard. Say we can do this. Create a safe space. Bring in people who inspire and check [you]."
6. Do Power Differently
"Yemen is the land of queens," said Nadia Al-Sakkaf. She invoked the Queen of Sheba's peaceful negotiations with King Solomon and women's instinct to mend, care, and be in touch with their whole community. She recalled the peaceful revolution in her home of Yemen, her appointment to Minister of Information, her subsequent exile as her nation has become embroiled in civil war, and how she maintained her public voice and her inner authority every step of the way.
Nadia asked herself and the audience to, "Think about how to do power smarter, do power differently." She wondered what the future might look like for her, her home, and the women still living there, but stood firm in her belonging. "It's my right to present my country in a different light," she said.
Resilience, for Nadia and for Yemen, means not giving up. "This is not the end of us. This is a new beginining," she said. She reminded us that mentoring, woman to woman, is an essential quality of leadership, as well as owning your power for yourself and being bold in demanding the space to use it. "You have to claim that seat, you have to start living that role," she said.
7. Walk in Each Others' Shoes
Wendy Davis honored her mother, grandmother, and all the women before her for every step they took in making their way in the world. Caring for their families, trying to care for themselves. Wendy drew a direct line between women's reproductive autonomy and their economic well-being. Affordable healthcare, living wages, child care, and sovereignty over our bodies determine quality of life for women at every age and at every level of society. "We are only as strong as the opportunities available to our sisters," she said.
Feminism is not about pitting women against men—or against each other. Wendy asked us to imagine fighting boldly alongside each other with a shared stake in collective advancement. To imagine celebrating all of our sisters, in the workplace, in the home, caring for children, caring for ourselves through a lens of shared experience. "We cannot afford to watch as women slide back down a hill we fought so hard to climb," she said. Women and their bodies are not pawns on a political chessboard. Our power belongs to us and our common causes. We can make our voices heard, said Wendy, "As if our sisters' tomorrows depend on our actions today, because quite literally, they do.