March 20, 2018
It was gratifying—affirming, really—to be invited to present The Suffragents at the United Nations Bookshop, in conversation with the global head of UN Women’s HeforShe movement, Elizabeth Nyamayaro. This event took place during the 62nd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, no less, introduced by Alison Smale, the still newish UN’s Undersecretary-General for Communications. Alison is my close friend of four cherished decades, it must be said, who, following Elizabeth’s excellent example, I will henceforth always now call “USG.” HeforShe, also worth noting, had been alert to The Suffragents well before the USG stepped foot on the UN Plaza last fall. To wit, from HeforShe’s September newsletter, The Scoop:
From the photo above, it’s obvious how much it meant to me to be part of this event on Tuesday. But the spotlight needs to be on my far more interesting and accomplished interlocutor, the stunningly impressive Elizabeth and her work for HeforShe. You can read more about her in these short profiles in Fortune (“Do men care about gender equality? And we found out that they do care. Then we started to get a lot of emails from men who signed up, who now want to do more.”) and in Elle UK, but a better ideas is to listen to her talk about her upbringing in a drought-stricken Zimbabwean village and the career it led her to fashion. I especially like her inspiring address at NASA and her Ted Talk.
“Do you mind a little controversy,” she asked me privately before we sat down at the table.
Of course not, I said, encouraging her to share more about the origin story of HeForShe, which, she said, was not without its detractors. The opposition to involving men in a perceived women’s issue sounded very familiar—much like the reaction I received to the proposal for the Suffragents.(“Who cares what the men did?”) At UN Women, it was something like, “Why involve the men? This is a women’s issue.”
I don’t have a way to verify this, but I’d conjecture with some confidence that if those conversations were being held now, in the midst of the surge of interest in women’s equality brought on by #MeToo, HeforShe and the Suffragents would be eliciting a very different reaction.
Elizabeth also expounded on a question I’ve had since I learned about HeforShe: How Emma Watson became its public face at its founding in 2014. Many will recall her UN speech that launched the movement, giving it its first huge burst of global recognition:
Elizabeth acknowledged that it was she who recruited Emma Watson. My context for men-to-women activism draws from the formation of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, where the idea for the league and its founding organizers were men: Oswald Garrison Villard, editor and publisher of the New York Evening Post and the Nation, first presented the idea to Anna Howard Shaw, president of NAWSA, the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Even after Shaw offered NAWSA muscle to get the organization off the ground, Villard insisted that the better approach would be for the men to do it themselves as an auxiliary with prominent, influential members of all professions and callings as its founding members. So why not a man to launch HeforShe?
Thinking back to the planning period, which would have been prior to 2014, Elizabeth explained that she and others felt strongly that the first task was to come over against the jaundiced view of feminism that had developed among younger women. To do that, a compelling younger spokesperson, a woman, would be the right choice. I had to agree that rationale made sense.
On Twitter and on the UN Publications Facebook page, our event was broadcast live. Here is the recording, with introduction in French and English by Madame USG:
And here is a slideshow of Bo Li’s photographs of the event for UN Publications:
We even made the Day Nine recap of events in connection with #CSW62.
“WHAT’S DONE US, WITHOUT US, IS NOT FOR US.” Powerful request from an African participant to @UN to engage local communities more & put them at the center of building home-grown solutions for #genderequality. ENJOY this recap of #CSW62 Day 9. @phumzileunwomen @UN_Women pic.twitter.com/Ew9ooShBZe
— Elizabeth Nyamayaro (@e_nyamayaro) March 21, 2018
And I almost forgot to mention that this was something of a homecoming. I was Newsday‘s UN correspondent in 1984-85, on my return to the United States after eight years in Europe (Brussels in 1976-77 and London 1977-79 and 1983-84) and the Middle East (Tel Aviv 1979-83).
All in all, it was a truly great day, topped off by a cool surprise: For the Sunday New York Times Book Review of March 25, Times’ investigative reporter Kim Barker, she of WhiskeyTangoFoxtrot fame, was asked to reveal what she herself was reading. Lo and behold, it was not the Suffragents, but its 23-year-old predecessor, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, the original entry in the Brooke book archive.
And now, to the summer camp newsletter portion of this missive.
The publicity created by UN Publications, led by chief Sherri Aldis, described The Suffragents as sharing “the core message of the #HeforShe movement . . . which invites men and boys to engage as change agents toward the achievement of gender equality,”
Other social media blasts called it “a timely contribution to the HeforShe initiative and the global conversation on gender equality.” (BK aside: “They get it! They get it!) To have had the opportunity to participate in the global conversation on gender equality, even in this small way, was, at bottom, the reason I wrote The Suffragents despite several bouts of profound publisher disinterest until I connected with prescient SUNY Press.
The poster and social media blasts must have been effective because the room was, to my great relief considering the UN firepower involved, completely full. Many introduced themselves as delegates to #CSW62—from California, South Africa, and all over the world, really.
In the crowd (I admit, pressed into service just in case), was a stalwart troop of my unmatched friends : Slava Bednarz, Flip Brophy, Gail Gregg, the husband person Alex Goren, Ilene Mandell, Wendy Mandell, Bernadette Murray, Nadine Pike.
And on top of that, there were surprise arrivals from two on Team Brooke already in the building, Arturo Zampaglione, correspondent for La Repubblica, Daniel Hoffman, a newly minted alumni of my program at NYU, Global and Joint Program Studies,
Dany graduated GloJo-European/Mediterranean Studies in May 2017 and is now reporting from the UN for France 24.
Clearly the publicity was strategically placed and eye-catching because Arturo, Dany, and Nahal Mottaghian, another one of my graduate students who is interning at HeforShe, learned about the event from the posters. Dany and Nahal sweetly snapped iPhone photos of it and sent them to me ahead of time. What professor wouldn’t I loved their texts:
Oh, and an addendum with links:
Several of the writers who have engaged seriously with the book’s contents have grokked this underlying theme, particularly Eileen Reynolds, in her essay for NYU headlined, “What Allies Today Could Learn from ‘Suffragents Who Helped Women Win the Vote,” and Megan Lebrise, in this Kirkus Reviews interview. I’ve pushed the point in dozens of tweets and Facebook posts and in essays like this short op-ed for the New York Daily News (“Women’s Partners in Making History: The Men Who Help Power Progress,”) or “When the Media Elite Threw Their Fedoras Into the Ring for Women’s Rights” for the Gotham Center for New York City History. Here is a videotape of the media elite essay in lecture form, as presented at the JJCHC, the Joint Journalism and Communications Historians Conference March 10, 2018. It ends with a seven-minute rundown of all the ways men of various professions and callings argued the pro-suffrage case in public fora, which can be viewed separately via Youtube here.
For Zocalo Public Square, I wrote “How the Suffragists Used a Few Good Men to Help Get the Vote;” about those silent suffrage movement underwriters known pejoratively at first as the “suffrage husbands,” and for Tablet about the squabbling rabbis on either side of the suffrage cause in “Wise vs. Silverman, or New York’s Historic Rabbinical Women’s Suffrage Smack-Down.“ Both the Gotham Center and Timeline, the history site that Medium distributes, published the book’s introduction, which gets at the same themes. Timeline retitled it, “The Little-known Story of the Men Wo Fought for Women’s Votes.”
I think the book can be read as a primer in how allies can engage with a social justice cause not seen as their own and it pleased me no end last fall when HeforShe took note of this in its newsletter, The Scoop, having seen Eileen Reynolds’ essay in reprint on the Futurity site, titled, “These Powerful Men Were Humble Allies For Women’s Votes. “While women worked tirelessly for their right to vote, male allies were able to ‘advance the suffragist cause in spheres women couldn’t otherwise have reached.’ And Kroeger notes something equally important: they didn’t ask for any credit in doing it.” (Nice.)
And in this United Nations and #CSW62 context, it’s noteworthy that the Men’s League was not just a New York idea in 1908-09. It started a year earlier in Holland and Britain and, as you can see by the photograph below, by 1911, the first international group of men met In Stockholm as a group during the International Suffrage Convention. There are representatives from the United States, Britain, Holand, France, Hungary, and Germany.
And they met again in 1913 in Budapest as an even larger group of representatives.