As our readers may be aware, the Women’s Worlds conference was held this year in Ottawa from July 3-7, and three of your Shameless staff attended, along with over 1600 others. Prior to the conference, we worked with the Young Women’s Leadership Team (actually, they did all the work!) to bring you some idea bursts related to young women and feminism to get young people fired up about the conference.
At the conference, however, it quickly became apparent that this conference was largely by and for academics. The sessions were overwhelmingly (though not entirely) led by professors and graduate students and focused on academic studies and issues. This structure is inherently exclusionary of youth. Academia is much more accessible to people with privilege (economic, white, able-bodied, cis-gender …) and insists on age and experience for “earned” respect. [For more on the academic industrial complex and how it doesn’t speak to/for many, check out Feminism for Real.]
The following is a letter from the Young Women’s Leadership Team to the organizers of Women’s Worlds.
20 July 2011
Dear Womenʼs Worlds 2011 Organizers,
RE: Where were the young women at Womenʼs Worlds 2011?
To start with a statement of strength, we as the YWLT came together to help make young womenʼs voices integral and heard at Womenʼs Worlds 2011 on traditional Algonquin Territory, Kanata (more commonly called Ottawa). We recognized the importance of having young womenʼs ideas, opinions and feminisms represented as fundamental parts of this global feminist congress – as volunteers, presenters, panellists, performers, activists, community organizers – to offer their perspectives on a variety of issues and strengths. Young Womenʼs voices are critical to any feminist or community discussion – just as critical as any other voices.
Through some successful efforts to reach and encourage young women to participate in WW 2011, our physical presence was over 400 hundred strong. However, young womenʼs voices and concerns were, at best, tokenized. This problem took root within the organizational structure of the congress and was exempliﬁed in the content. The following examples demonstrate how the stated prioritization of youth by the leadership instead wound up being diminished or lost.
1) The YWLT – The notion of creating a YWLT was appropriate, but our ability to impact the congress in meaningful ways was limited from the outset given the challenges of organizing solely on-line and the initial transience of YWLT membership. Structuring this advisory body at armʼs length constrained the inﬂuence of the team on critical areas such as keynote speakers and programming. The YWLT had difﬁculty working as a cohesive unit because we were never invited to convene as one; we lacked the deliberate means of support afforded to the leadership structures of other “priority” groups. It also made it more difﬁcult for us to work with the other priority areas to make intersectional connections.
2) Whereas both other “priority” areas were honoured and presented with drums, the YWLT did not even receive a mention at the closing ceremony. This problem was exacerbated when one of our team members was named during the staff acknowledgements – this was both insulting to the priority structures that had been set up as well as to the team, implying that our work was accomplished by only one person. Young women are not only staff at the congress; we were also, as a collective, intended to serve a meaningful structural element and were supposed to inform the congress. This misrepresentation of who we are and how we work ignored the intergenerational expertise our team brings to the table that the congress claimed to have valued.
3) Considering the vast majority of volunteers at WW 2011 were young women, it is ironic that the YWLT was only granted one ofﬁcial volunteer for the entire week of our programming.
4) Although we acknowledge that young women are divided on the issue of prohibition (aka abolition), we heard from over ﬁfty young women at the congress who stand in opposition to the prohibitionist stand the congress appeared to take on the issue of sex work. This position was touted through the high proﬁle abolitionist workshops and Flesh Mapping exhibition, as well as the blatant stances conveyed during the closing plenary/ceremony by Kathleen Lahey and Allan Rock. The overrepresentation of this standpoint, even exacerbated by some media coverage, contributed to many young women feeling silenced, unsafe, and even attacked. Many young women are now working to take that space back.
5) We were stunned by how programming which might have featured or celebrated young womenʼs voices was sidelined in terms of scheduling, spaces, and volunteers. A vast number of 5pm time slots that were offered to youth presenters were scheduled concurrently, eliminating our ability to support one another. We were also most often placed in smaller, less- accessible rooms, which felt like ghettoization and certainly did not suggest a commitment to making young womenʼs voices prominent at the congress. Further, that the leadership did not allocate volunteers at these sessions indicated a lack of commitment to fully supporting the participation and involvement of young women in the congress.
6) There was no greater exempliﬁcation of the invisibility of young women than in the plenary sessions. A large part of this was the weight of academia versus young women who often represent community perspectives. Women who identify as young and/or work with, on behalf of young women were not only absent from keynote speaker positions, they were not represented among moderators, emcees, or any visible plenary roles.
While most key decisions about program and content were made before the YWLT found its stride, we consider it dismissive to not have been consulted when there were keynote speaker cancellations, moderator selections, formulation of in-focus sessions, and development of the program schedule.
7) Had we been able to advise the congress as intended, perhaps the ways in which young women engage, know, and learn would not have been so reduced or even ignored. Many of the sessions, particularly those during mid-day, were in panel format with little or no time for interaction. This typically academic format necessarily leaves out young womenʼs ways of knowing.
8) The underrepresentation of queer and trans people/issues at WW 2011 is an intergenerational issue and a young folksʼ issue. We strongly oppose the lack of presence and marginalization of queer and trans folks at WW 2011.
The formation of the YWLT and its given mandate held so much promise. Yet from what we witnessed and experienced both before and during WW 2011, young women were downgraded, impotent, and forced to organize in the margins as we too often are within the womenʼs movement. Without proper support and integration, the YWLT is nothing more than a public relations stint on the congress website. This has made us feel somewhat seen, but insultingly unheard.
That said, the young women who attended Womenʼs Worlds 2011 along with others who supported and participated from a distance in various capacities were ﬁerce in their perspectives, participation, and voices. Youth are highly valued in certain cultures, and the treatment we experienced with WW 2011 would have been deemed detrimental to building a trusting and inclusive community in other contexts.
In closing, please consider this a formal registering of our displeasure and opposition to the structural and programmatic inequalities that furthered the marginalization of young women at WW 2011 and within the mainstream womenʼs movement. For what itʼs worth, we sincerely hope that more conscious and meaningful collaboration with young women will make the next Womenʼs Worlds a more positive experience for youth participants and a more enriching experience for all generations.
cc: Lise Martin, Executive Director, Womenʼs Worlds 2011
Caroline Andrew, Co-Chair, Womenʼs Worlds 2011
Rianne Mahon, Co-Chair, Womenʼs Worlds 2011
Young Women Participants, Womenʼs Worlds 2011