Tina Brown asked “Can Women Save the World” with her Women in the World event this year and Oprah Winfrey came ready with an answer.
“We women people, we are used to saving other folks,” Winfrey, in a bejeweled full-length duster coat, said to a full house at Lincoln Center in her down-home tone that signals it’s OK to laugh. “We’ve been doing it a very long time.”
Even so, Winfrey explained to a widely nodding and loudly “Mmhmm”-ing audience that before any woman even thinks about saving the world she needs to save herself. She joked that is in fact “what Dorothy was trying to figure out running up and down that yellow brick road all that time.”
“Your real work in life is to fill yourself until your cup runneth over, so you’re never grasping and needy, so you can live your life assured in your worthiness and your right to be here and to become the best version of yourself as a woman being,” Winfrey added.
“When we fulfill the task of actually making ourselves whole, we are set up to fully express what we know — to negotiate, differentiate, placate, facilitate, demonstrate and delegate, and on a really good day, it helps us carve out 20 minutes to actually meditate.”
She went on to talk about all of the skills women have and the value of their experience and point of view, all inherent simply because of sex. But advocacy isn’t enough because, as Winfrey put it, “the game wasn’t built on a level playing field” and it’s up to women to rebuild it.
“The good news is this knowledge only reinforces our resolve,” Winfrey continued. “It also amplifies our humanity and at this point, we need all the decency we can get. We live in a country that has somehow confused cruel with funny, serious with intelligent, attitude with belief, personal freedom with stockpiling assault weapons and what is moral with what is legal.”
Most of these dichotomies managed to come up in earlier panel discussions, too. Manal al-Sharif, an author who is in self-imposed exile in Australia from Saudi Arabia, noted during a panel moderated by documentarian Alex Gibney that at 40 years old, she is still considered a “minor” in her home country. Under Saudi law, her father still has to consent to anything she does, from marriage to renewing her I.D., and when her teenage son turns 18 soon, he will become her legal guardian.
Another panel moderated by Kara Swisher, a cofounder of technology news site Recode and a frequent New York Times opinion writer, billed as a chat on “information warfare” turned into more or less a dressing down of the tech powers that be, namely Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube. Their role in the global rise of nefarious “populist” politicians and related movements (like Brexit), hate content and real-life violence, as well as the direct link to Saudi Arabia’s royal family, all came up.
Swisher, who’s covered tech and Silicon Valley for decades, peppered conversation between international journalists Barkha Dutt, Maria Ressa and Carole Cadwalladr with zinger after zinger. She called leaders of Silicon Valley “highly incompetent” when it comes to doing anything about the weaponization of their platforms. She alleged the entire tech ecosystem there “is funded by the murderous thugs of Saudi Arabia.” She also recalled a recent meeting with a male venture capitalist who told her “If there was only a Marsha Zuckerberg there would be more funding of women entrepreneurs.”
The conversation also touched on the hypocrisy the platforms and their leaders engage in. Dutt recalled being inundated with threats and nude pictures from men after she criticized a response to a terrorist attack by Indian officials. She decided to “name and shame” and posted the nude photos to Twitter, which soon banned them telling her she was “violating the privacy” of the men in the photos. Ressa, Cadwalladr and Swisher have all had similar experiences of harassment, something common for many women on social media.
“I have a concept that most of the people who make these companies have never had an unsafe day in their lives,” Swisher said, referring to platforms’ lack of real action on violent content and threats.
But all of the women agreed that the bigger issue is the way such platforms are undermining democracy in places like the U.S., the U.K., the Philippines and Spain. Ressa, who worked for CNN before starting The Rappler in the Philippines and who has been arrested a number of times for the outlet’s reporting on Rodrigo Duterte’s violent regime, characterized the organized weaponization of social media as “death by a thousand cuts.”
“It’s happening in plain sight,” she said. “Of course, we feel the personal effects, but our societies will be feeling it for a long time.”
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