Gloria Steinem talked about using her torch to inspire others, Jill Biden called on communities to show random acts of kindness, Dolores Huerta told women they could do it, Rosie Castro spoke about the hardworking Latino community and Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe preached love and compassion.
These were just some of the world famous activists and leaders who spoke at Wednesday's Women in the World Texas Summit. The sold-out summit was held in the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre in downtown San Antonio.
Other well-known speakers included fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, filmmaker Deeyah Khan, actress Eva Longoria, Congressman Joaquín Castro, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, among other female change-makers.
The first Women in the World conference was held in 2010 in New York City and has since featured Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie. This was the fifth conference this year, but the first in San Antonio.
Brown began the conference by acknowledging Mayor Ivy Taylor.
“It couldn’t be more appropriate to now be in a city that has a female mayor. Texas has a history of producing tough, feisty women,” she said.
Perhaps the most recognizable panel of speakers included San Antonio’s own Rosie and Joaquin Castro, Latina activist Dolores Huerta and actress Eva Longoria who spoke about Latino power on the rise. Their panel could not have been more aptly timed as early voting starts this week.
Moderator Jan Jarboe Russell of Texas Monthly began by discussing immigration reform, which the Obama administration put on halt until after midterm elections. Rep. Castro and Huerta were positive, however, that the administration will decisively act on immigration, an issue that has a potentially powerful impact on San Antonio’s Hispanic and immigrant population.
“If we can wait a decade, we can wait for a few more months,” said Huerta who has been a strong supporter of President Obama. Rep. Castro echoed her sentiments but added that congress will also need to play an affirmative role in securing long-term immigration reform.
Huerta, who organized the United Farm Workers union with fellow Latino activist Cesar Chavez, has been an instrumental player in the Chicana women’s movement and doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon.
“The biggest threat to our population is ignorance,” she said. “The Latino vote is so powerful in Texas, but the resources are hard to come by. (We) need money and people on the ground.”
When asked if a Hillary Clinton/Julian Castro presidential ticket is possible in 2016, Rep. Castro didn’t espouse many details but said, “It’s possible.”
The summit continued to feature local leaders with a summit on women in politics featuring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Ambassador Karen Hughes, VoteRunLead Founder Jehmu Greene and political consultant Liz Chadderdon.
Chadderon was less optimistic about a Clinton/Castro presidential ticket, saying of Clinton, “She will be 69-years-old this year, and I’m not certain she’s learned her lesson from 2008. She needs to learn that campaigns are not about the candidates, they’re about the voters.”
Hutchison, the first elected U.S. Senator from Texas, recalled a close, working relationship with Clinton who she said was a very good senator. She, and the other women on the panel, recognized a need for more women to be elected to office.
Currently, women only comprise 20 percent of Congress, despite being 50 percent of the population. Of her time in Congress, Hutchison said, “I brought up things, not that men were against, but that they simply hadn’t thought of.” It is this unique perspective that she believes is missing in politics.
The women also discussed the upcoming gubernatorial election between Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis. If Davis wins, she will be only the third female governor to serve Texas after Ann Richards in 1990 and Miriam “Ma” Ferguson in 1932. While there is always potential for surprise until the elections end on Nov. 5, Chadderdon believes Davis’s funds, which as significantly lower than her opponents, will be her downfall.
While local issues were a central topic at Women in the World Texas, perhaps the most highly anticipated speaker was feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
Steinem began her career as a journalist before moving on to be a women’s rights activist in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She will turn 80 this year and plans to continue fighting for women’s rights.
She spoke heavily about reproductive issues present in Texas. HB2, passed in the summer of 2013, enforced strict regulations for women’s clinics which may cause many of them to close, pending a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Here in Texas, you all face the danger of forced (closure of) clinics,” she said. “Right-wing groups are saying sexuality is only ok if it ends in conception … but having reproductive freedom is freedom.” Steinem has been vocal about her own abortion and believes that reproductive freedom allows women access to education and more opportunity.
“The definition of patriarchy is controlling reproduction,” she said.
Domestic violence has also been a cause championed by Steinem.
“You’re more likely to get punished for invading someone’s property than you are for invading someone’s body,” she said. She hopes that the mentality towards women will evolve into one that accepts them in positions of authority.
Last minute addition to the program, Second Lady Jill Biden spoke after Steinem about women in the military. Male soldiers in Afghanistan are prohibited from speaking to Afghan women due to cultural barriers, but she claimed that female soldiers have helped bring access to education and health care to women in the Middle East.
Biden called on the audience to commit small acts of kindness, not only for returning military members, but also for everyone in their community.
Another highly anticipated speaker was designer Diane von Furstenberg who skyrocketed to popularity after the release of her infamous wrap dress.
“That dress filled my wallet,” said Furstenberg. “When I made that dress, all I wanted was to be financially independent.”
To say that she is now financially independent is an understatement. The Diane von Furstenberg brand is internationally recognizable, but Furstenberg hasn’t forgotten her roots. Her mother, one of her greatest sources of inspiration, survived Nazi concentration camps. Through the annual DVF Awards started in 2010, she honors extraordinary women.
“The minute I empowered myself, I wanted to empower others. Success gives you a voice,” she said.
Other prominent talks discussed the female perspective of many global issues. Filmmaker Deeyah Khan and Xoel Pamos discussed their films about honor killings, murders of young women for disobeying men, and the need to promote women to positions of autonomy and authority.
The most emotional talk of the conference came from Ugandan nun Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe who teaches sewing to young Ugandan girl refugees. Many of the women in her care were once child soldiers and sex slaves from the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony. Some of them came to her shelter as young as 12 or 13-years-old and are already with children.
“I would tell Joseph Kony ‘I forgive you’ and that these children who overcame are the real winners,” she said.
Nyirumbe ended her talk by admitting that reteaching love to these scared girls is difficult at times but can be done with patience, love and compassion.
The next Women in the World summit will be held April 22-24 in New York City at New York’s Lincoln Center.
The summit ended with the speakers calling upon women to enact change in their own lives and the lives of those in their community.
Steinem ended by committing the audience to such action:
“If you promise me you will do one outrageous thing in the next 24 hours, whether it’s to refuse to clean up after someone or run for political office, I promise I will do one outrageous thing and, by the weekend, the world will be a better place.”
The Daily Beast provides further coverage of each Women in the World speaker here.
*Featured/top image: Former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, center, and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, right, talk with District 3 Councilmember Rebecca Viagran during the Women In The World Texas Forum. Photo by Josh Huskin/DA Media for Women in the World.