Some of you have been in AAUW long enough to remember our old mission, which included the phrase “positive societal change”. This was wisely eliminated because it is too broad, but I think we need to remain committed to part of this phrase. We are committed to positive change. This means that we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until women and girls achieve equity.
I recently re-discovered an article subtly comparing our present situation in the United States with the climate of Athens in 399 B. C., when Socrates was put to death. The author believes that for a long time, Athens was a society dedicated to positive change, looking for ways to improve towards an ideal. But after their loss to the Spartans in the Peloponessian War, the climate in Athens turned defensive, and they claimed superiority without the commitment to improvement. When Socrates criticized them, they decided he had to go. His most outstanding student, Plato, left Athens in disgust and studied elsewhere. But Plato returned later, and established an Academy to which he invited scholars from outside of Athens. Thus he made Athens into a center of learning once again, but a more inclusive one.
I then happened on another article which I had previously overlooked. The author put forward the thesis that we cannot have a just society without admitting that we need to change towards an ideal of fairness and equity. That ideal should be our vision.
Now as for AAUW: if we believe that there are forces in our society today that are pushing back against equity for women and girls, we have two options. We can try to get laws passed that will forbid these attacks on equity. As individuals, we might support candidates who will support equity, but as an organization we may not advocate for or against candidates. A second option, more difficult but potentially more fruitful, would be to try to restore the national commitment to positive change that many of us observed in the past. That means first and foremost that we promote the idea that equity for all is a key element of the American dream: in the phrase “with liberty and justice for all” it’s the justice part. Justice happens or doesn’t happen in all interactions of the individual with society, not just in in the courts. Second, people need to understand that equity for all does not exist at present, but that we could move in the direction of equity. For women, this would continue a direction including the rights of women to be financially independent, to vote, and to be paid for their work regardless of gender.
Needless to say, as public policy director I will continue to work for the first option. We must convince our sitting legislators that pay equity legislation is good for everyone, and that legislation against abortion is a blunt instrument that will hurt many people. More on that elsewhere. But also, I have come to believe that it is our mission to promote positive change in the hearts and minds of our neighbors. There is a movement for civil discourse whose models we might be able to use. The idea is to present to a group of people a problem in society along with a set of potential solutions. The problem should be one on which most people agree that change is needed: some examples were violence in the community and climate change. The solutions are proposed by the organizer, who also provides a list of advantages and disadvantages of each. Then the organizer serves as a neutral moderator. I have been advised that the moderator cannot display any bias towards any of the proposed solutions. This might be a little bit difficult for AAUW, but it is worth consideration. For example, recent research has revealed that poverty among the elderly is a real problem. We could put forth proposed solutions following some of Mary Gatta’s ideas. We could state that unintended pregnancy is a problem because of its costs to society, to the family and to the pregnant woman. We could develop moderators within our branches and within the state and offer their services to community organizations outside of AAUW.
Another model I have observed recently is a series of sessions conducted by the St. Johns Riverkeeper in communities that were affected by flooding following Hurricane Irma. There were presentations by local authorities and technical service providers, followed by ample opportunity for community members to share their observations and concerns. Afterward, audience members were provided with postcards on which they could write to government officials about their concerns. The key here was dealing with concrete impacts, not abstract principles.
I am sure you can think of many other societal problems that are in need of positive change, and I think that AAUW’s history and background as a moderate, deliberative organization would provide a good fit for this method. But I do recommend that we concentrate on issues of equity for women and girls, in order not to stretch ourselves too far. I have a large basket that is full to overflowing with letters from deserving organizations, and they are only the organizations to which we have contributed in the past, not to speak of all the emails! it is hard to deal with the many calls for involvement in societal change, but I feel that we will be more effective if we focus on just a few. Let equity for women and girls be one of them!