How the Collective Power of Women Can Change the World (Part 1 of 3)
1 Jun 2012
by Carolyn Parrs
When sleeping women wake, mountains move.
~ Chinese proverb
No sunlight. No fresh air. Enclosed in darkness to plump up in an insanely artificial way. That’s the reality for most chickens being farmed today. And if the farmers under contract with the Big Boys do not agree to raise their livestock that way, “They hold their contract over their heads,” says third generation chicken farmer, Carole Morison. She was mad as hell and just couldn’t take it anymore.
“There is no thought about the animal whatsoever, the only thought is the bottom line,” she said to me. Risking her reputation and livelihood, Carole did the unthinkable. She blew the whistle on the 4.6 billion dollar Perdue Chicken Processing Company and let the film crew of FOOD Inc. inside her chicken coups to see what’s really going on. No other farmer the filmmakers approached said yes to that. “People need to know where their food is coming from,“ Carole stressed. What we saw inside, thanks to Carole and the film crew, is far from finger licking good.
Chain-saws grinding around her, mowing down old-growth redwood trees some over 2,000 years old, 23 year old Julia Butterfly Hill climbed 45 feet, planted herself in a redwood she named Luna, and stayed there for 738 days. That’s two years and eight days. “This was not a calling I could sit and chew on and decided upon. It was something that ripped my gut out. If your child’s life is threatened, do you stop to ask a politician if it’s legal to save your child’s life?”
Tears can’t help but well up in my eyes every time I encounter the words and actions of Julia. She’s bold, brazen, and committed. The perfect storm for real change. “I struggled, because committing myself to the redwoods, when I really wanted to travel around the world, was not exactly my plan for my life. The message I couldn’t avoid is this: ’Julia, you in actions are as much a part of shaping the world as the actions of others.’” Julia’s action brought international awareness to the clear-cutting of our forests and redwoods, and saved Luna’s life and a three-acre buffer zone around her.
In 2003, all hell broke loose. Their children were dying in a brutal civil war where a decade of fighting left 250,000 people dead. Rape and abuse were rampant. Things had gone from bad to worse. So a small ban of African women, led by Leymah Gbowee, put aside their Christian and Muslim differences and signed a memorandum of understanding. It said that anything that would impact their communities adversely, they would fight against. And they did just that. From singing to sex strikes, for three years these African women worked tirelessly to build a coalition of women on behalf of peace.
“We tried different tactics and strategy. And we were like, ‘We need to get people’s attention,’” says Leymah. After months of momentum and growing frustration, came the tipping point. “We ask the honorable pro tem of the senate, being a woman and being in line with our cause, to kindly present this statement to His Excellency (President) Dr. Charles Taylor with this message: That the women of Liberia, including the IDPs, we are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped.”
Confronting the President head on, and knowing the atrocities he was capable of, was next to insane. Leymah remembers, “I kept reminding myself as I went up there that you do not represent Leymah, you do not represent your children. You represent thousands of voiceless women, women who have been raped, internally displaced, those who are in refugee camps, and your ability to speak the truth to this, whoever he is, is going to either make or break all the work that you’ve done.”
Their finale unfolded with hundreds of women surrounding a meeting hall where peace talks were laboring on for months. “So I told the women, sit at the door and lock arms, one arm within the other. And the next thing we heard on the overhead speaker was, ‘Oh, my god. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops.’” Arms intertwined like toughen tendrils, they refused to let the men out until the peace agreement was signed.
It worked. Not only did these remarkable women help forced the government and gunman to finally make peace, but their efforts ousted President Taylor from office and helped install Africa’s first ever woman head of state, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
“I want to, here and now, gratefully acknowledge the powerful voice of women of all walks of life whose votes brought us to victory,” President Johnson-Sirleaf said during her inauguration. “They defended me. They worked with me. They prayed for me. It is the women who labored and advocated for peace throughout our region.”
This story is beautifully chronicled in the film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Angelique Kidjo, one of Africa’s best-known musicians who’s used her fame to campaign for human rights, said to Leymah during a press conference for the film, “The thing is, we women of Africa, we have the power. We women of the world, we have the power, but we don’t know the power we have.” Leymah adds, “What we did in Liberia was going back into the communities and really just reassuring these women that it’s OK to step out with that power.”
For millennia, women have stepped out with that power as mama bears of the home and hearth. We protect our young. We are hard-wired this way. We know when our babies leave womb, they don’t leave the woman. That invisible umbilical cord lives on. It’s embedded in our female psyche whether we physically have babies or not. It’s no wonder a poll conducted by the Federal Office of Women’s Health found that nearly two-thirds of women indicated they alone were responsible for health care decisions for their family, and 83% had sole or shared responsibility for financial decisions regarding their family’s health.
The Time of the Lone Wolf is Over
What the women of Liberia so powerfully demonstrated is it takes a village to make a change of this magnitude when we put our collective stake in the ground. The youth of Egypt showed us the same. The time of the lone wolf is over. But first, let us take a collective inner bow to the single, brave souls that came before. These women put their lives on the line for all of us. Thank you Rachel Carson, Julia Butterfly Hill, Carole Morison, Erin Brochovich, and the thousands of women behind the scenes who have done the same. You have paved the way for this moment. We know that it will take all of us now.
“You have been telling the people that this is the eleventh hour, now you must go back and tell the people that this is the hour. And there are things to be considered. Where are you living? What are you doing? What are your relationships? Are you in right relation? Where is your water? Know your garden. It is time to speak your Truth. Create your community. Be good to each other. And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
And then he clasped his hands together, smiled and said,
“This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!
“Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
— An Elder from the Hopi Nation
So where are you living? What are you doing? Are you looking outside yourself for the leader? Can we, women of the United States of America, collectively rise up the way the women of Africa did? Marianne Williamson says in her book, The Age of Miracles, “The adult female of the species displays fierce behavior when she senses a threat to her young. Lionesses and Tigresses grow fierce when they detect danger to their offspring. Among hyenas, hardly known as the most tender of creatures, the adult females encircle their cubs while they’re feeding, keeping adult males at bay until the babies have been fed. You’d think the women of America would do better than the hyenas.”
Our babies are being endangered, no doubt. The evidence is overwhelming. It might not be the violence of civil warfare that is inflicting our young here in America. They’re getting it another way. A silent way. Through the ingestion of chemicals in our home and refrigerators. Why hasn’t our inner hyena grown fierce? Why haven’t we risen up and just said no?
Perhaps Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of Omega Institute of Holistic Studies, can shed some light. “To lead inevitably involves taking a stand. Sometimes an unpopular one. It asks us at times to say ‘yes’ to ideas and plans we may feel barely ready to advance, and sometimes to say ‘no’ to people with different ideas and plans. In other words, leadership—while exciting and fulfilling—can also make us feel uncomfortable, unliked, exposed, even endangered. If we are going to lead, we have to learn how to take personal risks and say what we think.”
But we hesitate, don’t we? We leave it for someone else to say. Someone else to do. For instance, the Washington Post’s op-ed reports that 90 percent of the opinion piece submissions are from men. Wikipedia estimates that only 13 percent of its contributors are female. We can’t blame the glass ceiling for that. So what’s holding us back? Why aren’t we speaking up? Are we too busy? Too comfy? Too afraid? Too fed-up?
Gloria Feldt, author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power says, “Women have borne the brunt of the raw, abusive side of power-over us for most of human history, it’s no wonder many women don’t just eschew power – some even say they dislike it altogether.”
Birute Regine, author of Iron Butterflies: Women Transforming Themselves and the World, points out how violence to silence women is rooted deeply in our history, most notably during Inquisition of “so-called heretics”. She says, “An untold part of the story of that violent period – the story of hating women, fearing women, and eliminating their wisdom—remains profoundly repressed. It was quite literally a holocaust that consumed, according to some estimates, from two to nine million women.”
Could the memory of our sisters who have lived and died through this kind of torture still live in our cellular structure? Can our hesitation to embrace our feminine power be a self-induced muzzle? Perhaps. But this I know for sure, the time is now. And I’ve got this one precious, wild life given to me. I will be damned if I waste it. Too many women have come too far for my sake and my children. I want my life and work to be a “splendid torch” as George Bernard Shaw said, “which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” That’s power to me. That’s purpose. That’s what I strive to live into every day of my life. And sometimes that means speaking up when it would be easier to shrug it off.
The subject was organic food at conference in San Rafael, California. Four heavyweights in the field were on panel. All guys. One of them was yogurt rock-star, Gary Hirshberg, the CEO (or affectionately known as the CE-YO) of Stonyfield Organic Yogurt. He was the reason I was there. Stonyfield is one of the darlings of organics and Gary put it on the map. I look around the auditorium. Note to myself: The audience is primarily women (I counted).
All through the presentation I was thinking to myself…Why isn’t there a woman up there on the stage with them? After all, they’re talking about food and organics. Women are overwhelmingly the ones buying these products. Where are the women?
Finally, it came time for the audience to pose questions to the panel. I thought for a moment. I hesitated for two. Could I get up there and call them on it? I was feeling brave, no, pissed. I got up. When it was my turn to speak, the moderator gave a go ahead nod and I blurted, “We’re talking about organics and food here. Why aren’t there any women on the stage with you?” The moderator jumped in to the rescue. “Mary Trenton was supposed to be on the panel with us today but she couldn’t make it at the last minute.” I responded without a beat, “OK, that makes one.” His eyes rolled and so did his tongue, “What’s your point?” I thought to myself: Thank you for opening the door to a message that needs to be made here and at a million other conferences, boardrooms and political stages. “It is well documented that women buy 85% of the consumer products in the United States,” I said. “That’s five trillion dollars a year. I believe that if women collectively used their economic power, and decide to buy and not buy certain products, we can have an impact like never before in the marketplace. And sell a lot more organics. I call it Disruptive Buyology.” I saw Gary make a written note to himself. I took it as a good sign. He punctuated his memo with a verbal agreement that women are key to making organics fly. Full circle, I closed with the statement, “I would think given these numbers, more women would be invited on the panel with you.”
They were all probably having a great day until I showed up. But hey, someone’s got to say it out loud. The truth is that out of five people on that stage, only one invitation was given to a woman. That’s actually higher than industry average. Across the board, women still only make up less than 15% of senior-level leadership positions today. And here’s the kicker. Even when women own and run their own companies, they are often still not invited to the table. That literally happened to me.
Young and somewhat fearless, my company was rockin’ n rollin’. And my Poochi dog sweaters, collars, leashes, bandannas and visors we selling faster than I could make them. Bloomingdales, Neiman-Marcus and Macys took them in and sold them out. One holiday season, my matching doggie and people sweaters were the number one selling gift item in the Spiegal catalog, out-selling the wares of Peter Max. Woof, my Westie, adorned the front page of the Sunday Chicago Tribune wearing Poochi apparel. Life was good. Then the call came in. An international company wanted to take Poochi overseas and the buyers wanted to meet for dinner in the city, Manhattan, that is. I was thrilled and we met. The only problem, when it came time to negotiate the terms of the deal, I was summoned to sit at the end of the long table “with the women”. It was my husband who was invited “to talk business”. I was the President and CEO of Poochi. But that didn’t matter. The deal was I wasn’t invite to the deal. Just dinner.
“Half of the human race has a long history of not being asked to participate in the discovery of new ideas,” says Elizabeth Lesser. “What a waste! I firmly believe that many of the best ideas that will help humankind in the 21st century will come from women.” Many already have, but we just don’t know it.
Part 1 of a 3-part series.
Read Part 2
Read Part 3
Carolyn Parrs is deeply passionate about harnessing the power of women to help create a positive, dramatic and measurable impact on the planet. She is the creator of Women Of Green, an online community and multi-media blog about turning up the volume of the feminine voice in green. She is also co-founder of Mind Over Markets, a strategic green marketing communications company in Santa Fe, NM. As a Marketing and Life Coach, Carolyn helps women launch and grow green or socially-focused businesses. “Business is one of the most powerful forces on the planet for change — and as more and more women launch and grow sustainable businesses, collectively we can make a big economic and social impact — fast.”