I arrived in Washington, DC a little over two weeks ago for a two month fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center – basically time to work on my research in a supportive environment, without the distractions of home. I’m on my own until the first of July, when I will be joined by my husband and two boys. These two weeks have already been an amazing experience — as I told my sister Rhonda, I didn’t know it, but it’s exactly what I needed. It’s the first time in 12 years (since I was pregnant with my oldest son) that I have had enough time to myself to reconnect with who I am and where I’m going. After a couple of difficult years (losing several family members and friends) I knew I needed time to catch up on my research, but what I really needed was time to catch up with me.
My visit started with a conference on “The End of Multiculturalism in Europe?” at the Wilson Center. All of the topics discussed were issues that I had done research on and/or written about over the last (ahem) 20 years or so since I started graduate school in 1993. I felt rejuvenated and met some new people working on this important topic. It was a great kick-off for my time here. However, one of the last questions from the audience stuck with me — during the entire day of discussion of immigration, ethnic minorities and integration, the issue of women hadn’t come up at all. The panelists agreed that this was a major oversight — and I realized that it was an issue often lacking in my own scholarship, although I had written back in my early years as a professor on women in politics in Europe.
I had the memorial day weekend to spend some time exploring DC and I saw some newer monuments, particularly the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial — and it turned out that his daughter Bernice King was signing books about her mother at the nearby bookstore. I felt it was a privilege to shake her hand. As I visited the war memorials and thought about that chance encounter, I thought about the role of women in history, and in the midst of “rolling thunder” – the annual gathering of bikers to commemorate veterans — it struck me how invisible women were in the way we commemorate our heroes and our history.
It also turns out that I have recently finished reading Gloria Feldt’s book No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. It is a very powerful book which I can’t possibly do justice to in this blog post, but one of the issues she raises is having an understanding of women’s history. It is incredibly important that young people understand the contributions of women and how far we have come — and how far we have to go (e.g., paycheck equality). The recent assaults by conservatives on choice and women’s health have certainly caused me to be much more active in supporting Planned Parenthood and women politicians. Of course we need to do more, and I’m not certain what that means, exactly, in my case, but I feel that I have taken a few important steps in the last couple of weeks.
First, I was invited to be a panelist on the PBS show “To the Contrary” which was a great experience. I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to repeat it since I’ll only be in DC until the end of July, but I learned a lot from engaging with the other women on the panel. In fact, it was from Debra Carnahan that I learned about the organization Vital Voices and their Global Leadership Awards, which was last Wednesday night. I decided to attend, with few expectations about what would happen at the event. It was truly overwhelming to see the amazing women (including presenters like Tina Brown, Diane Von Furstenberg, Chelsea Clinton) and the incredible things the award winners had done to improve life for women and children in their countries. It reminded me of the power of women, the power of sisterhood, and that we are only limited by our fears (often valid), but with courage much can be overcome.
I have also been lucky to reconnect with friends here in DC, in particular a few women friends who I knew in graduate school. I have always valued my friends, but for various reasons, including families and careers, we haven’t always maintained those connections. My friends have always been my supporters, and the ones to reign me in when my ego would start to get in the way. It has truly been a blessing to be able to spend some time with these friends, getting to know their husbands and reminiscing about old times.
This will be an ongoing story, but so far, I feel that I have made some strong connections in DC, with my friends, myself, and even with my sisters, albeit from a distance. I feel compelled from reading Gloria’s book to try to find meaning in what I have done and will do here. But for now I am trying to let myself be open to learn something from this idea of sisterhood, and what that will mean for me going forward. I have been in several leadership positions over the last few years and I continue to play a role in my community in Austin — I hope to go back in August re-energized and ready for new roles and possibilities, with a little help from my sisters…