Hundreds Gather for “Heritage and Hope” Conference

Posted September 30th, 2010 at 3:01 pm.

Images from Heritage and Hope: Women's Education in a Global Context. Photos by Peter Tobia

Educators, activists, and policymakers from around the world forged connections at “Heritage and Hope: Women’s Education in a Global Context,” a conference held in honor of Bryn Mawr College’s 125th Anniversary Sept. 23-25.

Speakers gave example after example in support of the proposition that educating women and girls not only benefits women and girls, but speeds economic development generally—a principle that became a leitmotif  of the conference. “Development is tough,” acknowledged keynote speaker Nicholas Kristof. “It isn’t easy to effect change. But girls’ education is as close to a silver bullet as you get.”

The conference began Thursday, Sept. 23, just after Bryn Mawr President Jane McAuliffe presented a spectacular 125th-birthday cake to a crowd on Merion Green. After an introduction by McAuliffe, Historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz opened the program in Goodhart with a presentation on 19th-century medical beliefs about the effect of women’s education on reproductive health and its impact on the founding of Bryn Mawr College. Panel discussions, on women in the academic world and on issues of access and equity, followed. Facilitated discussion working groups then began the task of developing recommendations on a variety of issues.

Friday saw three panel discussions: “The ‘Girl Power’ of Single-Sex Education,” “Enhancing Global Networks,” and “Extending Our Reach and Closing the Gender Gap.” Working groups held another session before the company moved to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute for a keynote address by U.S. Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer.

Verveer began her address with praise for her host institution: “If any institution has nurtured and engaged women’s talents, their tenacity, their intelligence, their creativity and encouraged them to make profound contributions to society, it is Bryn Mawr,” she said.

Verveer grew more somber as she spoke of the continuing oppression of women worldwide and seeing firsthand the “unimaginable crimes” being committed against women in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.

“But I also saw the most extraordinary humanity,” Verveer said of her trips to those war-torn nations. “I saw survivors, who despite their anguish were determined to go on.

“Here is where hope comes in,” she added, echoing one of the major themes of the conference. “Hope, that indispensible element of the human condition.”

Verveer then spoke about successful women’s empowerment programs and initiatives across the globe, the lives the programs have touched, and the burgeoning awareness of the political, economic, social and even military necessity to address gender inequality. She rounded out her speech with an introduction to the many major initiatives the Obama administration has undertaken in support of women worldwide.

The discussion Saturday morning, titled “Partnering for Global Justice,” drew an enthusiastic response before working groups met for a final session. At the luncheon meeting that followed, Catharine R. Stimpson ’58, University Professor and Dean Emerita of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University, delighted the audience with a self-deprecating address in which she summarized the recommendations of the working groups, noting that full reports would be made available later.

One theme that emerged from sessions about international connections, Stimpson said, is that “globalization does not mean homogeneity. We are not a global blob. We need people locally to define their needs—no more imposition of mission statements.” Social justice also emerged as a theme, with representatives of women’s colleges calling for a commitment to increasing access to education, something they “do well,” Stimpson reported.

Public-policy goals included a focus on intersecting social identities—how race, gender, class, nationality, and other issues should be addressed. Numerous collaborations were proposed, and the group on women in the academy raised “the work-life issue,” Stimpson said, noting that the issue is raised again and again at gatherings of academics. “I’m sick of hearing about it. But the fact that I’m sick of it means it’s still there,” Stimpson quipped, urging listeners, “Use your nausea.”

A keynote address by New York Times columnist and author Nicholas Kristof closed the conference on Saturday afternoon. Kristof characterized gender inequity as “the foremost moral challenge of this century,” the successor to slavery in the 19th century and totalitarianism in the 20th.

“We don’t often think of gender inequity as lethal,” Kristof continued, but the selective denial of nutrition and medical care to women and girls around the world accounts for a higher global population of men than women. He used as an illustration a photo he had taken of a skeletal girl in an Ethiopian food center. “Every child in that center was a girl,” he reported. According to Kristof, women and girls who died from gender discrimination in any given decade outnumber all of the century’s genocide victims.

Because information about such appalling injustice is becoming more readily available, Kristof said, women’s issues are moving into the mainstream. But putting aside the argument to justice, “there’s a practical side to the equation, too,” Kristof noted, arguing that addressing gender inequity, particularly through educating women and girls, has profoundly beneficial effects in areas ranging from national security to economic development.

“Women and girls are not the problem,” Kristof concluded. “They are the solution.”

Coverage of the conference, some provided by Bryn Mawr students, is available on the 125th Anniversary Blog; readers are invited to use the comment box to join the conversation. The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer also published articles related to the event.

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