|Serena Ferente, Fellow Villa i Tatti, Professor Kings College London
The Vital Voices Global Partnership joined forces with NYU´s La Pietra Dialogues to bring an extraordinary array of personalities from government, business, journalism, academia and many no-profit non-governmental organizations, worlds that do not often talk to each other, to Florence. The occasion was a discussion of global actions in favor of women’s welfare, in preparation for the U.N. conference of March 2010 celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the U.N. Fourth World Conference on the Status of Women, held in Beijing in 1995. Inspiring figures, such as Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the new U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, and the doyenne of magazine journalism Tina Brown, shared the table with corporate executives, politicians, diplomats, and activists from dozens of different countries.
Vital Voices’ mission is women´s empowerment around the globe and the focus is especially on the promotion of female political and economic leadership. Vital Voices is now an NGO but its roots are in the Clinton White House and especially in the vision of the interconnectedness of gender equality with global development and peace spelled out so successfully by Hillary Clinton in Beijing. Vital Voices aims to be a driving force as well as a resource for smaller organizations and individuals that operate locally and lack the means and the visibility necessary for global coordination.
The meeting itself functioned as a forum to exchange experiences of the past and ideas for the future. The issues at stake ranged from women’s property rights to human trafficking, from peace-keeping to political representation; remarkable stories were told (often by the protagonists themselves) and powerful visions of the world emerged. A town hall in Florence’s Salone de’Cinquecento followed the last session in front of a surprisingly large audience. Mayor Matteo Renzi gallantly explained how Florence owes its artistic patrimony’s integrity to a woman’s farsightedness, the last Medici duchess. The words of Kakenya Ntaiya on life in a rural village in Kenya and Senator Emma Bonino’s impassioned and funny address on women in the media stirred up emotion in the assembled crowd.
What I thought was most interesting about the meeting was what it seemed to reveal about the future of feminist movements. Vital Voices´ as well as many activists’ approach is eminently pragmatic. The inspiration may come from Hillary Clinton´s speech in Beijing "women´s rights are human rights", but the idea itself of rights no longer figures prominently in the agenda. Linda Swana of the Guatemalalan foundation Proyecto de Vida said it very clearly: it is no longer a "fight", it is all about "negotiation". If the idea of women´s rights doesn´t move (male) hearts and minds, then activists need to appeal to economic interests. This approach may explain why the meeting did not address some thorny traditional "women´s issues", including sexuality, a theme that can easily prove divisive.
The World Bank is to be credited instead for the idea of bringing women´s issues to the attention of private business. The most visible result of this attitude was the presence at the table of representatives from three big corporations (Goldman Sachs, Ernst and Young, and Exxon Mobile), deeply involved in the general discussion, and willing to contribute. A substantial amount of resources – money, as well as skills and networks – can be mobilized in partnerships with big corporations, and results are already encouraging. Future campaigns are likely to focus on women´s economic empowerment, as epitomized by the World Bank´s slogan "investing in women is smart economics".
This represents a major shift in the objectives of women’s movements around the world and may turn out to be the hallmark of feminism in the third millennium. The results already achieved in various parts of the world, particularly, but not only, with the tools of microfinance, are often convincing, sometimes exhilarating, and the global economic crisis appears as an opportunity to re-orient policies and discourses.