Elayne Clift


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Feminist Media and Its Contribution to Organizational Life

Elayne Clift is a writer, journalist, adjunct professor of women’s studies, and feminist activist in Saxtons River, Vt., USA.
Her latest edited collection is
Women, Philanthropy and Social Change: Visions for a Just Society (Tufts University, 2005).

I open the conference program and there it is:  "The media is going to be at this event, and many of them are looking for anything they can find to undermine the process we are trying to start."  Over and over again as a journalist, writer, and communications expert, I have encountered the same hostility, the same distrust, and the same lack of understanding about who I am and what I do. 

This phenomenon has been painful to me as a feminist journalist because I have committed my working life to public health, gender, social justice issues, and communication.  Yet, writing for alternative presses, I have been disparaged by famous feminists, press relations staff, and conference organizers.  Often treated as if I were lazy and ill-informed, I begin to wonder myself if I care enough, understand the issues, or can shake my editors awake to get women’s issues covered properly.

 The negative, hostile reaction to journalists is so frequent and painful that several experiences spring immediately to mind. At a global conference I covered in November 1991, for example, when the first international meeting of women and the environment was convened prior to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the world's women highlighted the critical role they play in effecting sustainable development. Eight working groups were established to influence the process that would be undertaken in Rio in writing an international Plan of Action.  Sectors such as health, economics, and micro-enterprise were represented, but information, education, and communication (IEC) was not -- until we reporters protested, lobbied, and insisted, culminating in the addition of a ninth work group. 

Frequently, while interviewing some of the international stars of the women's movement, I have been patronized with responses such as, "If you'd ever been there, you would realize...."  None of the women I was interviewing asked what my background or experience was.  They might have been surprised to learn what I could bring to the dialogue.  I had worked in the developing world extensively and knew well what village reality was for women; that was why I was posing my questions.  None of the respondents had stopped to think that maybe I was at this event – at my own expense -- because I understood their issues deeply and personally, and was desperately trying to give voice to the majority of human beings on earth – women -- whose stories are never on the front pages of The New York Times.

Often no arrangements have been made at feminist conferences for press briefings, no hard copy of speeches is available, no interview room is set aside for TV or radio interviews, no way of filing stories exists.

I have covered many international feminist symposia which tout inclusion but which have yet to include media experts as part of an integrated panel discussion rather than a ghettoized workshop.  We are seldom viewed as a legitimate working group representing an important sector with specialized knowledge.  Rarely are we called upon as expert strategists in organizing and disseminating information, in framing debate, in positioning priorities. 

As a specialist in health communication as well as a journalist/writer, such exclusion and lack of understanding of what I do is even more frustrating.  I want my colleagues in the larger world of women’s issues, public health, and international development to see what I can contribute to public policy, to women’s advancement and self-sufficiency, and to individual behavior change, just as I want others to understand that while there may be a troublesome media establishment, there are also those of us who are not paparazzi, but rather partners in social change.

Another example may be enlightening.  Once I visited one of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Healthy Cities in Europe.  The program's director spoke about the principles and strategies of a much-touted health promotion initiative, which included community participation and intersectoral cooperation.  But she was stumped when I asked her how, in the context of such integration, the program works with the information sector. "We find public relations a problem," she said, launching into a diatribe about a media expose that had caused the Ministry of Health embarrassment.  The notion of information as a sector with something to contribute to health education and promotion, and of communication as a relevant specialty rather than solely as a public relations function, eluded her.

To help people like that woman understand my concern, it may be enlightening to review briefly my own personal odyssey into the field of communication, which I arrived at with a deep commitment to feminism and to applying a gender lens to health education and promotion. 

My journey began about twenty years ago when I realized the power of media to educate and inform, to give voice to the disenfranchised.  I had been a health policy analyst and educator, a program manager, and a professional advocate. I had also been a journalist  and had done public relations work.  Through my work as Program Director at The National Women’s Health Network in Washington, D.C., I saw how media could be used to empower individuals and communities. I recognized women's potential for shaping information and for giving voice to their own experience as an exciting way for them to act for themselves, for their families, and for their communities.  I wanted to “marry” health to media. So I produced and hosted a Cable TV series called “Woman to Woman” where women "experts" shared information, validating other women’s experience.  I began reporting for an international women's radio program, and focused my journalism on international women's issues. In 1985, I attended the final conference of the U.N. Decade for Women in Nairobi, Kenya, where I reported for various alternative women’s presses.

Then I began a graduate degree in communication which would credential me to do more of this work from an organizational base.  Ultimately I was employed by an organization in Washington, D.C. that was growing into one of the pre-eminent venues pioneering social communication and media advocacy in public health. It wasn’t a feminist organization.  But it was doing groundbreaking communications work focused on social change and I thought, naively, that I could become its feminist conscience. There, I co-managed an international health communication project with a focus on maternal and child health sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  In 1990 I left that position to teach, write, and consult, the latter only when organizations realized that communication skills were relevant to their needs.

The point of this biography is not ego but exposition to the frustration I feel every time someone denigrates me or misunderstands one of my colleagues, treating us as part of the malingering media or overlooking the role that a feminist communication specialist might play in the overall design of programs, policies, or social change strategy.  I hope it demonstrates that we are a group of highly trained and experienced individuals who have contributions to make emanating from personal commitment as well as sound and transferable skills.  Surely we should be taking our rightful place alongside economists, anthropologists, ethnographers, policy analysts, and others whose work is recognized for the valuable contribution it makes to the broader feminist agenda.  Whether as communication researcher, planner, implementer, evaluator, or trainer; as media advocacy specialist or public relations and marketing professional; as gatekeeper negotiator, materials design expert, production specialist, and sometimes "mistress of the dumb question," it is time for our sisters to understand who we are, and what we do.  To keep us marginal, to exclude us in the urgent work of our time because we are not understood and what we do is under-valued, is to miss an enormous opportunity.  That's why I plead with women in leadership to learn who we are, what we do, and what we can offer.

There could be no better time for this change to take place. The feminist movement has made measurable progress in underscoring and elevating the importance of media in women’s lives.  During the 1975 to 1985 United Nations Decade for Women, at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and at various other forums, Plans of Action have addressed the importance of media for women.  While a fully developed feminist critique did not emerge in the early years of the Decade, criticism and feminist analysis drew to attention several key issues, including the under-representation of women in news and programming; the trivialization and sex role stereotyping in news and entertainment content; and the under-representation of women in decisionmaking or gatekeeper positions (e.g., editors, producers).  In its World Plan of Action, the report from Mexico City in 1975 named the mass media as the central mechanism through which women’s roles would be changed, their social participation accelerated, and discrimination against them ended.  Subsequent Plans of Action elaborated upon this theme, proposing that mass media and advertising “establish, consistent with freedom of expression, professional guidelines and codes of conduct that address violent, degrading or pornographic materials concerning women in the media, including advertising.”  The Beijing Platform also underscored the “need to increase the number of programs by/for women to see to it that women’s needs and concerns are properly addressed.”  Such language in a document signed by 189 nations of the world codified women’s demand for equality, balance and fairness within the entire information sector.

It is also important to take note of “The Bangkok Declaration,” a document emanating from an international meeting of women communicators from 80 countries in Thailand in 1994. Calling for “women empowering communication,” the Bangkok document was strengthened a year later in Sweden when the Kalmar Declaration was adopted by all participants at the International Women and Media Seminar.  Both the Bangkok and the Kalmar Declarations call for increased press freedom, research and training, networking among gender sensitive media, and greater participation by and inclusion of women. Similarly, a subsequent Media and Violence Against Women Forum held in New York at the United Nations called for strategies to eliminate violence against women in the media, media literacy and access, industry codes of conduct, continued monitoring, and independent regulatory bodies to deal with issues of gender equality in various media.

Studies in countries as diverse as Ecuador, Nigeria, and Egypt confirm that the male world of media is global.  Such studies have been crucial in advancing our knowledge of and our concern about women and media.  At the same time, from this politics of marginality, have come independent feminist and woman-centered media who, individually and collectively, are having a measurable impact globally.  (Women are now the majority of Internet users and are reshaping how information is shared.)         Clearly, progress in the realm of women and media is promising. But the concurrent lack of progress from within the women’s movement itself is troubling. We’ve made great strides in understanding and overcoming our oppression and “otherness” in terms of the male hierarchy that continues to control the media and the information sector. But the sad thing is that some of our otherness, some of our being shut out, is also coming from within the feminist arena as well.  Our own sisters are eyeing us with distrust and sometimes contempt.  How do we move beyond that kind of sibling rivalry? 

Years of feminist activism has reinforced a sad lesson for me:  “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as a British lord once claimed.  I believe, too, that power corrupts irrespective of gender.  So the first lesson, perhaps, is that in order to strengthen our feminist organizations and to continue building a vibrant, viable movement, we need to let go competition; to share power, insight, interpretation; to embrace disciplines that may be new to us; and certainly to welcome into the fold women whose work may be unlike our own.   We must be sure that our own processes are transparent and accountable, just as we ask that of men and male organizations.  We must not just “talk the talk” of inclusion but also demonstrate our genuine commitment to it at every bend and turn, and to every woman whose training, experience, expertise, and analysis is germane to our common goal of advancement.  We must honor all women’s knowledge and skill.  We are obliged to understand “best practices” outside our own areas of legitimacy.  We must build true alliances that transcend rhetoric and count as partners those women who open up new avenues of discourse and action.

How do we operationalize such lofty goals?   First, I would suggest, we think consciously about what participation really means.  We listen, ask, and question our own biases.  We ensure there are women with expertise in media advocacy, communications for behavior change, public relations strategies, information technology and other related fields participating in our public debates.  We see to it that people on our own staffs understand the importance of press rooms, press kits, press passes, and press people.  We  ask speakers to provide papers in multiple copies, have phone banks, computers, copiers, printers, interview rooms and yes, coffee available.  And more than anything else, we  assume nothing, except that power plays have no place in a feminist world, that leadership wears many faces, that our mission is invisible unless we help our colleagues tell their stories.

The building of movements is not unlike the building of physical structures:  Build from the ground up, using the best tools and materials available. Similarly, strengthening feminist organizations is like strengthening ourselves individually.  We mature from interacting with others, from sharing, exploring, taking risks.  We trust each other.  We ask for help when needed. We learn from experience.  We find new ways to think about ourselves, and others.     

In the end, there is not much difference between individual and organizational growth, except perhaps that one is more visible than the other and may, if we are lucky, have more impact.  In both cases, however, we reap what we sow.  And quite possibly, we make headlines.   

July 2005