In Washington, Yale ‘sisters’ alliance’ takes stock

Even by Yale standards, this was no ordinary gathering of graduates and friends.

Some were familiar from television or national magazines. One had rowed alone across three oceans. Another spread literacy among Afghan girls under threat of Taliban violence. Some had argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. One was a Supreme Court justice.

Scarcely any were men.

This was a meeting of Yale women — the largest ever, according to organizers — and the consensus was clear: Women have come a long way in the United States, but hardly far enough. The world will be a better place for everyone if they push for true equality.

“The fight is not just a polite one about attitudes,” New Yorker writer Jane Mayer ’77 said at the first YaleWomen global conference, which convened in Washington, D.C., April 19-20. “… You have to make the demand to get the power.”

Women nationwide are reassessing their status and finding ample room for improvement. An article last year in The Atlantic by Anne Marie Slaughter of Princeton and a recent book by Facebook executive (and Harvard alumna) Sheryl Sandberg have served as key texts for a reviving women’s movement. At “Vision, Values Voice: Women Changing a Changing World,” Yale women took up the debate in force.

“Our conference is more timely than we ever could have imagined,” said Ellen Gibson McGinnis ’82, the Washington lawyer who is chair of YaleWomen.

The 18-month-old alumnae group, which grew out of Yale’s 40th anniversary of coeducation celebrations in 2010, organized the two-day event with the Yale World Fellows program and the Association of Yale Alumni. By granting membership to all 55,000 living women alumnae from all Yale schools, YaleWomen instantly became the largest alumni shared-interest group.

More than 400 of those women came to Washington from as far as California and Korea. Many more wanted to: In his remarks, University President-elect Peter Salovey — the only man on the formal program — joked that he had received more emails seeking tickets to the conference than pleas for admission to Yale, “which, believe me, is saying something.”

The program was studded with public figures, among them U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’79 J.D., PBS journalist Margaret Warner ’71, Yale parent Arianna Huffington, former Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall ’ 76 J.D., and Girl Scouts of the USA chief executive Anna Maria Chavez ’90.

Yale professors, administrators, and guests, such as U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, and Yale alumnae from across 49 class years and nearly all Yale schools joined them.

Over two days — in talks, panels, and presentations, over coffee, cocktails, and meals — they focused on the present and future, with nods to feminist triumphs of the past. They shared strategies for finding mentors, underscored the importance of speaking up and speaking out, and probed what some called “the negotiable and the non-negotiable.” They noted complacency among American women born after the burst of feminism in the 1970s, and some admitted to spells of it. They confessed to fears of inadequacy and discussed how fear of failure reinforced their determination to succeed.

Time and again they underscored the enduring underrepresentation of women in positions of authority in business, the academy, the media, and government, challenging each other to take action. Women comprise more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, it was noted, yet less than 20 percent of Congress.

“All vision and no nuts and bolts doesn’t get us anywhere,” said Ann V. Klotz  ’82, head of The Laurel School, an all-girls school near Cleveland.

If frustration and determination bubbled up, so did jubilance and confidence. Participants exchanged easy talk and business cards amid a general murmur of camaraderie and clinking glasses. Yale Vice President Linda Koch Lorimer ’77 J.D. welcomed participants to a “new sisters’ alliance,” a counterweight to the old boys’ network. One Yale World Fellow said she felt the “joy of being in a room dominated by women.” Older women advised younger women. Spontaneous applause served as a soundtrack.

The event began after work on April 19 with a cocktail hour and a tale of daring. Roz Savage, a 2012 Yale Global Fellow, told of leaving her career as a management consultant in London and taking up ocean rowing to draw attention to environmental issues. She had imagined two obituaries for herself, — one likely, one ideal — then resolved to pursue the ideal. Eventually, she said, “It all started to seem frighteningly doable.” She went on to row solo across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and remains the only woman who ever has.

Sotomayor’s introduction Saturday morning prompted a standing ovation before she spoke a word.

In an hour-long live interview with Warner, the justice talked about her life and recent memoir, “My Beloved World,” touching on the ways she’d been shaped by early family life, college at Princeton, and friends and mentors at Yale Law School.

She described herself as a person who “sees the glass half-full,” while affirming the importance of self-assertion and vigilant attention, and the value of ceaseless learning.

“The people I like hanging out with are the people who teach me things,” she said. “I learned that early.”

Huffington wrapped her messages in anecdotes, self-deprecating asides, and send-ups of men’s behavior. She urged women to be wary of conceiving of success as defined by men or adopting their aggressive behaviors or pointless bravado.

Recalling a meal with a man who boasted of having slept only four hours the previous night, Huffington said she’d wanted to tell him, “You know, if you’d had five, this dinner would be a lot more interesting.”

“The process of renewal is not a cop-out,” she said, noting that her media enterprise, The Huffington Post, has two nap rooms. “… It’s the best way for us to be more effective.”

A frequent theme during the conference was the need for women to stand up for each other. “Pull a girl up with you,” Chavez said. “Because it’s the only way we’re going to get ahead.”

In a standing-room-only session about the concept of equality, Marshall — who on July 1 becomes the first female senior fellow of the Yale Corporation — urged women to vote, seek political office, undertake something, however, modest, for the betterment of women and society.

“Leave your comfortable perch and go down to where it’s really happening,” she said, “and I think you’ll make a revolution.”

An aside Marshall made in the same session could serve as the conference manifesto: “If anyone ever asks you, ‘Are you a feminist?,’ just say ‘yes.’”

Women first enrolled at Yale in 1869, in the School of Art. Yale College went co-ed in 1969. As of fall 2012, women accounted for slightly more than 50 percent of enrollment at Yale University, all schools included; women made up 53 percent of students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.