For YaleWomen, boundless ambition, local action

YaleWomen can draw a crowd — in April more than 400 alumnae attended the network’s first global conference, in Washington, with star appearances by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79, Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chavez ’90, and Yale parent Arianna Huffington, among others.

Pictured at the “Women in the Media” panel are (from left) journalist Catherine Cheney ‘10, who organized the event, and two of the other featured speakers: Yuki Noguchi ‘97, a business reporter for National Public Radio, and Kathy Slobogin ‘74, managing editor for Al Jazeera America. (Photo by Henry Kwan)

The two-day event — the largest off-campus assembly of Yale women ever — had sold out quickly, and participants traveled from as far as California and Korea to attend. A second conference, focused on the arts, is under consideration.

Between blockbuster events, YaleWomen’s leadership is exploring how best to fulfill the group’s promise as both a network of Yale women focused on lifelong learning and community-building, and an agent for the advancement of all women, while members across the country are convening for smaller-scale gatherings initiated by a dozen chapters

“Chapters are the heart and soul of YaleWomen,” said the group’s chair, Ellen G. McGinnis ‘82. “The central organization needs to exist for governance — to enable big events like the Global Conference, to help chapters communicate and share best practices, and to make sure our mission and values are reflected at every level — but day-to-day action is in the chapters, and lots of ideas are generated there.”

In northern California members attended a workshop on Chinese medicine and women’s health. In Seattle they met for a nature walk on Bainbridge Island. In New York they attended a performance of “Ann” at Lincoln Center, and in New Haven they gathered for chamber music in a private home. The Chicago chapter organized a conference on the role of “[computer] coding and open government data” in transforming Chicago civic projects. And a member in Los Angeles credits that chapter’s writers’ group for helping her publish a book.

“I couldn’t have done it without support from the writer’s group,” said Deborah Cohen ‘76, author of the forthcoming “A Big Fat Crisis,” about the obesity epidemic.

YaleWomen is thriving at the local level through the initiative of people like Catherine Cheney ’10, of Dover, Delaware.

A journalist who affiliates with YaleWomen’s Washington chapter and also serves as co-chair of the Yale Alumni Journalism Association, Cheney figured an event pairing two interests would be a double draw, so she put together “Women’s Voices in the Media: A Panel of Yale Women in Journalism,” an after-work event in Washington one Tuesday, at a Capitol Hill club.

Cheney knew Molly Ball ’01, a writer for The Atlantic, from the time both worked at Politico, and recruited her and three other women journalists she admired —  and Holly Sweetland Edwards ‘05, a writer for Washington Monthly.

“I was trying to find a way I could help both organizations,” said Cheney, who moderated a 90-minute, wide-ranging discussion after remarks by Eleanor LeCain ’77, president of the Washington chapter of YaleWomen, the co-sponsor.

The journalists covered a lot of ground, touching on pay inequity, fear of failure, and the occasional delicacy of cultivating male mentors. They debated whether female reporters ought to make a special effort to include women as sources in stories, acknowledged the premium of beauty in television news, and generally provided frank views of life and work in a fiercely competitive, all-hours profession that demands compromises.

“I can’t imagine having had kids in my 20s,” Noguchi said of the years she was a reporter at The Washington Post, chasing stories and fielding questions from editors at all hours of day.

While NPR brings many of the same demands, she said, she was well established in her career by the time she arrived there, and more assertive in setting boundaries. “I just put my foot down about what I could and couldn’t do,” she said.

And yet, just months after giving birth, she went to Japan for three months to cover the aftermath of the devastating March 2011 earthquake there. “I love my job,” she said. “You have to make peace with whatever your choices are.”

Edwards found that being a woman offered a surprising professional advantage in Yemen, where nearly all journalists are men and local culture keeps men and women largely apart: She was able to get access to women, whose stories were almost entirely overlooked — but not by her. Some of her best insights into the country came from “chopping parsley” with Yemeni women in their kitchens, she said, experiences she’d never have had if she’d accepted a job she spurned in Seattle: the “girl-about-town-cocktail beat” reporter.

Ball, who covers politics, said the evolution of journalism in the Internet age gives women greater opportunity than ever before to distinguish themselves on raw merit. The rich fauna of new publications, and the ability to cultivate a professional reputation through social media, she noted, means the imprimatur of an established news organization is less essential than it once was.

“The work matters much more than the job,” she said.

Slobogin — who said she first took a job in journalism “to support my dancing habit,” then went on to work at The New York Times, ABC, CBS, CNN, and now Al Jazeera — played “dean” of the group, offering the perspective afforded by a full career.

She even ventured that — contrary to the zeitgeist represented by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter — perhaps women don’t need to be all things to all people at all moments.

But she said she’s glad she’s often tried.

“My kids turned out great,” she told those assembled. “And they’re so proud of me for having a career.”

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