Did the White House’s United State of Women Summit Live Up to the Hype?


If you work in media, politics, or pretty much within a 10-foot vicinity of women, chances are you were hit with a press release, text, email, invite, or some other form of buzz about the event that took place in the White House earlier this week. The White House hosted the first ever United State of Women Summit, a convening of people from the broad spectrum of gender advocacy. According to the First Lady who shared a post on Medium discussing the event, the goals of the event were to not only celebrate the gains that women have seen across the world, but identify the current barriers and work towards solutions for them. And this was no small undertaking. If you’re visualizing a moderately sized room with a couple hundred people, scratch that. Five thousand people registered to attend the Summit, and the speakers included big names like President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, Kerry Washington, and the top dog herself, Oprah. Social equity giants Ford Foundation, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women, Pepsico Foundation, and the Tory Burch Foundation all played a role in making this event happen.

Needless to say, there was some serious hype around this Summit. I found myself wondering if, underneath the glamour of the the big names and the huge attendance numbers, the event would produce something substantial towards its greater goals. I know from experience that events like this are often wrought with the kind of sentimentality that makes participants feel good when they leave and certainly lays important issues out on a proverbial table for all to see, but prompt little change in the grand scheme of things. Not that they should, if we could honestly fix some of the greatest issues affecting women in a day, we would have done away with Donald Trump a long time ago. But alas there is a definitely a cap on how far we can go in the fight against the issues that plague us.

Almost immediately, there were criticisms on one of the issues that got left behind. The Summit focused on six topics as follows: economic empowerment, health and wellness, educational opportunity, violence against women, entrepreneurship and innovation, and lastly, leadership and civic engagement. Abortion was notably absent from any of these platforms. It wasn’t in the “Health and Wellness” area, where it could exist because abortion is, after all, a medical procedure. Nor was it coyly nestled into the “Violence Against Women” platform, which would acknowledge the shittiness of asking women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term when they don’t want to. While unplanned pregnancy and sexual assault were both on the discussion docket and Planned Parenthood supporters were on site in their pink regalia, talk of abortion had no official place at the Summit.

Despite his commitment to women’s rights and his own insistence that he is a feminist, President Obama has upheld the Helms amendment, which forbids foreign aid from being used to provide abortion services. This is a huge healthcare barrier for women in conflict areas. But even domestically, attacks on abortion have been on the upswing, with more restrictions in place now than there have been in decades.

This slight did not go unnoticed — abortion rights activists protested the event in person and with a full page ad in the Washington Post slamming the President for “excuses and silence” on the issue.

A friend of mine who attended the Summit likened it to a TED Talks conference with a bunch of high profile speakers lined up back to back throughout the day. Jovonna Jones, an artist and doctoral student at Harvard who founded BlacQurl.com, had this to say about her experience:

“I was pleasantly surprised by the State of Women’s attention equity and systemic change in various facets of society: healthcare, media, civic engagement, understanding various forms of gendered violence (sexual, emotional, economic), etc. The organizers did a good job of recruiting speakers who would relay the messages that the State probably never would — thinking specifically about Joanne Smith’s call outs of anti-blackness, state-sanctioned violence, etc. While the diversity there was dope, I felt uncomfortable about the ways in which we would resort to nationalism as a form of unity. For example, POTUS talked about how the violence-against-women issue is also a foreign policy issue, and threw in some Boko Harem/ISIS reprimanding….as if women aren’t terrorized in various ways in this country. While the glass ceilings breaks, there’s a woman still killed for rejecting a cat call. I know there are levels to this shit, but c’mon, POTUS! Overall, I had a great time and I felt honored to be in the room. But as Brittany Packnell said in one of my breakout sessions: ‘We can’t be so happy to be at the table that we don’t disrupt.’ I wonder what room there was or could’ve been for disruption and/or disruptive feedback.”

This last question posed by Jones is an important one for the Summit and the state of our country at large. This was the first White House Summit to focus specifically on gender equity. And this historic event seemed appropriate on the heels of Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman to secure the presidential nomination, albeit unconfirmed. But if Obama has shown us nothing else, it is that for minorities in this country, representation in the upper echelons of politics do not guarantee better conditions for their communities. How much of a disruption is this event or election to our current systems? Or is it just hype?

It’s worth nothing that speakers and panelists in attendance did confront a plethora of issues like addressing sexual assault, LGBT rights, paid maternity and paternity leave, and wage equity issues. And ahead of the Summit, the White House announced $50 million in commitments to improving the lives of girls and women around the world. The commitments come from the White House and a collective of organizations, private-sector companies, and foundations. A number like that is certainly a start and worth a little hype.