Two Wendys Who Dared
To cap off Women's History Month, we want to recognize two stellar women who were recently honored in Chicago as part of JWA's Women Who Dared project. You may have seen our online exhibition of Women Who Dared, which features interview segments with over 50 pioneering women in Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans.
What you may not know is that the project continues in Chicago through biannual events (hosted by Jewish Women's Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Women's Division of the Jewish United Fund) honoring new women who dare to bring change to their communities and beyond. I recently had the pleasure to speak on the phone with the two most recent honorees, who happen to both be named Wendy. They attended Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management together, yet were honored at this event for the work they have done outside of "corporate America" -- applying the skills they obtained in business school in the not-for-profit world to make an impact on their communities and beyond.
Wendy Abrams has been a climate change activist on a mission since learning about the threat of global warming eight years ago (this was way before An Inconvenient Truth). While many of us responded to learning about global warming by making lifestyle changes such as buying compact florescent light bulbs and trying to drive less frequently, Wendy has devoted herself to this cause on a larger scale -- lobbying congress, volunteering for environmental organizations, and founding a nonprofit organization called Cool Globes. In 2007 Wendy organized the public art exhibition Cool Globes: Hot Ideas for a Cooler Planet, featuring 120 large-scale globes, which hundreds of artists, school children, and other collaborators used as their canvases to convey messages about global warming. Seed packets, pinwheels, ink cartridges, and scrap metal are just a few of the materials that have decorated these globes.
When I asked Wendy A. about how being female had affected her activism and work, she said: "I think that sometimes -- particularly on an issue like the environment -- you're seen as this hysterical housewife that you're overreacting and emotional versus a man who would be much more rational and logical. I kind of just ignored that. I made sure that I was presenting myself as rational and reasonable, because this wasn't an emotional thing, this was based in facts. This is an issue that should never have been framed as a special interest, but as a public interest. But on the other hand it should be a particular concern to women and mothers."
I also enjoyed learning about Wendy Platt Newberger's leadership in the Jewish community. When I spoke with Wendy P. N. about being honored for Women Who Dared, she was hesitant to categorize herself as an "activist," but her leadership on issues of pluralism and diversity within Jewish education suggests otherwise. I certainly would describe Wendy as an activist for Jewish life. She is committed to Jewish education for individuals of all ages, with roles such as founding president of the Chicago Jewish Day School and member of the international board for the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School. Her involvement with the Chicago Jewish Day School, as with other organizations, has been motivated by "its mission of multi-denominationalism." Wendy stands out as advocate for the Jewish community; she explained, "to be a strong Jewish community, we have to be respectful and tolerant, and truly embrace our whole Jewish community."
Wendy P. N. and I talked a lot about her work with the school and her own upbringing. When I asked her the same question, about how being female affected her activism and work, she said: "I like to pretend that things like race and gender don't matter, but I think there have been benefits to being a woman in terms of my leadership style. But at times it has been challenging to not be a part of the old boys' network-it's not what I can rest on. The perspective of being a woman and being a mother lends itself to certain characteristics-problem solving, listening, multitasking, patience when things need to move at a certain pace-but it's beyond that. Understanding that my unique strengths are what [make me effective], and you can connect that to being a woman, but it is also just who I am."
What do you think the relationship is between gender identity and activism? Is it a connection we feel comfortable making? Is it useful? limiting? empowering?