Reflecting on a century of continued activism, Mashable spoke with nine women leaders about what the fight for gender equality has meant for them, the movement’s successes, and what still needs to be done.
The responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Tarana Burke, #MeToo Founder
Burke has fought for gender equality in the non-profit sector for more than a decade and recently co-founded the — a collective focused on connecting and organizing the voices of survivors to legislators and decision-makers who inform sexual assault policy. As the originator of the international in 2006, Burke was named one of TIME Magazine’s 2017 People of the Year and continues advocating for the rights of sexual assault survivors.
“Progress for the movement also means that we finally center the voices of Black survivors and survivors of color… The Survivors’ Agenda and ongoing work that Me Too is doing seeks to ensure that BIPOC survivors have adequate access to healing and legal resources and that we’re correctly conveying how the intersections of race, gender, and class impact survivor communities… The progress we seek advances with the people in public office who must fully acknowledge that survivors are a constituency with bold visions for change, whose influence would not only impact their lives but the lives of those around them. Ignoring this expansively diverse demographic is a gross misstep…”
Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center
Goss Graves has worked for the for more than a decade and was one of the co-founders of the , a network of more than 700 attorneys who help people, especially low-income women and women of color, who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. Goss Graves is also a member of the , a national think tank focused on women’s economic equity, and recently joined Burke in co-founding the .
“The world that we are fighting for is really one where women know they can live and learn and work with safety, equity, and dignity. And that we see that show up in every capita of our lives —that is reflected in our culture, it’s reflected in our laws, it’s reflected in our policies, it’s reflected in the way that our institutions operate… When I think about the movement now, there is that clarity that, in the end, we are actually talking about one movement — that support of Black lives is a gender justice movement, and that the movement around survivor justice, both supports Black lives and a gender justice priority… If you think about the lessons that we’ve had over the last century, some of it is understanding that you lose when you narrow your movement.”
Yara Shahidi, Actress and Activist
Shahidi, star of ABC’s Grown-ish, has used her Hollywood spotlight to promote youth voter engagement, education equality, and racial justice to millions of fans. Since founding the youth voter engagement initiative in 2018 (originally known as Eighteen x 18), Shahidi has also partnered with the Citizen Verizon Assembly initiative to facilitate conversations about education inequality and connect students across the country with digital learning resources.
“I never really walked through the world with the assumption that there was a space that I couldn’t be in by nature of my gender. Of course, I didn’t think it was going to be easy. There have been studies showing that it is the classroom which reinforces to young girls that they are not worthy…which can help reaffirm and establish gender dynamics and gender tropes. Not only for young girls in self perception, but for other people, for young men and the way that they view the role of women. The more dangerous repercussions is allowing people to go through their formative education years already placing an entire community in a very particular box.”
Jennicet Gutiérrez, Community Organizer for Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (TQLM)
Gutiérrez is a transgender rights activist, undocumented community organizer, and founding member of , an organization that provides community spaces, leadership opportunities, and counseling services to Latinx members of the LGBTQ community. Gutiérrez received national attention in 2015, after interrupting President Obama’s Pride Month reception speech to ask for the release of LGBTQ immigrants in detention centers and an end to deportations. Since then, she has continued advocating for the rights of undocumented trans women and recently started a digital voter registration to mobilize the LGBTQ vote.
“It’s extremely important for me to center gender equality, gender justice, in the fight for a better world, in the fight for justice and eventually liberation… Gender equality means fighting for all of us so we don’t exclude anyone from having the right to exist and identify in their own beautiful way. I think a failure in the movement is this distinction of what appeals to the heterosexist patriarchy…don’t let it discourage us from finding — or our communities finding — our political homes. It’s critical that in the work and advocacy that we do — in organizing — that we form strong alliances.”
Ai-jen Poo, Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance
Poo has spent more than a decade advocating for the rights of domestic workers and speaking out against workplace discrimination as the director of the (NDWA), a coalition of 60 organizations that advocate for the rights of domestic workers. The NDWA recently announced the to support Black domestic workers, specifically. She is also the co-founder of , a national campaign working for increased protections for home caregivers and the families they serve. She also co-founded the civic engagement organization , a membership-based organization that through organizing and networking opportunities.
“We live in a world where the lives and contributions of men are valued more than those of women, and gender norms and binaries really reinforce that. For me, gender equity would mean that we undo all of those cultural norms and policies and systems that maintain that hierarchy and replace them with new narratives, new norms, and new policies that uplift everyone’s ability to live well… It’s about a movement for humanity. It’s about undoing all of the hierarchies of power privilege that dehumanize us… What will define us is that we will be a driving force to a more humane economy and democracy for everyone.”
Tracy Van Slyke, Strategy Director for Pop Culture Collaborative
Van Slyke is the former director of Culture Lab, which acted as the “innovation” arm of the Citizen Engagement Lab, a nonprofit that connects grassroots organizers and political movements with artists and “culture makers”. She writes often about media and politics, and led the Media Consortium — a progressive media coalition that built economically sustainable plans for independent media outlets — before it was dissolved in 2018. Now, she leads strategy for , an initiative to create more inclusive media representation through grants, learning resources, and networking opportunities aimed at people of color and activists across various industries.
“Gender equality doesn’t stop at representation, diversity, or inclusion. It’s also about who has the ability to help us imagine, and co-create, a future in which we all belong. Entertainment industry leaders, cultural strategists, and social justice movements are already successfully changing the narrative around the most vital and interconnected issues of today: racial justice, gender and trans equity, immigrant rights, economic justice, and more. But we know patriarchal and racist themes are deeply embedded in mass media and popular culture, and as a movement, we haven’t yet scratched the surface of how deeply rooted these ideas are.”
Josephine Kalipelli, Director of Policy and Partnerships at Caring Across Generations
Kalipelli’s experience working on the ground to provide more equitable and affordable healthcare through the non-partisan advocacy group Families USA and a background in social work and family crisis management led her to direct the policy and advocacy arm of . At Caring Across Generations, Kalipelli advocates for more inclusive benefits for domestic workers and caregivers, rooted in family-centered policies that can prevent the exploitation of women of color in care jobs.
“To me, gender equity is the right of every person to dignity, access, fairness, and choice by centering the most marginalized: Black women, particularly Black disabled and transgender women. If we get it right for and with the most marginalized, we will get it right for all… To this day, care jobs are still poverty jobs done primarily by Black and immigrant women — home health aides make on average a year—which means that the people who care for our loved ones can’t even care for their own families. The industry’s perpetually low wages are just one of the many impacts of systemic racism that contribute to multi-generational poverty experienced by Black women.”
Mónica Ramírez, Founder and President of Justice for Migrant Women
In 2014, Ramírez founded , a national advocacy organization for women farm workers who are affected by workplace violence and sexual assault. Since then, she has established her presence in the entertainment industry as the co-founder of initiative, a coalition of activists and artists that facilitate Latinx media representation by providing film festival access, advertising, and community spaces to Latinx creators. Ramírez also helped found , a digital lifestyle website created to empower and educate Latina voters, by actors Eva Longoria and America Ferrera.
“The movement started as a fight to make sure women have a seat at the table. I am at the table because women made room for me… Fighting for a bigger table is the guiding principle behind most of the work that I do because we need the voices of a widely diverse group of women to truly affect the next, crucial wave of change our country needs. In the moments that feel like a failure, we’re seeing vulnerable marginalized women, many of whom are BIPOC and immigrants, being left behind and silenced. This is why I, along with my team at Justice for Migrant Women, work to build power with women in rural America, including the farmworker community, to get civically engaged.”
Sara C. Flowers, Vice President of Education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Flowers joined Planned Parenthood’s leadership in 2018 after a long career in sexual education and public health awareness. She is the former director of youth initiatives at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC)‘s Love Heals Center, where she led sex education programs aimed at LGBTQ youth. Flowers is now Planned Parenthood’s spokesperson for more inclusive, sex-positive health curricula, developing new technologies and approaches to disseminating inclusive sex education to young people across the country.
“As a sex educator, I know that learning never ceases. Our unlearning of gender norms and stereotypes, and understanding of gender equity and inclusive, sex positive experiences, is something that goes beyond that 5th grade lesson — it is a lifelong process… The gender binary was reinforced regularly when I entered sex education as both a student and in my early career as an educator… In today’s sex education classes, we’re moving away from this frame to include topics like pleasure, consent, and safety as they apply to people across all gender identities, and we’re advocating for the experiences and bodies of trans, nonbinary, and queer youth to be visible and honored in curricula, and every facet of their lives.”
The fight for gender justice is far from over. Of the 3,000 Americans polled by the Pew Research Center, 77% stated that sexual harassment is the biggest obstacle in the fight for gender equality, while about 66% said that different societal expectations of men and women have impacted gender parity. The poll didn’t address these questions in the context of transgender or nonbinary Americans.
But there’s progress to acknowledge as well, like the record number of women of color running for Congress this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Activists and leaders, who comprise a gender justice movement that expands far beyond just the industries highlighted above, try to turn the failures of past movements into action items for the future. And in doing so, they see a country defined by equity, diversity, and justice for all those in the margins.
UPDATE: Oct. 12, 2020, 9:21 a.m. EDT A previous version of this story stated that Goss Graves led the Institute of Women’s Policy Research. She is a member of the organization. The story has been corrected to reflect that.
UPDATE: Oct. 12, 2020, 10:02 a.m. EDT A previous version of the story referred to Van Slyke’s organization as “Popular Culture Collaboration” when it’s actually called “Pop Culture Collaborative.” The story has been corrected to reflect that.