Last night, Ballet Memphis hosted a public conversation titled “Equality Divide & Women in the Arts” as a part of its Spark! series. About 30 women and six men, including four panelists, showed up to discuss what it is like to be XX chromosome-ed as well as a professional artist.
Is it possible to have an effective conversation about gender inequality in a polite two-hour block? The tradition to persists, helpful or not, in the long shadow of our fore-mothers’ activism. Today’s events are more marketing-oriented (we were told last night that the conversation was a ‘safe space’ but were also reminded that it was being recorded) and less overtly political, but the questions remain: What obstacles have women encountered? How have we dealt? What does the narrative about ‘Women in the Workplace’ sound like today? Should we make ourselves more like the workplace, or should we make the workplace more like us?
We talked about women’s management styles (“You don’t have to be on the top of a phalanx with a bayonet.”), our confidence in our own successes (“When you receive something you’ve been wanting forever, it doesn’t feel like you deserve it. Or like it is real.”) and the role of gender in our particular arts fields. We talked about how few men elected to attend a conversation about women’s equality.
I was reminded at several points of Jessica Valenti’s brilliant stock photo compilation, “Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies,” a compilation of those images of briefcase-and-baby-toting women that always accompany middlebrow think-pieces about corporate feminism. Toward the end of the night, the conversation drifted into dreaded territory: the ever-looming, “ How do you balance family with work?” The event’s moderator, Pat Mitchell Worley, commented, “Has anyone ever asked a man that question?”
As is too often the case with these conversations, we kicked up a few different kinds of theoretical dust without really getting down and dirty on any particular topic. More questions were raised than answered. After the event capped at two hours, break-out groups lingered to continue the discussion over champagne and free snacks.
Rather than an annual discussion on gender generalities, it would be great if a local arts organization would lead something consistent, monthly, and with specifics. It’s never a bad idea to get powerful women together. But, as our fore-mothers knew, the conversation always benefits from time and focus.