On January 15th, The Atlantic presented “The Shriver Report LIVE,” a full-day event in Washington, D.C., where thought leaders, activists, and women and men from around the country gathered to explore and discuss the issues raised in the latest Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink. You can watch video of the live event here. Below is an essay from one our reporters written after witnessing the event.
Few Americans know the story of Sofya Kovalevsky, an 18th century Russian mathematician. And yet her experiences would resonate with what millions of American women face now, especially those women who live on the brink of poverty, and confront daily its toll on their families, work, health, education, and options.
Like so many modern women, the culture into which Sofya was born forced her to make hard decisions about her loves, her family, and her livelihood. Her mathematical genius emerged early on, and she received some formal education. At that time, however, women could not enroll in college—they could sit in on classes if their husbands were enrolled! And so Sofya entered a “marriage of convenience” to a young man, and followed him to Germany to continue her studies. Years later, left destitute by her husband’s suicide, Sofya could not support or care for their daughter, so sent her to live with relatives.
Despite constant challenges, Sofya excelled: She was the first European woman to receive a doctorate degree. Her mathematical achievements inform some of Einstein’s theories. She wrote stories and novels. She eventually forged a new life as a professor in Sweden, and fell in love with a distant cousin, Maxim Kovalevsky. He wanted to marry her, but would do so only if she gave up her career. The story has it that she was heartbroken by the decision—and died of influenza before having a chance to answer.
I thought of Sofya often the other day, when I joined an event in Washington, DC, celebrating the release of The Shriver Report. Every speaker touched on themes that are as prevalent today as they were 150 years ago. As a nation, we do not support, foster, or promote the wisdom, the potential, the resources or the lives of the 42 million American women who live in poverty. These women are a third of our society—and yet, for most of us, they are invisible. Too often, we regard them with disdain, judgment, and worse. We do not see their faces, know their struggles, or consider their dreams.
A day spent listening to dozens of speakers presented a chance to do just that. And while the program featured many high-profile, powerful women—from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Leader Nancy Pelosi, to Maria Shriver and Carol Gilligan—its real strength came from raising the voices of ordinary women who shared not only their stories of struggle and hardship, but intimate reflections on their resilience, perseverance, and success.
In an opening reflection, Sister Joan Chittister said that a society that allows so many women to live in poverty denies itself the wisdom and resources women have to offer. And, she said, “This is no accident. It is policy.” Indeed, in the wake of policies aimed at dismantling safety net programs, from Head Start to food stamps, one sees the dramatic effects of policy on poor people.
The event gave many every day people a chance to speak out. An early panel featured several women who described the circumstances that had led them to poverty—and then the opportunities, supports, and programs that moved them from it. An afternoon panel featured three remarkable 17-year olds, all participants in a New York program called Sadie Nash, who aim to break free of the poverty into which they had been born by pursuing their education. These young women spoke with confidence and poise, and were a real testimony to the good that can come from focused supports and services that build self-esteem and self-reliance.
In a time and city in which things are often not what they seem to be—where political power struggles thwart change and improvement—the day built on a sense of truth-telling and witness. As Maria Shriver noted, ending women’s poverty will require solutions that engage “the head and the heart.” An honest reckoning of the situation is one step—and each speaker delivered just that.
Most memorable may have been Barbara Ehrenreich’s response to a question about her reaction to Ari Fleischer’s statement that the problem could be solved by getting more women to marry. “Really? And how many men would they have to marry to get out of poverty?” she said. In a world of sub-living wages, marrying poor men is no solution, and no security.
From my vantage, one of the day’s most inspiring speakers was Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon from Riverdale, GA, a community just south of Atlanta. She noted that, “one day, one hour, your whole circumstance can change.” In her life, which had included a period of homelessness as a single woman with four children, those circumstances changed for the better once she returned to college. Eventually earning a doctorate, she ran for mayor after being encouraged to do so by her pastor.
“All some people need is a hand,” she said. “Not money, but encouragement….You need to open your mind to see that valuable people are everywhere, and your ZIP code does not make you. You do.” For herself, she said, she had made her own life a “magnificent obsession,” one in which she has been determined not only to improve her life and experiences, but the lives and experiences of others.
Throughout the day, people spoke of the qualities and values so needed in our national dialogue—values that are often associated with the feminine, but that are actually, simply human. Again and again, speakers described the need for programs and policies that respect people, that are built on compassion and care, that honor women’s work and roles, that incorporate what Anne-Marie Slaughter called “habits of the heart.”
Those habits must include taking action, working from our own hearts and capacities to build a society in which all people have opportunities to thrive, in which every voice matters, and on which the future can shine. In The Shriver Report, we see how so many women are on the brink of disaster—we need to create places that allow them to live on the brink of change, opportunity, growth, and success. We need to re-discover the best elements of our rich culture, and re-deploy them for the good.