Cathy Renna

My weekend with Rosie O'Donnell and Gloria Steinem

Filed By Cathy Renna | November 13, 2007 9:52 AM | comments

Filed in: Media, The Movement
Tags: feminism, Gloria Steinem, lesbians, media, NOW, Rosie O'Donnell, women's rights

I wanted my first post to have a catchy headline so that folks would read it. And after spending last weekend working at a feminist conference, I thought a peek at this gathering through my eyes would be as good an introduction as any.

From a historical standpoint, the “Freedom on Our Terms” conference, organized by the late congresswoman Bella Abzug's daughter Liz, provided a terrific lesson in looking back long enough to learn a lesson and then look toward the future. It was also a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the first women’s conference held in Houston in 1977, presided over by the iconic Bella Abzug and funded by the Federal Government (this one was clearly not!).

At the 1977 conference, in support of the sexual "preference" resolution, a small group of women brought imprinted balloons declaring, "WE ARE EVERYWHERE" and invited lesbians to identify themselves. That bold assertion of visibility, particularly in the context of the effort to exclude lesbians was a huge contribution to the advancement of lesbian and gay rights. Hundreds of new balloons were carried into the hall as Betty Friedan took the podium on behalf of N.O.W. to deliver her deathblow to the sexual "preference" resolution. In one of the most defining acts of feminist history, however, Betty instead called for the protection of lesbian rights and further apologized for having lacked the courage to fight for equality side by side with lesbian and bisexual women.

I am a big fan of history - especially when there is some lessons and progress attached to it – so I was intrigued from the second I heard about it.

And that was why, when conference co-organizer Pam Elam, an out lesbian and staffer for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, asked me to help out, I took it on as a challenge. I knew it would be tough, even with names like O’Donnell and Steinem at the top of a list of a virtual “who’s who” of feminist leaders of all ages. The mainstream (read: corporate) media is a tougher and tougher sell for anything with substance, and if it doesn’t have to do with the war or Presidential election it is always an uphill battle, so I was loaded for bear. I also participated in a panel called “Queering the Lines.” Both were instructive and taught me a lot about the current state of affairs for feminists and what major challenges lie ahead for all women.

Of course the panel was terrific. With an over capacity filled room of women of all ages and types, we had a fantastic and thoughtful conversation about ENDA, internalized sexism and frustration with the binary system that labels all of us in some way and creates the boxed that divide us.

But it was the media that I was mainly focused on, and it was a huge challenge to get any mainstream media there. One would think such a diverse and interesting conference would attract the interest of a wide variety of media – but I knew from experience it would be difficult. The most receptive media were exactly who I expected: LGBT media, fascinated by the historical angle and the high profile lesbians associated with the conference; progressive media, looking to take the pulse of the feminist movement; and youth based media, who wanted to see what the inter-generational work that was happening was all about.

Of course, it was Rosie and Gloria who brought in the “big guns,” like Fox News, Inside Edition and the New York Post. Great. Rosie said it best. After her rousing and heartfelt speech about the war in Iraq, the sorry state of the corporate media and how we can best make a difference, the mainstream media packed up their tripods and left. But not without her pointing it out. “See, the media leave once the celebrity is finished! Why don’t you stay here and listen to the rest of these women, you might learn something.” How much do I love Rosie?

JennRosieCathy.jpgOne of the great perks of doing this work is that I had the chance to escort Rosie in and make sure she had what she needed, as well as coordinate any interviews and the usual photos with organizers (yes, I got one myself). Seeing her take the time to talk to dozens of people as we headed through the hallway, turning the tables on some of the media by taping them for her blog, only cemented the respect I have for her. Her speech was amazing, but my favorite moment with her was watching her interact with the Children’s Pressline, a kids’ media service, backstage. Her joy and encouragement was inspirational. Watching her hand a book about Bella Azbug to one of the kids when she found out they were not familiar with the historic feminist figure? Adorable. And the look on the girl’s face when Rosie told her to read the book, then send her a report (handing the kid her personal email in order to do so)? Priceless. It also made me realize how genuine she is about creating a better future for all kids.

On Sunday, I had a similar experience with Gloria Steinem. After her keynote I had to hustle her to the green room for interviews, past a gaggle of young women who wanted pictures, books signed, or just to shake the hand of this feminist pioneer. I think I may be the last living nice publicist, but I promised them she would be out soon and soon enough she was, taking the time to chat, take some photos, and answer all the question of these teens and twenty-somethings surrounding her. And trust me, their questions were better than most of the journalists.

I walked out of Hunter College Sunday afternoon with mixed feelings. I had wished for more mainstream media – but tried to be realistic. Any mainstream coverage would be superficial at best anyway. I am looking forward to seeing what the Village Voice, Advocate, CBS News on LOGO, Huffington Post and others have to say.

As I take on this new responsibility at Bilerico Project, I plan on writing about many subjects, but will focus on the media and cultural issues I care about. They tell me I can even write about clients (my favorite thing to talk about). As the Managing Partner of one of very few LGBT focused communications firms, I can offer a different viewpoint that comes from an insider’s perspective, but with a realistic, provocative, and fresh approach. And as the mother of a 2-year-old with my amazing wife Leah, you can bet I will be like any other mother and work them into my posts, too. I look forward to the dialogue. If you want to learn more about me you can check out my corporate site, Renna Communications.

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Hi Cathy! Great to see that you're Bilerico-ing these days, as well.

"Loaded for bear," by the way, is my new favorite expression.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 13, 2007 1:58 PM

Welcome, Cathy! I look forward to reading your posts.

Wow, that sounds like a great weekend. What an inspiration women like that are for all of us!

What an awesome opportunity! Did you get a chance to make a pass at either one of them? ;^)

Great first post, Cathy! I knew there was a reason I liked Rosie (there had to be at least one, I was sure of it).

OK, to clarify, I made no passes at anyone (please note last graph about beautiful wife and child ;-))

If anythng, Rosie gave my wife the "eye" at the glaad awards a few years ago - she clearly prefers blondes