More than 5,000 powerful women from across the country and around the world met in Washington, DC for the first-ever United State of Women summit on Tuesday. With an ambitious agenda to tackle the biggest issues holding women back from total equality, leaders from the White House, Hollywood, major corporations, and civil society gathered together in one room to propose solutions. Speakers including President Obama and the First Lady, actor Kerry Washington, FGM survivor Jaha Dukureh and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi all took the stage to discuss how to end sexual violence, combat LGBTQ discrimination and close the gender wage gap. It was the first ever White House summit dedicated exclusively to gender equality. The morning began with a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting. 49 people were killed and dozens more were injured when a gunman opened fire in Pulse, a gay nightclub. It is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, and the majority of victims were LGTBQ.
I was powerless against the man that attacked me but I am not powerless in ending rape culture.
Meghan Yap, It's On Us
"We have to push back on the voices that pray on fear and sow division. We have to stand up against hate, we have to stand up for love, a love that embodies America at its best," the first female African-American Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, said of the shooting. "I want all of our LGBT friends, neighbors and family members to know this: we support you and we stand with you. In the aftermath of this attack, we have been inspired by your community coming together in strength, coming together in love...You are giving all of us the example that we need to rebuild our sense of safety, our sense of community and to vow to never let fear take hold," Lynch added. Combatting sexual violence also played a major role in the summit. Meghan Yap, one of the leaders of the It's On Us campaign to end sexual assault, told the packed audience that "pain and flashbacks" consumed her after her rape and that victim-blaming and scrutiny can sometimes "hurt as much as the rape itself." "I was powerless against the man that attacked me but I am not powerless in ending rape culture," Yap said.
Yap then introduced Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke at length about how far we have to go to combat violence against women. "This abuse is not a personal matter, not a family issue, not something she had coming. Violence against women is a crime, pure and simple," Biden said. "All the other progress we have made closing the pay gap, institutionalizing pay, expanding opportunity in the corporate world — none if it maters if women cannot be free of violence." Biden spoke passionately about the rape and sexual assault survivors he spoke with as part of his work on the Violence Against Women Act. "Over the years, I have heard hundreds and hundreds of testimonials from survivors, each different and specific, but also painful in their similarity. So many people being isolated and not being believed. [Saying] 'Yes I was drunk, yes I was wearing a short skirt. Was it my fault?'" Biden said.
If we’re truly a nation of family values, we wouldn’t put up with the fact that many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth.
The issue of sexual assault has most recently been brought to the fore by the powerful letter a survivor wrote to the man who attacked her, Brock Turner. Actress and Joyful Heart Foundation founder Mariska Hargitay mentioned the letter in her remarks, saying the message that "'It's on us' is a rallying cry." President Obama used much of his remarks to focus on the economic policies needed to support working women and their families. "We need equal pay for equal work. We need paid family and sick leave. We need affordable child care. We’ve got to raise the minimum wage," Obama said. "If we’re truly a nation of family values, we wouldn’t put up with the fact that many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth. We should guarantee paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave, too." Obama said that while his hair was grayer than it was when he first took office eight years ago, "this is what a feminist looks like." The summit also included smaller panels on dozens of key issues led by the women working on the them from across the country.
First Lady Michelle Obama shared the stage with Oprah Winfrey, discussing her decision to move from law to public service and the fact that she sees her two daughters as her biggest accomplishment after eight years in the White House. When asked what she wanted to tell the men in the audience, her advice was simple. "Be better, be better, be better," Obama said, mentioning both how men could support women in taking care of their children together as well as in the workplace. For his part, the President finished by reminding the audience that for Sasha and Malia Obama, a future in which women take their rightful place is already here. "The good news is this is the future my daughters’ generation already believes in. They believe every door is open to them. They’re not engaging in any sort of self-censorship. They’re not going to hold themselves back. It couldn’t occur to them that they couldn’t rise to the top of whatever field they choose," Obama said. "They think discrimination is for losers. They think it’s weird that we haven’t already had a woman President. They expect the world to catch up to them," he added.