A defining moment for women’s summit

The Women’s Leadership Summit is not just a conference, but is part and parcel of the educational life of women in New Hampshire.
The ongoing challenge of the summit – the fourth of which will be held in June – is to provide a cutting-edge program that really addresses the issues working women (or those who want to work and cannot get jobs) face. Our aim is to continuously raise the bar, with a distinct purpose of raising leadership capacity across the state.Our strategy is to remain focused on professional skills development and developing leadership capacity. We also want to be sure we are really working to help both women and their organizations. To this end, we make it a point to stay in touch with what organizations need rather than what we have to offer.A recent significant defining moment for the Women’s Leadership Summit was how to respond to some veterans’ reactions to our invitation to Jane Fonda to be our 2011 keynote speaker.Jane Fonda was very carefully selected by the board of New Hampshire Women’s Leadership Institute and the summit’s program committee as someone who could speak to this year’s issue, “Lead with Power and Influence.” While she has been a provocative personality in her 70-plus years of life, she has written expansively about her own challenges and defining moments. She has clearly reinvented herself many times and openly acknowledges the mistakes she has made along the way, including her activities during the Vietnam War.Jane was chosen because she can speak to many age groups, is a very good businesswoman, has struggled with many parts of her life and come out on top, and can speak to women’s health, a particularly important issue at this time. The vote to invite her was unanimous.In early March, some New Hampshire veterans got wind of Jane’s potential participation. An article appeared in the New Hampshire Union Leader, and within 24 hours, what seemed like a spark turned into a roaring inferno.Nashua Community College – where this year’s summit is to be held – was assailed with calls, as was BAE Systems, one of the summit’s sponsors. Over a 36-hour period, the emails, phone calls and reactions from veterans escalated. Some of the emails I received barely concealed veiled threats – threats to picket, threats to stop the summit at all costs, threats to stop women from attending.The summit organizers, including myself, were totally blindsided. Despite having discussed Jane’s controversial past, we had no idea that after 43 years this amount of bitterness was still so alive in the veteran community.So we were presented with a clearly defining moment for the Women’s Leadership Summit – do we disinvite Jane and submit to intimidation, or do we argue for the right to freedom of speech, to open public discourse, the liberty to elect who we see and who we do not see and the right to select the path of forgiveness and reconciliation?From an ethics perspective, the action on the part of veterans has been a defining case study for me.Do our soldiers not fight on behalf of the United States for the freedom that is the cornerstone of the Constitution? Who, if anyone, has the purchase on when freedom might or might not be practiced? Can there really be freedom if sometimes, no matter what the circumstances, it is curtailed?What about justice? Is it fair to vilify or condemn a person who has not had the opportunity of a fair trial? And does time not make a difference?As someone who grew up in South Africa, I witnessed unimaginable brutality and suffering. I saw many of the horrors of the apartheid regime in action and I saw many reactions of what might have seemed justifiable bitterness and revenge.The post-apartheid government, with amazing wisdom, took the path of “truth and reconciliation” rather than witch-hunting, scapegoating and revenge. This does not mean people should forget their traumas, but life goes on and we are challenged to move on.There can be no ethical reflection without due consideration of compassion. There is no question that compassion for what the veterans experienced during the Vietnam War was discussed at length by the summit organizers. We certainly do not wish them any further pain nor do we wish to rub salt into old wounds.Herein lies the ethical dilemma. Does compassion require that one dismiss other equally important values, such as freedom, justice and forgiveness? Isn’t compassion a two-way street? Like forgiveness, if one expects compassion, should one not also give it?I cannot help but wonder how Jane managed to spend time in New Hampshire filming the movie, “On Golden Pond,” without attracting the ire and threats from New Hampshire veterans. After all, that was over 20 years ago, and much closer to the Vietnam War. So what is the difference now? Why did a Woman’s Leadership Summit attract such reactions? The irony that a Women’s Leadership Summit aimed at empowering women is being “pressured” and thus disempowered by (mostly) men to do what they, the men want, is rather sad. If the summit were organized by the male CEOs of the state, would we have had the same result?The Women’s Leadership Institute intends to use this experience as a learning opportunity. We will continue to focus on advancing the working lives of women in New Hampshire with the same dedication as before. We plan to host a panel at the summit to discuss “The Dance of Leadership” and how sometimes one has to take a step back in order to take the next step forward.We have a vibrant program – in my opinion the best so far – and a wonderful array of speakers. The learning will go on. We anticipate the best summit yet.Annabel Beerel, executive director of the New Hampshire Women’s Leadership Institute, is a former professor at Southern New Hampshire University, where she held a chair in ethics. New Hampshire Business Review is a co-sponsor of the Women’s Leadership Summit, which the institute presents.

Categories: Opinion