By Ellen Snortland

Pasadena Weekly Columnist

Eyes closed, I’m enjoying Manhattan’s March sunshine on a building’s concrete stairs across from the United Nations Secretariat building. I feel a presence next to me. Around 42nd and First, the street hums and honks with taxis and big black limos sporting diplomatic license plates.

“Can I sit here and have lunch?” an American in her late 20s asks. I’ll call her Heather for this story.

“Of course,” I said. “Cold weather with sunshine — the best,” Heather agrees.

It was 2016: the 60th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Until COVID-19, the annual CSW was held in person for two weeks during March in New York City, on the U.N. campus and adjacent venues. 

For 60-plus years, women and a few men from all over the world have attended to share best practices and policies and to vote on gender-based initiatives. I am an NGO delegate. With as many as 4,000 people attending, it’s the most significant confluence of gender advocates assembled to uplift women’s status in the world.

Not once — not once — in my decades of attendance have I seen any coverage by major news outlets. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Wouldn’t a commission that impacts half the globe’s population interest the gatekeepers of print, broadcast and social media influencers?

It seems that journalists, reporters and pundits are drawn to armed conflict like flies to dung, but peaceful talks about bettering the lives of women and girls? They ignore it… we’re invisible.

“Are you an NGO delegate?” I ask Heather.

“Yes, but I am mainly here to do research for my doctorate on feminist theater. There’s a theater group here from Ghana.”

“Does your research include the U.S.?” She takes a bite of her sandwich and nods yes.

“Oh, my Gawd! I started an all-woman theater company with my friends in 1975,” I said. “As far as we know, we were the first all-female, feminist theater company in the U.S. We were called ‘Theater of Process Theater,’ or TOPT as we called ourselves. Have you heard of us?”

I can have the energy of a labrador retriever puppy, so she side-eyed me a little like a nervous cat and said, “No. Sorry. If you were so good, why didn’t I hear of you?”

I said, “Ouch. Why indeed?” I didn’t mention the eternal dissing from East Coast toward West Coast folks in any of the arts.

“Heather, just because you haven’t heard of women doesn’t mean they weren’t there or weren’t worthy,” I said. “Have you heard the phrase ‘the personal is the political’?” She shook her head no.

How infuriating. My TOPT co-founders, Mayri, Gina, Kitty and I, were savvy about getting ourselves promoted. We got a paragraph in Ms. Magazine. We received glowing reviews. We even made the cover of the Sunday Calendar section in the LA Times. And yet, we have disappeared. If we sucked and were ignored, that would be one thing, but geez! We were excellent and repeatedly told that by respected arts journalists and publications.

Now I’m on the board of the National Women’s History Alliance. I’m not an academic historian; rather, I’m a self-taught pop culture women’s historian. Scholars can write paper after paper — and that’s important! However, to really shift mindsets and culture, we need news stories, plays, movies, literature and entertainment to reflect who is actually in the world living life… not just cis white males.

For centuries, the people who determined what’s newsworthy, noteworthy or storyworthy have been men. Not every event can be covered, right? So the editors decide which stories get attention or resources to become content. They also determine who is invisible. Worse, women of all colors over 40 are even “more” invisible, deemed to be uninteresting or irrelevant. Add some ageism, sexism, classicism and racism, and you have an intersectional potion for “Poof! — the women and girls are gone!”

I just read “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts” by Rebecca Hall. It’s a 2021 graphic novel that’s also a memoir. Dr. Hall included herself as a main character, which is against every rule of so-called “objective” white male-dominated journalism and absolutely taboo in the white male realm of academia.

Hall details the ripples of slavery in her own life. She had to be resolute in hunting facts that were designed to disappear. As Hall combed through English slaver manifests and the court records of Great Britain’s Queen Anne, she found that the enslaved women who were executed for uprisings were barely footnotes. To discover our foremothers, a big dollop of obsession is needed. Thus, I often include myself in my commentaries because I have lived with sexism and now ageism, not as a theory but as reality. It would be disingenuous to not include myself, since I am a first-hand source for the experience.

How I wish I’d told Heather, “Do not collaborate in the undermining of your own future relevance. If you’re lucky, you will live long enough to experience ageism and invisibility.”

Ellen Snortland has written “Consider This…” for a heckuva long time, and she also coaches first-time book authors! Contact her at ellen@beautybitesbeast.com.