If there’s one lesson that Billie Jean King hopes to impart to the next generation of women looking to fight for gender equality, it’s this: Money is power.
That was the blunt message delivered by the legendary sports pioneer on Saturday morning during the opening session of History Talks, a daylong event at Carnegie Hall hosted by A+E Networks. King was featured alongside author and activist Gloria Steinem, “Top Chef” host and author Padma Lakshmi and Variety editor-in-chief Claudia Eller on a panel focused on how women in positions of authority have changed the culture. Investigative reporter Ronan Farrow moderated the discussion.
King told the crowd that she is troubled by the number of ambitious young women she meets who are unconcerned with accumulating wealth.
“I want young women particularly [to know] it’s a good thing to make a lot of money,” King said. “Money equals power, mobility, choice, health. Boys are taught to follow the money. Girls are not. Get the money because money gives you power.”
It wasn’t long before the wide-ranging conversation turned to the subject of sexual violence, the impact of the #MeToo movement and the larger legal and cultural significance of the rape conviction handed to former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
“I don’t think we would have had the Weinstein verdict 10 years ago,” Steinem said.
Lakshmi added that she still has concerns about the environment that her 10-year-old daughter will one day face. She emphasized the need for vigilance in fighting for equality for women and all marginalized communities.
“I don’t want her to go into the arts and be confronted by some pig like Harvey Weinstein,” she said. “You can change laws, but if you don’t change the culture and the mentality, those laws will not be implemented.”
Eller made a point of saluting Farrow for his work in helping to bring Weinstein to justice through his exposes published in the New Yorker in 2017.
“If it weren’t for you and your intrepid reporting on Harvey Weinstein, we would not have had the verdict. Harvey would still be luring women to hotel rooms,” Eller said. “The guilty verdict is a huge win, for not only all the brave women who testified against him, but all the women who came out and spoke their truths about being harassed, accosted and raped.”
Steinem offered perspective on how activists find the motivation to keep fighting in the face of overwhelming challenges.
“The good thing about being old is you remember when it was worse. So it gives you hope,” she said. “The good thing about being young is you’re mad as hell. So we need each other.”
In discussing the biases large and small that women face in everyday life, Eller recounted her experience last year at the Cannes Film Festival. She was stopped on her way into the festival’s opening night gala by security because she was wearing flat shoes — which the security guard deemed a violation of the formal wear dress code. Farrow dubbed it “Battle of the Flats.”
Eller assured the crowd that she was “dressed to the nines” and that her flat shoes were “pretty fancy.” As she argued with the security guard and another supervisor, Michelle Sobrino-Stearns, group publisher and chief revenue officer for Variety, began filming the exchange on her iPhone. Ultimately, Eller was allowed to enter the event.
“I frightened them,” Eller said. “I threatened to put the video on Variety.com.”
She later learned that Cannes festival chief Thierry Frémaux was angry with her for challenging security and for standing her ground. A few weeks ago, Frémaux met with her in Los Angeles and Eller got an apology.
“He said, ‘You can wear whatever you want.’ I have my flip-flops ready to go” for this year’s festival,” Eller joked.
Steinem urged the crowd to always think about the big picture of how patriarchal and hierarchical systems are maintained and enforced when tackling problems of social justice.
“The first step in every patriarchy in the world is controlling women’s bodies as a means of reproduction,” she said. “We have to connect this to everything else we do and see it not in some little compartment over here.”
Lakshmi cited examples of progressive efforts at gender equality outside the U.S., from quotas for lawmakers in Tunisia to mandatory paternity leave policies in Québec. She stressed that women need to enlist men as allies to achieve real change. “We have to work with the males — if you don’t, you’re just clapping with one hand,” she said.
Steinem got the last word during the lively 45-minute session with an anatomical observation.
“We have this thing called a womb,” Steinem said. “If we didn’t have wombs, we’d be fine.”