Featured Member of the Month: April 2019
Diving into Feminism
On the heels of Women’s History Month, and in the spirit of celebrating and promoting women all year long, we sat down with WoC Community Member, Erin Gell, to learn more about her work as a Speechwriter at UN Women and what feminism means to her.
ALEX: Tell us more about yourself - where you are from, your past experience and how you got where you are today, working as a Speechwriter for UN Women?
ERIN: I grew up in South Florida doing a lot of theater and performing arts. I dreamt of coming to New York to become an actress, but I ended up getting my degree in Telecommunications (Broadcast Journalism) from the University of Florida instead. Then I moved to NYC right after that without much of a plan, as you do when you’re young and naive.
Eventually, I was able to get a job as a Marketing Assistant at Lucky Magazine, and I think that was important because it was my first professional job in NYC. I went on to Forbes after that which was a great opportunity to write about different issues, but then the recession hit [in 2008]. It wasn’t a great time for journalism, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in it or go in a different direction.
I was thinking about going to Grad School and had always been interested in foreign affairs and cultures, so I decided to do my Masters in Ireland. I majored in European Studies, which was super interesting to me though not entirely useful to US employers, as I found out later. But it did get me a trainee-ship with the European Commission in Brussels, which I spent in the Directorate-General of Education & Culture, working with their press and web teams on talking points and web content on education, culture and media — which made me realize I could combine a lot of things I was passionate about. When I came back to the States and made my way back to NYC, I did some freelancing and then got hired as a Junior Speechwriter at the UN about 4 years ago.
ALEX: How did you become interested in working on women’s issues?
ERIN: It came over the course of learning and reading more. I don’t have an academic background in women’s studies, but it was something I was always innately interested in. It seemed obvious to me that there should be gender equality, but I never thought to pursue it academically when I was younger. But a little while after I moved to NYC, I started reading books on women’s issues, and that was my self-education on Feminism. It wasn’t until I got to Ireland that I started doing work publicly with women’s groups. I volunteered there with a group called the Irish Feminist Network which was great because it was a new group so we were working on planning events, drumming up interest, doing some advocacy work, etc. at night on the side of my real job. That’s when I really “came out” as a Feminist and realized I really enjoyed that work and wished that I could be doing it full-time.
ALEX: What does Feminism mean to you?
ERIN: To me, Feminism just means equality. I know it’s a dirty word for some people and that it makes them think of angry ‘bra-burning’ feminists — which is unfortunate because it’s really just about giving the same rights to all parts of the population and re-framing our society so it’s not based on patriarchal structures that were set up by and for men.
ALEX: So do you consider yourself a Feminist?
ERIN: I do, and I am happy to wear that label. I’m not sure if I would have always been comfortable claiming it when I was younger. It’s been an evolution, and I’m so happy there’s so much happening in the news around women’s issues. Even if there has been push-back, as there always is with progress, it’s great to see [feminism] talked about more and in a different way than it was talked about when we were younger.
ALEX: Why do you think you were hesitant to call yourself a Feminist when you were younger/what changed?
ERIN: I think I felt it wasn’t ‘cool’ when I was younger, and Feminism was something I associated with our mother’s generation. In the ’90’s and early 2000’s, there was this sense that we’re there already, and it took me a while living in the real world as an adult to realize, no, there’s still a lot we need to work on. Once I understood that, I was much more willing to take a stand and do work on feminist issues.
ALEX: What about Women’s History Month - is it still important?
ERIN: I still think it’s important to learn and remember the women who came before us. I’m always learning about things women have done that I didn’t know before because they weren’t celebrated, or maybe a man took the credit instead. So it’s important to take the initiative to learn more and read more books by and about women and watch more TV shows directed by women, even if they require a tiny bit more work to find and search out. It’s also about looking at what we need to do to continue pushing for equality all the time, not just in March.
ALEX: What initiatives are you working on at UN Women?
ERIN: There’s so much. Working at UN Women has exposed me to so many different issues facing women in different parts of the world. Whether it’s pay equity or working to make sure women in developing countries have equal access to land or inheritance — things we take for granted in the US. We also look to get more women in politics and leadership and decision-making roles, and are always working to change laws that affect women and limit things like the kind of work women can do. We are also working at getting more women in peace-keeping roles and in the military, which are things we don’t often think about but which can really make a difference in countries recovering from conflict. Violence against women is also a huge issue, including sexual harassment and female genital mutilation. We are also looking at emerging issues like climate change, which often more adversely impacts women, for instance in developing countries where many women work as farmers and are more likely to be affected when there’s a drought.
We work with men as well through the “HeforShe” initiative, which is very important, because women shouldn’t be the only ones fighting for gender equality. We have to make men understand that feminism, and the fight for gender equality, isn’t anti-male but actually benefits us all.
ALEX: What are you working on internationally, in particular?
ERIN: Many of our international efforts are around trying to change laws that discriminate against women and don’t allow them the same rights as men. We also cover issues such as water and sanitation, for instance in countries where, when women get their periods, they are forced to stay home from school because there are no safe, clean facilities available for them to use. Or in countries where there’s not an infrastructure which supports having water piped into the house, women are often the ones who have to get the water, and they often have to walk a long way and be exposed to different dangers in the process. We also work on humanitarian issues like helping women in refugee camps develop skills that will enable them to earn an income.
ALEX: What do you enjoy most about your job?
ERIN: I have really enjoyed learning more about the many different aspects of gender equality and women’s empowerment. For instance, it’s been great to learn about the peace and security angle and the importance of having more women in peace talks which is something I never thought about before joining the UN. We’re also working on tackling stereotypes in film and advertising, because they have a real effect on how societies see gender. Right now, for instance, UN Women is convening the “Unstereotype Alliance”, which brings together major companies who have decided they’re not going to use stereotyped content in their ads anymore and also to produce ads that call out things like toxic masculinity. It’s a new initiative, but it’s very important to call attention to the fact that a lot of marketing relies on stereotypes, and we all need to make a conscious effort not to do that.
ALEX: Are there any small actions each of us can take in order to advance gender equality?
ERIN: I think everyone can continue to challenge gender norms within their own lives and question why they’re doing things a certain way. I think mentoring other women is important, being vocal and marching at things like the Women’s March, and coming together to support other women through groups like Women of Culture. Men also need to do a better job of calling out abuses among their friends, even if it’s just sexist language. And we all need to focus on intersectionality and including ALL women, regardless of their sexuality, ethnicity, or any other factor, and making sure everyone who identifies as a woman is included.
We couldn’t agree more and also believe that coming together to support other women is of utmost importance.
We hope you will join us at an upcoming event to meet Erin and the other fabulous women who are a part of this community!