The World Economic Forum ranks the United States #20 out of 142 countries for gender equality based on disparity in pay, education, health and politics. We fall behind countries such as Nicaragua, Rwanda and South Africa in the study conducted annually by the Swiss nonprofit.
World MUSE is an organization that works to empower women with the mission of sparking positive change. March 4 will mark the beginning of the annual three-day conference held in downtown Bend, now in its fourth year. MUSE founder Amanda Stuermer brings women leaders from around the world to Bend, sharing insight, ideas and experiences to inspire personal growth here at home and in the world beyond.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi will be the keynote speaker this year. She is a human rights activist who founded the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran, where she was the country's first female judge prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution. She now lives in exile, devoting her life to giving a voice to women, children, and refugees. Ebadi travels the world working with other female Nobel Laureates. "We use all our power to spotlight the situation of women around the world," she told the Source.
Considered to be one of the most influential women of all time, Ebadi wants those who hear her speech to be able to walk away and still retain the knowledge and motivation for change even after they have parted ways. "Human rights is a culture," she says. Her most important takeaway message is "difficulties and challenges should not prevent us from carrying out our activities." She also would like the world to be aware of the struggle women face in Iran. The Muse Conference isn't her first stop nor will it be her last. Her fight for gender equality and democracy is her life purpose. "I have worked hard to amend discriminatory laws and practices in my country and I will continue to fight until we are free," Ebadi says.
The opening day of the conference falls on First Friday and the evening will be very much art-oriented. The Muse Art Show, along with a teen photo exhibit, and an art walk downtown will commence following the day's salon series of workshops. Artist Sheila Dunn is one of the local artists whose work will be featured. Dunn moved to Bend in 2010 and says she wants her art to "express the beauty, strength and depth of the feminine spirit and the unique power found only in vulnerability and openness." Feminism is often a word people shy away from, but this isn't the case for Dunn, not in the least. "The belief that all women, everywhere, deserve the same rights, same pay, same amount of respect and same opportunities as men? Yes, I'm a feminist, and I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't be."
Unfortunately, in the U.S., the gender pay gap persists. In 2015, women earned $.78 on the dollar compared to men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The gap narrowed by just 1.5 cents in the last five years. Yet, women are the breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children. For Latina women, the difference in pay is even more pronounced, just $.56 on the dollar.
The momentum of women's rights in the last century doesn't have to slow to a halt. MUSE looked for a voice to represent the next generation and found it in Fiona Dolan. It's safe to say that at 16, she will be the youngest presenter at Muse. Dolan, a junior at Summit High School in Bend, is a role model beyond her years. Dolan founded the Social Empowerment Club at Summit and contributed to the book, "You're The Best," by her elders, the Dolan "Satellite Sisters." Although young, Dolan is able to give insight drawing from the everyday experiences of high school. The Social Empowerment Club works with a variety of organizations, including MUSE, with the intention of promoting discussion on issues affecting society today. She makes it a point to include males in the group and would like people to think twice about not just underestimating females, but also teenagers.
In addition to MUSE, there are smaller events happening all over the community and state that share the same goal of empowerment, ranging from formal groups to online chat rooms. The conversation has begun. Women have come a long way, however, it's not nearly enough.
"I want my daughter to grow up to have the same opportunities as my sons," says MUSE founder Stuermer. It's as simple as that. The day when these conferences become more of a recreational affair than a necessity is when women can say that the good fight has been fought and the good fight has been won.
Tickets to the full MUSE Conference are $368. Twenty percent of the tickets have been awarded as grants, allowing people of all ages and income levels to attend.