At first, I wasn’t sure why TEDWOMEN—the feminist-minded spin-off of TED Talks that launched in 2010—troubled me. The San Francisco conference held this past December featured incredible speakers and performers. Swimmer Diana Nyad inspired. Poet Sarah Kay received a standing ovation. And Jane Chen—co-founder of a company that invented an affordable, portable infant-warming system for communities in India without incubators—brought this mom of a preemie to tears. But the impressive participants weren’t enough to quell my uneasiness.
It might have been the homogeneity of the audience—mostly white women with coiffed hair—or the gift bag so voluminous that it required a “gift bag guide.” Maybe it was the ticket price: nearly $1,000. (Though TED’s general conference costs more than seven times that much. Maybe this was TEDWomen’s gender-wage-gap bargain?)
It wasn’t that the conference—filled with what one attendee called “the empowerment elite”—serves as a sort of Feminism 101 for the wealthy. After all, rich women need feminism too—even if they’re getting it at an event where badges with titles like “chief visionary” are as bountiful as the vegan ceviche.
My worries grew more concrete when I realized I hadn’t heard anyone mention abortion—an odd lapse in a conference on women’s rights. Soon after, I discovered that TED and TEDWomen have never featured a talk on abortion. (Two TEDx events have, but these local, independently organized conferences are not conducted under the auspices of TED.)
When I asked around, the consensus was that the omission was simply an oversight. But it turns out TED is deliberately keeping abortion off the agenda. When asked for comment, TED content director and TEDWomen co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.” “Abortion is more of a topical issue we wouldn’t take a position on, any more than we’d take a position on a state tax bill,” Stoetzel explained. She pointed me to a few talks on women’s health and birth control, but this made the refusal to discuss abortion only more glaring. In the last three years, the United States has seen more abortion restrictions enacted than in the entire previous decade; the United Nations has classified the lack of access to abortion as torture; and Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because a Catholic hospital refused to end her doomed pregnancy. Just how is abortion not an issue of “justice, inequality and human rights”?
Balancing potentially polarizing issues with popular appeal is not a new struggle for feminists. It’s the same conflict that surfaced when Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, the bestselling book that encourages women to demand a seat at the boardroom table. Sales figures suggest that the idea of empowering themselves in the workplace resonated with tens of thousands of women. But some feminists responded that in dispensing advice on how women should behave to get ahead, the book gave short shrift to issues like workplace discrimination, unequal pay and the erosion of labor unions—issues that can’t be addressed by one woman’s decision to lean in.
I liked the book and even defended it against some of its detractors. But there is a big difference between a business leader’s advice to working women and conferences that seek to define the parameters of which feminist ideas are “worth spreading.” And when it comes to splashy women’s conferences, TEDWomen is hardly the only one on the circuit.