A SWAN is Born: How We Found Our Name

A SWAN is Born 

By Barbara Zeitz

(First Posted in 2005)

I never thought of myself as a swan. My Zodiac sign is a crab, I was born in the Chinese year of the serpent, and, growing up, I was the black sheep of my family. Then I met Jan Lisa Huttner and waddya know: Now I am a swan – not just any swan, but a WITASWAN.

It all began in Indianapolis, on June 4, 2004, when I attended the American Association of University Women’s Great Lakes Regional Convention as a delegate from my branch in Illinois. Scheduled events the first evening included a showing of the movie THE 24-HOUR WOMAN (starring Rosie Perez), followed by a discussion of the ‘Celluloid Ceiling’ to be led by AAUW-Illinois Board member and Chicago film critic, Jan Lisa Huttner.

As a women’s historian/gender equity analyst, with my master’s in women’s studies, I was curious to hear how women’s plight in the celluloid world compared to others of which I was all too aware, with glass and grass ceilings, and ceilings of materials still to be labeled. Little did I know, as a woman in this audience, what was about to unreel.

THE 24-HOUR WOMAN was great. It was uniquely identifiable to me as a woman, and I liked that. But why had I never heard of it before? Huttner spoke of the lack of promotional attention given to films directed and/or written by women. Then, when they fail to generate sufficient profits, they fade from view as well as from viewers. Written and directed by Nancy Savoca, THE 24-HOUR WOMAN was clearly a case in point.

Jan challenged the AAUW audience: “How should we address this issue?” I raised my hand to ask how she answered her own question. She smiled and asked us to consider something: would we all commit, once each month, to view a film directed and/or written by a woman? If we did, she promised us that video rental and box office receipts would translate into revenue, and dollars and cents would eventually change production decisions.

This made a lot of sense. For though the people making the decisions affecting women in the film industry are almost always men, it’s the bottom line which rules the industry itself. Therefore, women in the audience, acting as consumers, were in a position to redefine the equation.

Jan ended by saying her goal was a world in which one-third of all new films had either a woman director &/or a woman screenwriter… & I said… “why not one-half?” Next thing I know it’s a week later and we’re having lunch in Chicago. She invites me to join her AAUW-Illinois committee and work to develop this phalanx of women consumers. I accept.

The first item on the agenda is a name for our initiative. Jan wants it to be an acronym, preferably something sayable (like UNICEF). I tell her I’m not very good at this, but I will help in other areas. She gives me a list of potential names. I file it.

We meet again; again she asks. I remind her that I’m not good at this, but I’ll think about it. (“But just a little,” I think to myself.) I suggest CelluLadies, but she still wants an acronym. And I think, “Oh well, I tried.” We meet again; once again, she pushes me on the “a” word. Again, I say: “I’m not good at this.” But this time I do think on it a little.

Suddenly, it’s July, and now we have a looming deadline: we need a name before the first AAUW-Illinois Fall District Conference (scheduled for October 2nd). By now there are three of us, and when we start discussing names, I relent. I promise to work on it, but I’m skeptical. That night, I sit down with a long list Jan’s developed by brainstorming with other AAUW-Illinois members. It looks like this:

  • AWITA: Activist Women in the Audience
  • CoWITA: Coalition of Women in the Audience
  • C-WITA: Concerned Women in the Audience
  • E-WITA: Empowered Women in the Audience
  • U-WITA: United Women in the Audience
  • WITASWA: Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists
  • WITA-U: Women in the Audience United

To me these names all seem rather rigid, not characteristic of the artistic women we intend to support. The individual words are good, but they don’t work together. Despite having poignantly positioned the letters in a variety of ways, none of these acronyms speak to her – or to me.

It’s getting late. I’m getting nowhere. I’m tired and I want to go to bed. Then suddenly, the words and letters I have been shuffling around each other all night long appear before me, but this time with an “N.” I can put an “N” on the end of “WITASWA,”… and, waddya know: A “swan” is born!

I am bursting to tell Jan, and knowing some of her flash points by now, I balance my own words like a “fiddler on the roof.” I send Jan the following e-mail message: “Grandma Tzeitel came to me in a dream last night, and she said: ‘If we put an N on the end of WITASWA, we can all be swans!!!’” “Women In The Audience Supporting Women Artists ‘Now’ is a beautiful swan.” And I say, “A swan?” And she says not just any swan, a WITASWAN.

And that’s how we all became swans: 
Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists NOW!

© Barbara Zeitz (6/15/05)

Barbara Zeitz 


Barbara Zeitz holds an MA in Women’s Studies/Law, from Roosevelt University in Chicago. Zeitz currently writes an online women’s history column at: www.aauw-il.org and is a Road Scholar Presenter for the 2005-2006 Illinois Humanities Council Speakers Bureau:www.prairie.org. She has worked extensively in the Literacy Volunteers “English as a Second Language” and “Adult External Diploma” Programs at St. Charles Public Library, and has presented public lectures on gender issues locally for the American Association of University Women, League of Women Voters, Older Women’s League, and Zonta International. In 2002, she spoke in defense of “Title IX” before the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics, U.S. Department of Education Town Hall Meeting in San Diego.

“Last Words” from Jan:

Thank you, Grandma Tzeitel!!! Once you gave us our “N,” we outgrew our ugly duckling phase in a flash, & the rest was easy. By the District 3 conference on October 2nd, our new initiative had a logo (thanks to Lynette & Wayne Harlow of Dreamweaver Stencils), and by the Spring Convention on April 29th we were all wearing marcasite pins.

Left: Decatur Branch Member Sara Jerome with new WITASWAN mug.
Right: WITASWAN Coordinator Jan Lisa Huttner in new SWAN Day tee.

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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