WITASWAN (“wit-uh-swan”) is a movement, a cause. It is an informal alliance of women who use their power as consumers to increase opportunities for women artists. There are no dues, no meetings or committees, and no specific fundraising drives.
The creative force behind that movement was Jan Lisa Huttner whose goal was to increase the power for women in movies and theater, and help them get their voices heard. Her inspiration comes from the fact that once women see themselves as intelligent movie consumers, they will start to choose more films made by women. That’s why WITASWAN members make a commitment to see at least one film every month that is directed or written by a woman.
“I believe art is a dyadic process – a ‘handshake’ between an artist & an audience,” Huttner said. “Without audience participation, an artist gets neither emotional nor financial compensation (both of which are essential) and, even worse, she gets no feedback in the moment. Without women artists, women in the audience have no one who speaks to their deep identity as women. The sound of ‘one hand clapping’ is silence.”
It all began with a study from San Diego State University called “The Celluloid Ceiling,” in which Professor Martha Lauzen reported that little had changed for women filmmakers during the years. Huttner wanted to address the quotes from Lauzen in Kennedy’s article and that’s how getting women in the audience to support women on screen became an integral part of Jan’s lifetime of feminist activism. She wrote a letter to The New York Times and sent a copy of it in an e-mail message to Professor Lauzen, which resulted in the NYT editors publishing her letter (later, Huttner interviewed Lauzen).
Later on, Linda Henning Cohen, then Program Vice President the Illinois division of the American Association of University Women (AAUW-Illinois), asked Huttner to present a workshop about “The Celluloid Ceiling” at the 2003 Spring Convention. Forty-two people attended. As a result, AAUW-Illinois branches all around the state began inviting Huttner to bring JURY to their local branches.
In 2004, the AAUW-Illinois Board of Directors decided to create a new project. After much brainstorming, Jan & her team decided to call the project WITASWAN (Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artist Now!)
In 2005, Huttner received a phone call from WomenArts Network Executive Director Martha Richards. Huttner had demonstrated through her work with WITASWAN that there were women audience members who wanted to see more work by women. The common desire to unite and empower women artists called for Huttner and Richards to begin working together.
“Through my work with WomenArts, I had noticed two recurring themes in my conversations with women artists – they felt invisible and they felt isolated,” Richards said. “ I started looking for some kind of galvanizing annual event that would raise the visibility of women artists worldwide and would give the participating artists a sense of community, and I was very inspired by Eve Ensler’s success with her V-Day celebrations, where women did readings of “The Vagina Monologues” on Valentine’s Day to raise funds for battered women’s shelters. In the early 2000s there were thousands of these readings every year.”
In April 2007, Huttner suggested to AAUW-Illinois’ Program Vice President Lois Strom to invite Richards to speak at the 2007 Spring Convention in Bloomington. The idea for International SWAN Day was born during the ride back from Bloomington to Chicago, when Huttner and Richards stopped on the road for pizza. WIth their burning desire and mission to connect more women artists and women audience members, they envisioned SWAN Day as an annual event that could serve both artists and audience members all around the world. In June of 2007, Huttner and Richards jointly announced their plan to celebrate “International SWAN Day” on March 29, 2008 (the last Saturday of March) because March is Women’s History Month. International SWAN Day celebrations enable women to see that they have the power to inspire and strengthen each other.
“The main benefit of SWAN Day is that it empowers women artists,” Richards said. “Also, in these politically-charged times, I think it is very important that SWAN events make women happy.”
Four years after its birth, SWAN Day started making notable impact thanks to WomenArts and WITASWAN working together in full force. In 2011, more than 700 events around the world had celebrated the event, including Argentina, Australia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Kenya, Philippines, Romania, Uruguay, Wales/U.K. and USA. That same year, 700 people celebrated “SWAN Day Kenya” in Nairobi.
While many organizations are doing excellent work for women artists within their own disciplines and their own countries, SWAN Day is different — it is both international in focus and more comprehensive in design. SWAN Day is also an example of how a movement of women artists can be much more powerful by joining together across disciplines and across borders with women in the audience.
Reflecting on the decade since SWAN Day’s inception, Huttner said,“As one of the two co-founders of International SWAN Day, I have been part of this from the beginning & my commitment won’t end until the day I die!”
For more information on WomenArts, visit: https://www.womenarts.org/.
© Nikoleta Morales (10/3/18) FF2 Media
Featured image: SWAN Day founders Martha Richards & Jan Lisa Huttner
Photo: The Divine Secrets Of The Ya Ya Sisterhood in relation to Jan Lisa Huttner’s letter to the New York Times.
Copyright: ©2002 Warner Bros & Gaylord Films.