August 16, 2014: 10th Anniversary Celebration of the WITASWAN Project at the CineMark in Evanston, Illinois (preceded by a brunch at Bravo Restaurant)
Jan Lisa Huttner: Wow, it is so great to see so many old—and new—faces here today!
Now I know that I’m big and loud and I make a lot of fuss, but WITASWAN (Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now) is an “us” project, and we want to open today’s program by telling you all very briefly how it started.
Kim Benziger & Barbara Zeitz: Please join me here in front.
On July 1, 2004 (approximately ten years ago to the day), Kim Benziger became President of AAUW Illinois. Kim knew that I had an obsession with what’s called the “Celluloid Ceiling” problem—women not getting the representation that they deserve in the film world—so Kim said to me: “Why don’t you do a project, Jan?” Famous last words, huh?
At that point, AAUW Illinois’ five districts each had its own Fall District Conference. So Kim said to me: “Why don’t we do a rollout?” This was July. Plenty of time. “Why don’t we do a rollout of this new project at the five Fall District Conferences in October and November? We’ll tell everybody about this new project and we’ll get things rolling.”
So I formed a committee of three: me, Barbara Zeitz, and Diana Gray. (How many of you know Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC? Diana Gray is the mother of Melissa Harris-Perry. Diana now lives in North Carolina, but I am sure she is here with us in spirit today.) We met in August at the Dixie Kitchen in Hyde Park. (This restaurant became very famous a few years later when Barack Obama ran for President. Maybe he was even there the night of our first meeting? Who knows? He used to go there a lot!)
Our kick-off date was October 2, 2004. That was the first date in 2004, the date that District #3 would be holding its conference at Illinois Valley Community College in Peru. So I kept pushing and pushing and pushing: “Ladies: Our project needs a name!”
Our project needed a name, and I wanted our name to be something people could say, “Like UNICEF,” I kept insisting. So we struggled and struggled, and we came up with all kinds of names. One early favorite was COWITA for “Coalition of Women in the Audience,” but my BFF Dorthea Juul said: “Oh, no! No, Jan! If we’re the Coalition of Women in the Audience, then we’re going to be known as ‘the cows,’ and nobody wants that!”
So I kept pushing and pushing. I said: “It needs to be something sayable. It doesn’t matter what the letters stand for. Who knows that UNICEF stands for? ‘United Nations + Good For Children,’ whatever.” And I kept pushing and pushing, and Barbara and Diana kept offering suggestions. Finally time was short, so we settled on WITASWA for “Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists.” We weren’t happy with it… It kinda sorta sounded like an Indian tribe… But we were running out of time and we didn’t know what else to do.
And then this genius woman—Barbara Zeitz—calls me up all excited one day, and she says: “Jan! Jan! If we put an N on the end of WITASWA, then we can all be swans!!!”
So this is the apocryphal story of a solution that’s just waiting to be found, but this time the story is true. I was too dumb to find it myself. All I knew was that Dorthea was clearly right—we didn’t want to be known as “cows”… But who wouldn’t want to be a swan… Especially compared to a cow?!?
So this is the genius woman—Barbara Zeitz—gave our project a name. And once we had a name, we had an identity. We were swans. We were feminine, but we were strong. And soon we had a logo, and then we had—cheer here with me—jewelry!
Soon enough, it was October 2nd, and we were at Illinois Valley Community College in Peru, Illinois. Barbara did the introduction, we showed a short film called A Jury of Her Peers, and then I did a Q&A. And in her Introduction, Barbara said: “This is a day that will be part of Feminist history.” And she was right!
Our WITASWAN project, a cygnet nurtured by AAUW Illinois—the Illinois Division of the American Association of University Women—has grown into International SWAN Day (a collaboration with an organization called WomenArts). And there have now been over 1,200 events all around the world. Women audience members collaborating with women artists to advance the voice of women in all art forms.
Kim Benziger: Little did I know, because I had just met Jan when she became part of my Board, little did I know what I had let myself in for… And 10 years later here we are. It’s wonderful!
Barbara Zeitz: When I first met Jan in Indianapolis at AAUW’s Great Lakes Regional Conference in June 2004, I can remember her talking at the Friday Night program. She was talking about wanting to go for one-third, I remember, one-third of the writers/directors behind-the-scenes should be women. And being a Feminist and an AAUW member—we’re all for equality—I said: “One-third? Women aren’t supposed to be good at Math, but equality is 50/50, right? Why not go for 50 percent?”
So the next thing I know Jan has invited me to lunch, and that’s how I got involved in all of this. And here we are, and the project has been a wonderful success thanks to all of you. It’s great to be here. Thank you!
Jan Lisa Huttner: In conclusion we need to thank Chicago Branch Treasurer Lori Switzer. Lori has been heroically doing all the financial wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, making all the reservations, writing the deposit checks and doing everything necessary to get us here today.
And we also need to introduce Carol Heisler. Wave, Carol. Carol is the new President of AAUW Illinois, installed last month on July 1. Carol: We turn all of this over to you!
And we thank Alma, Erica, Janeth, and Monica—the lovely ladies in pink—for registration and crowd control.
Finally, it is an honor to introduce today’s special guest: filmmaker Judy Chaiken!!!
Judy Chalken: Thanks, Jan.
I’m not going to say anything about my film The Girls in the Band in advance because you are going to see it and then we’ll talk.
But I want you to know that I belong to a group in Los Angeles called the Alliance of Women Directors and in 2008 somebody brought this notion to us about SWAN Day. And I and two other women from the Alliance of Women Directors put on the first SWAN Day program held in Los Angeles. I had no idea who these women here today were. I had no idea that our lives were interconnected, that we were intertwined, that we would eventually be doing all this together.
But that’s what happens when you put your energies together, and you commit to an idea, and you commit to people who have great creative ideas. Thank you, Barbara and Jan and Kim. Thank you to everybody who is part of this. You have spawned something that is changing the world and really changing the lives of women.
So now let’s watch the movie 🙂
LINKS! Click here to learn more about WITASWAN. Click here to learn more about the collaboration with Martha Richards of WomenArts. Click here to hear Barbara Zeitz describe how she found our name. Click here to learn more about The Girls in the Band.
All Photo Credits = Kate Skegg (with 2 exceptions noted below)
10/25/09 photo of Diana Gray taken in Princeton, NJ by a kind passerby.
Bottom Photo (from left): Erica Trejo, Alma Garcia, JLH, Judy Chaiken, Janeth Ortega and Monica Smith. (Taken by Elisa Schoenberger over drinks back in Bravo after the Q&A)