BYU students speak at United Nation on maternal feminism

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Sasha Smith
From left: Sierra Phillips, Sasha Smith and Halli Boman stand outside the United Nations building during the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women. These BYU students attended the commission with interfaith organization Big Ocean. (Sasha Smith)

This March three BYU students traveled to attend the yearly United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York to speak on maternal feminism.

The Commission on the Status of Women takes place at the United Nations headquarters and stretches across March for a two-week session each year. 2018’s theme was, “the challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.”

Sasha Smith, Halli Boman and Sierra Phillips went to the commission with an interfaith organization called Big Ocean Women. According to their website, Big Ocean Women stands for faith, family and motherhood. It is a feminist, international, multi-faith network working to “safeguard the family, protect children, and preserve human life.”

Smith, a senior studying therapeutic recreation and management, started her own chapter for Big Ocean Women in Provo. She described applying to go to the UN and attending hours of training in the months that followed her acceptance.

The work was well worth it in Smith’s eyes, especially when she entered the United Nations building for the first time.

“I walked into the front doors and there were people from all over the world and speaking all of these different languages and I got emotional,” Smith said. “Because I live in Utah and I spent most of my time (there), and there’s not a lot of diversity. And going there and seeing so much of it made me so happy,” she said.

Smith said she didn’t know she would be asked to speak until right before the group left for New York.

“I didn’t know I was going to be presenting until like a week before,” Smith said. “I remember it was the Sunday before we left, so I just spent the whole day thinking what am I going to talk about and writing up.”

Smith said she thinks Big Ocean Women has a perspective that made their attendance at the commission particularly valuable because they believe rural women and especially indigenous women are important.

“We love indigenous women especially, because they are really tied to their land and their families,” she said.

During Big Ocean’s all-day presentation several indigenous women talked about their experiences. Smith described a beekeeper from Utah and a group of Native American women from New Mexico who helped explain some of the benefits of rural women.

According to Smith, the United Nations is trying to bring rural women into Utopian cities where the work force would be made up of equal parts men and women. While this has garnered support, some organizations like Big Ocean are concerned this might not be inclusive for all women because it would push the mothers who want to stay at home into the work force.

“If different governments or different agencies make policies that are against mothers then they are against 50 percent of women, which doesn’t seem fair,” Smith said, adding care workers are paid significantly less than other jobs.

She said this is evidence the world doesn’t value care work the way it should.

Smith said she remains optimistic. If anything the commission opened her eyes to the sheer number of good people in the world trying to share light in different ways.

Halli Boman, a junior studying biodiversity and conservation, also attended the commission and presented at the United Nations. She joined Sasha’s local chapter of Big Ocean Women about a year ago after hearing them present at a lecture series.

“I think sometimes modern ways to empower women can be a little alienating, and this is just a little bit more inclusive,” Boman said, adding feminism is letting women choose what they want to be, whether that means being a mother or not being a mother, one role shouldn’t be elevated over the other. Big Ocean calls this ‘maternal feminism.’

“Simply, it is feminism through a lens of motherhood,” Boman said. “Empowering women through their divine nature, through how they truly are, what they truly are like and valuing what qualities they naturally have.”

She said she can’t begin to emphasize how important it is to have women in positions of power, or in the stem fields, or just the work force in general, but in the push to get women there it is important to remember those aren’t the only things that have value.

Because Big Ocean presented at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the chapter is now starting up in Africa.

“That was the great thing about going to the UN,” Boman said. “We got to meet a lot of people from all over the world and find people who are interested who also believe in these things.”

Boman described the Comission as an overall feeling of global sisterhood.

She said being in the same room and having conversation with foreign dignitaries, government officials and other women from different backgrounds “was really eye opening. I learned a lot and I think it helped me overcome a lot of my biases.”

Boman said she had a particularly special experience attending a panel on the #Metoo movement when she asked a question that changed the tide of the conversation to a more solution based discussion.

“I think the majority of people would agree that the oppression of women has been a problem put on by men, men are the issue here, and if we think they are part of the issue we should help them be part of the solution,” she said.

During the panel she couldn’t shake what she described as a “burning feeling” to make sure her voice was heard.

“So I asked, how can we involve men in being part of the solution?” Boman said. “If toxic masculinity is such a big problem, how can we help men to exhibit positive masculinity and how can we give space to those men who already do exhibit positive masculinity to be examples and leaders?”

One of Boman’s biggest takeaways was the realization that her opinion is valid, but not the only perspective on women’s issues. She said the most important thing people can do on an individual level, both men and women, is try to understand others.

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