Reflecting on the Meaning of Women’s History Month for Women and Girls Today with Ellen Snortland, Board Member and Goodwill Ambassador of the National Women’s History Alliance
In this episode of On Record PR, Leslie Richards goes on record with Ellen Snortland, Board Member and Goodwill Ambassador of the National Women’s History Alliance.
Ellen has her Juris doctorate from Loyola Law School, and is an author, lecturer, playwright, filmmaker, and writing coach, for local and internationally based clients.
Dateline NBC featured Ellen’s work as a self-defense advocate and instructor, along with her groundbreaking book, Beauty Bites Beast. She is the co-author of the Safety Godmothers with Lisa Gaeta, and is writing a new book Coulda/Shoulda/Woulda, which is a memoir about her career in media and entertainment, and the ways in which it was impacted by the rampant, sexism and ageism in that industry.
Ellen believes that thinking globally and acting locally is vital for women and girls. Females of all species know how to protect themselves, and it’s a birthright for human females too. She holds that there’s nothing more local than one’s own body. Her TEDx Pasadena talk, The Personal Safety Paradox, encapsulates decades of her self-defense advocacy in just 18 minutes.
A long-time woman’s rights advocate, Ellen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and Ms. Magazine, has been featured on NPR and has written for many major market newspapers. Ellen’s acclaimed one woman show, Now That She’s Gone, is a comic memoir about growing up Norwegian-American in Colorado and South Dakota. She has attended several United Nations World Conferences, and annual UN meetings as an NGO delegate, self-defense advocate and journalist.
Could you start today’s conversation by telling us a little bit about the origin of the National Women’s History Alliance, and its mission?
Yes. Quite a few of us second-wave feminists – and I consider myself to be “2.5” because I really wasn’t i the second wave, I was a little lagged, but I certainly was listening to them and reading them – it was almost like waking up. All these books, where are the women? Where are they? They’re missing, MIA. The existential part of that is how do you know you’re missing when they’re missing? So you have to go, “Wait a second. I think there were probably women involved and we’re not sure how, or where, or why.” It just, I think, ticked off a lot of women and said, “this is not okay to be so wholesale and visible and it’s not accurate.”
There is a saying that history is written by the victors, although this is not necessarily a war. Yeah, we were MIA.
That started a whole rash of girls and women going into and bumping up against the barriers to being in so-called traditional male areas of study of scholarship, including history, including archeology, including science, including math. All these memes that girls aren’t good at math and girls, aren’t good at science. Except for home economics, they’re not good at economics.
I think curiosity is what really… anger. Whenever a movement has either a beginning or a resurgence, it has to be fueled by something other than ho-hum. You have to go out of your way, right? If the status quo, you use a metaphor of space, if the status quo is the orbit you got to have some kind of rocket fuel to blast out of that orbit. Frequently that is fed by anger or indignation or something that is like, “Hey, it’s not fair.”
Leslie Richards: A catalyzing event of some kind or a catalyzing moment. I think we’ve seen quite a bit of that in the last 18 months.
Ellen Snortland: Exactly.
Leslie Richards: It has parallels with what we’re dealing with today.
Ellen Snortland: Right. It happens at an individual level and happens at a societal level and hopefully a critical mass of people says, “Yeah, why is that?” And start questioning authority. A whole raft of us grew up questioning authority.
Leslie Richards: Out of that came the National Women’s History Alliance.
Can you tell us a little bit about the founders of the Alliance and their influence on what is now formally known as Women’s History Month?
One of the founders, who’s still very active, her name’s Molly MacGregor. She is the sweetest most gentle, modest. We keep poking her going, “Molly you’re part of history stop being so modest.”
She was in Santa Rosa, California, and was part of the group of people saying, “We need to start teaching about girls and women in schools.” So she, being a natural educator, got people together and said, “Okay, let’s create a curricula that includes women and girls in history.” Then the people that she coordinated and got involved petitioned Congress to have the month of March designated as Women’s History Month.
Tell us, in your opinion, as a journalist and someone who’s been involved in women’s advocacy for such a long time, how does history connect us to our present? What do you think is the significance of Women’s History Month for women and girls today?
Well, I think it’s got significance as far as just being able to hold up our heads. Because when you’re so invisible from the historical narrative it’s easy to take a second place. Like, “Well, what have we done?” Well, a lot. It’s also important for boys and men to understand that we have always been there. We’ll always be there. They get a lot out of learning about women and girls, too.
One of the most poignant examples of that is that I was in DC, I don’t remember what for, but one of my Uber drivers was a young, Black man and we started talking movies, as we do. He said, “Oh, did you see Hidden Figures?” I said, “yes.” And he said, “Man, I wish I’d seen that one when I was in school because I would have studied math.”
Leslie Richards: Oh wow.
Ellen Snortland: The gender doesn’t matter, really. If you can see part of the group that you identify with the most doing something that is considered to be outside the scope of whatever your group does, it’s inspiring regardless of gender. We also know that’s true, regardless of skin color. Women who see other women doing things that are considered to be male, we get a lot out of it. We go, “Oh man, if she can do that with all those barriers, I can do that.”
It empowers it and uplifts and provides a model for what’s possible. My mother raised me, and my father too, on Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s not an accident that I became a columnist because Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a column.
Leslie Richards: Yes. Just being part of the narrative is something that inspires and drives ambition and action.
Ellen Snortland: Yeah, what is possible? Possibility is an ingredient that we forget. It’s abstract, but it’s very real in terms of driving people’s vision of themselves. It’s gotten to be a bumper sticker, but if you can see it, you can believe it. Or if you can see it, you can be it.
Leslie Richards: Which reminds me of actually the last trays of the beautiful poem by Amanda Gorman that was read at the inauguration. I think there’s a perfect example of somebody who we’ve not seen. We haven’t seen a young, Black woman in that kind of a position. I think for many people that was very inspiring.
Ellen Snortland: Definitely. Definitely.
I know that the National Women’s History Alliance selects a yearly theme for Women’s History Month. Tell us a little bit about the theme for 2021 and how it’s reflected in the work of the organization.
My mother never, ever, ever spoke in public. Now she’s got a loud-mouth daughter. I mean, she passed a long time ago. But she raised me to speak up and to write and to emulate Eleanor Roosevelt as closely as I could, which I’ve fallen way short of. However, refuse to be silent. There’s an Audrey Lorde poem, I should have pulled it up. Basically, the idea of it is that it’s scary to stay quiet and it’s scary to say something, it’s better to say something.
“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”
― Audre Lorde, A Litany for Survival
Leslie Richards: She’s quite something as a fighter and somebody who speaks up with grace.
Ellen Snortland: Goodness. I wish kids grew up with her. Such grace, poetry and badass-ness.
Leslie Richards: Yes, absolutely.
Is there a story about the impact of Women’s History Month as you’ve been involved with the organization or just in women’s issues generally that you think might be represents the goal of Women’s History Month? Have you ever seen it connecting in the day-to-day world in a way that reinforces the goals of the Women’s History Alliance?
Well, I have a short anecdote about myself before there was Women’s History Month. But I entered college when I was 16. I grew up in South Dakota. I was bounding up the student union stairs and a cowboy, and he really was a cowboy I was in Billings, Montana, whistles at me, and I’d never been whistled at before. So it was like, “Huh.” So I walked right over to him and I said, “Why did you do that?” He said, “Well …” He was aghast.
Leslie Richards: I can only imagine.
Ellen Snortland: We used to whistle to call the horses in from pasture, so I thought, “What’s up with this?” We started talking and then it somehow got into what I would do with my degree.
I said, “I’m going to be a lawyer.”
He said, “Well, that’s ridiculous, women can’t be lawyers.”
I said, “Yes, they can.”
He said, “No, they can’t.”
So, we go back-and-forth with this highly intellectual, “Yes, no. Yes, no. Yes, no.”
He finally says, “Well, name one woman lawyer.”
I wasn’t reading The New York Times in Billings, Montana. I didn’t know about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I didn’t know about Pauli Murray. I didn’t know about a lot of people who actually were doing it. I vowed I was never going to feel that way again, I was going to find out more and be able to say, “Oh, Nope, there’s this, this, this, this, this.”
That was a personal thing.
Then, we just got a success story and it landed on Good Morning America, which is about as mainstream as you can get. These two sisters were indignant that the signs in their community were still men working. That had actually been banned like 20 years ago by the municipality itself. But I guess they just felt like they didn’t want to waste the signs or I don’t know. They successfully petitioned to get them changed.
Leslie Richards: I know, as a young girl growing up, I did notice those signs, men working. I think, “Well, what if it wasn’t just men?”
Ellen Snortland: You actually see women with hard hats and doing so-called men’s jobs. So they were inspired by Women’s History Month to take action and they succeeded.
Leslie Richards: That’s wonderful. I think your story is such an excellent illustration of how having those references, the life references for people who are where you want to go as a young woman is so reinforcing and reassuring. So that’s a great example. Thank you for that.
Ellen Snortland: Yeah, and as a warning too. Because had I known that Ruth Bader Ginsburg could be at the top of her class and everything and still not get hired, I don’t think I would felt so badly when I was floundering with, “Well, what do I do with this?” Because there were 12 women in my law school class and we were not treated very nicely. I entered law school in ’74.
Leslie Richards: Okay.
Ellen Snortland: The professors made sure we knew that we were not welcome, except for a few standouts.
Leslie Richards: The fact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg could be the top of her class at two Ivy league law schools, both Harvard and Columbia and not get hired. It is astounding. It’s quite something.
Ellen Snortland: It’s crazy. That cutting off their noses to spite their face, that they would be willing to forego talent like that for the sake of rigid gender roles, you just go, “Wow.” Think of all the waste.
Leslie Richards: I think also a sense that women in your era were taking a spot that belonged to a man.
Ellen Snortland: I was told that by a high school counselor. I started talking about going to law school very young because I knew that it would get a laugh. I’ve always been somewhat of a class clown. I’d say I’m going to be a lawyer. My mother never laughed.
Leslie Richards: Thank you, Mom.
Ellen Snortland: And my dad never laughed. He thought, “Yep. Okay, you can do that.” But I said in my high school counseling hour that all juniors had to go through that I was going to do that and my high school counselor said, “Oh, forget that. You’re just going to be taking up the space of a young man who needs to provide for his family.” As it happens, I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. I just didn’t expect a counselor…
Leslie Richards: To be limiting. Somebody who should be expanding your opportunities is giving you a hard “no.”
Ellen Snortland: Precisely.
Leslie Richards: I had the opportunity to watch your TEDx Pasadena talk on The Personal Safety Paradox.
Tell us where your passion for self-defense and advocacy stems from it and how it connects more broadly to the work of empowering women.
Ellen Snortland: Got a week?
Leslie Richards: I am all yours.
Ellen Snortland: As in most cases, my advocacy came from a personal experience. Los Angeles (LA) is so big that my then husband and I met at Westwood in two separate cars and then we drove to our home downtown Los Angeles. My husband drove his car in first, I followed behind him and all of a sudden he’s at the driver’s window and knocks on the window and says, “Stay in the car somebody’s broken into the house.” This is straight up midnight, no lights on in the house. Because he noticed that there was a brick next to the door and the window to the door was broken. He told me to stay in the car. So I sat there frozen. Then, I thought, “What kind of feminist am I to let my husband, the sweet man who never had anything more than high school wrestling, go into a pitch-black house at midnight, three blocks east of MacArthur Park?” I said, “Nope, I’m going to go in.”
As I was crossing the threshold a man in a ski mask was coming up the basement stairs and held up a knife and was ready to plunge it into me. I froze, which is what humans and all mammals do. Then I screamed so loudly the man dropped the knife, grabbed his ears and ran like hell.
At the time I was a segment producer for a large talk show. My husband was in another part of the house. He didn’t know if he was going to find me dead or alive. He found me very alive. I had slumped down and I was sitting there and I had the adrenaline shakes and I mean I had this huge fight or flight or freeze dump of chemicals. I was very much alive. He promised me a self-defense class for my upcoming birthday. I went into work the next day and I talked to maybe 40 people, we had a pretty big staff.
I asked everyone, “Do you know how to defend yourself? Do you know how to defend yourself? Do you know how to defend yourself?”
100% of the men said, “Yeah.” Some of them were lying, I’m pretty sure.
100% of the women said, “Oh God, no and I’m amazed you could scream.”
I thought, “Wow, I’ve never given any thought to this at all.” Yet we’re raised in a culture where we have violence as entertainment. Well entertaining to whom? We’re surrounded by violence in the news and entertainment that we cannot get away from it. Yet here I am a privileged white woman with all the advantages, well-educated, well-read, well-traveled everything. And not one person, not one person has ever said anything to me about the possibility of having to confront violence, not one person. I thought, “Wow, that is really weird. I need to study this.”
A voracious reader that I am, I started searching for books that would explain to me that I did not know anything about confronting violence and I could not find it. Tony Morrison said, “If there’s a book you want to read and you can’t find it, write it yourself.” So I did. That was the birth of my book, Beauty Bites Beast.
Leslie Richards: There really is a huge disconnect in our culture between our lived experience and then what we consume as cultural media around violence. It’s very different.
Ellen Snortland: Then I wrote my book and I’m so proud of the documentary I made with the help of a ginormous and wonderful community. Because a man read Beauty Bites Beast, and there is one man who I befriended on a tour we took to Mexico to examine the environment in Oaxaca, which mimics Africa as close as we can get to. It has malaria, severe environmental degradation and high illiteracy rates. We became really good friends. I found out later that he owned a factory in Tijuana.
He read my book, because we got to be such good friends. I basically double-dog-dared him to read it. He did and couldn’t put it down. He emailed me and he said,
“I had not a clue how terrifying it must be to be in a woman’s body. I’m tall, I’m privileged. Nobody has ever hassled me on the street, not one person. I just realized what a disconnect that is for me and I look at the women who worked for me and they’re scared of me.”
“They’re scared of me. That is not okay with me. What would it take for you to come down and train them in self-defense?”
“Well, I have conditions. You need to give them paid time to do it during work hours. I don’t want them to have to come back at night or on the weekends because that’s when they shop and they have family time and you have to prepare for your factory to be a mess because a crew and all that kind of stuff is not going to let your factory run very well.”
“Oh, that’s okay. Art is messy.”
I’m thinking, “Dude, where did you come from?”
Leslie Richards: That’s wonderful. What a great opportunity for those women. I think the shock that he experienced is enlightening in the sense that I think for almost all women, we’ve experienced some kind of unwelcome approach of varying degrees from the cowboy who whistles at you going up the stairs to something much more violent and much more serious. But I think in that spectrum, most of us have experienced something.
Ellen Snortland: I don’t have any friends that are women that haven’t experienced that.
Leslie Richards: I do not either.
Ellen Snortland: A myth that if you’re a nice girl, nothing will happen to you. Really? So I have two sisters, so we were a three daughter family and all three of us have been assaulted.
Leslie Richards: I’m sorry to hear that.
Ellen Snortland: The World Health Organization (WHO) says one in three and it’s like, “Well, my family was three in three.” It’s vastly under-reported or minimized. Things that are assaultive are not considered to be assaults and yet they really are.
Ellen, I mentioned in the introduction that you are an author, a lecturer, a playwright, a filmmaker, a writing coach, so many accomplishments. Is there one that you’re most proud of if you were to pick one of the many things that you’ve done over your career?
Well, good grief. Of course I personally feel like I have not done enough. So I want to blush when I hear that people consider me accomplished because there’s so much more to do. It’s like, oh good grief.
Leslie Richards: Yes. There’s always more to do, right? So we all create stepping stones for the next person.
Ellen Snortland: Right. But I think there are three things that come to mind. One is that when I was in Billings, Montana at the college that I mentioned before.
Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Gloria Steinem came to lecture. You know what a pain in the ass it is to get to Billings? They had to go out of their way to be there. It was the first time I’d seen a woman who personified everything I admired and valued, and she was funny and smart and gorgeous and all these things that didn’t seem to go together with what I was hearing about, ball-busting, ugly feminists. I’m thinking, “Boy, somebody’s got to have their eyes checked or at least their taste checked.”
She was with a Black woman, they always lectured together. She was devoted and really said, “Now watch, you watch, as the woman’s movement takes off, they’re going to try to pit Black women against white women.” In some ways that happened. That’s why they always lectured together. I said that night, “I am going to become someone that Gloria Steinem is proud to know.” That came to pass.
Leslie Richards: Oh, that’s lovely.
Ellen Snortland: I’ve been with her personally. I got to be a bodyguard for her at a march once.
Then on the larger scope taking our movie, Beauty Bites Beast*, to Pakistan was really something.
*To learn more about the book and documentary, Beauty Bites Beast, please visit the end of the transcript.
Leslie Richards: Please tell us about that.
Ellen Snortland: Well, there was a travel advisory that unless it was urgent to not travel to Pakistan. We had been invited by the Islamic University in Islamabad to show Beauty Bites Beast at the girls’ campus. We said, “We’re going.” My husband and I. It was a zenith of citizen ambassadorship.
When we were in Islamabad and on the streets, people were so kind and so affectionate and open. Coming up to us and saying, “Oh, we love Americans. Thank you for coming. What do you think of us? What do you think of Islamabad? What do you think of Pakistanis?’ It was overwhelming the degree to which people were affectionate, affectionate toward us. Women wanted to hug me, wanted to hold my hand. We were touched beyond belief.
Leslie Richards: How was the content received? It’s an empowering message of self-defense in a culture where women are taught to be less forceful.
Ellen Snortland: Oh yes. It was radical heretical and they loved it. They loved it.
One of the things that, I tell my husband that my mission has been to go around the world pissing one woman off at a time if I have to. Then I won’t stick out so badly. Nobody wants to have their lives contained or restricted or mapped out by a dominant group. Nobody wants that. There are collaborators… I should back up. There are collaborators, there are women who are just as interested in keeping the patriarchy in place as other women. They were raised to believe that they’re not as good as men or that the sphere is so different there’s no crossing over.
Leslie Richards: They’ve internalized those messages.
Ellen Snortland: Yes. Every group has people that don’t agree with you. So, there you go. But oh, my goodness, we had to be careful because first of all, it took us forever to get our visas. The State Department did not want us to get a cheap Airbnb. They required that we stayed in a fancy hotel so they could keep their eyes on the Americans and find us if they had to. Because there had been a rash of kidnappings and pretty grim consequences for Americans.
Images that were offensive to fundamentalist Islamicists, like bare shoulders. We just put a black band and post there. We didn’t want anybody to get in trouble. Because if we’d left that stuff in and people were busted with our DVD, then that would get them in trouble as contraband.
Leslie Richards: Exciting to be on the ground impacting women’s lives that way.
Ellen Snortland: Then the third thing is very personal. A niece by marriage was watching me. She was in a three daughter family as well in a extremely rigid fundamentalist evangelical family where women really did keep their mouth shut and just do their jobs. They would come and visit us, my second husband and I. I wasn’t hostile, but you couldn’t pick people more opposite to me if you tried. He spoke, he was so imperious. I would just say, “I don’t believe that. I don’t think this is true.” I’d lay out why I thought that. I got contacted by the young woman when she had grown up. She said, “Dear Aunt Ellen, I hope I can call you Aunt Ellen still, I want you to know that before you I had never seen a woman challenge my father, ever. I didn’t know you could. I’ve become a pro-choice activist in Arkansas.”
Leslie Richards: My goodness. You had a really significant impact on this young woman.
Ellen Snortland: Yes, just being myself. I wasn’t trying to. I just was being myself.
Leslie Richards: Well, and I think that comes full circle to our discussion of the relevance and the importance of National History Month, Women’s History Month in that having those role models and seeing something other than the expectation, seeing something that broadens the scope, whether that’s a person or an event as a catalyst for change is so valuable and so important.
Ellen Snortland: You never know, you never know who you’re impacting.
Leslie Richards: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much. And thank you so much for joining us today.
If our listeners would like to learn more about you or about the National Women’s History Alliance, where can they do that?
Ellen Snortland: Well, we are on Facebook. I am on Facebook and the National Women’s History Alliance is on Facebook.
Learn More and Connect
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Learn More About Beauty Bites Beast
Tell us about the transformation of Beauty Bites Beast from your book to your movie.
Beauty Bites Beast, the documentary, started with this man who had the factory and asked me to come down and train the women who worked for him. I said, “My third condition is that I bring a crew and we tape it and it’ll be the spine of a documentary that I make.” One of the things I’ve learned from advocating that women learn how to defend themselves over the years are the same, mostly unconscious, mindsets that people have about women and men. There are pretty rigid ideas that women are unable to defend themselves because of mostly biological reasons, they’re smaller. Except there are a lot of women who are not smaller than men. There’s this whole group in the middle that they’re more or less the same size. Just as we’ve been pushing the envelope, to use a cliche, on a women in athletics.
Women are, we find out, just as potentially dangerous as men are. Now they don’t want to walk around sending that vibe out-
But they don’t have decades of movies and TV that boys them up, and men do. Men have seen all sorts of possibilities. In fact, they’ve seen crazy possibilities. Like men can get hit in the head by a fire extinguisher and get right back up. It’s like, “Wow.” So it’s a form of propaganda in my view. I enjoy action movies, mostly because they’re so ridiculous in the choreography in watching it. But it really serves to keep the threat of force in play and in place. So I set about to make a movie that would be something that people could not unsee, that flies in the face of every single rigid idea and mindsets that most people don’t know they have.
I made it funny as well. Because people, when they’re laughing, all of a sudden these new ideas can come in and people will go, “Oh, it’s such a serious subject.” I said, “Yeah, I’ve been talking about this for decades. I know that. I also know that when I start talking about it people run unless I can make it entertaining.” So I’m an expert in talking to people about this and I’ve seen the same objections come up over and over and over and over again. So I made something that really, doesn’t lecture, but really challenges all these ideas. Again, men who see it are like, “Oh.” As do women. I bring that up though, because we keep this segregation of so-called women’s studies separate and it can’t be, it cannot be.