As an undergraduate student of war literature at Yale University, renowned filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney found that women were often “ephemeral, in the language, but not there.”
Disney explored this topic in a talk at Scripps College this past Tuesday, Oct. 2, entitled “War and the Power of Women’s Voices.” She introduced the audience to her work of bringing attention to the effects of war on women and their role in coming together to promote peace.
When she began making her documentary films, however, Disney wanted to push the lack of women’s perspectives in war literature by asking the question, “What does it look like when [women] tell us?”
Her first documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, does just this. The film chronicles the efforts of a group of Liberian women who joined forces to end the Liberian Civil War and brought peace to their country.
“It was really important that this story be known, partly out of respect for the women who had done this brave thing, but also partly because of the work I knew it would unlock,” Disney said. “There is this tendency to think war–men, men–war, what have women got to do with it?”
Disney is also the executive producer of the acclaimed PBS miniseries, Women, War & Peace, excerpts of which were presented to the audience as part of her talk. Each of the five episodes tells the story of a group of women who have come together in times of conflict, including sixteen Bosnian women who testified against guards at a camp where women were raped during the Bosnian War. Also featured was Shahida Houssein, one of the first women chosen by Afghani President Hamid Karzai to be a delegate in Parliament, who left Kabul to attend a peace conference in the midst of executions of government supporters by the Taliban.
During the Q&A session that followed, Disney touched on topics ranging from women in media to male involvement in women’s issues, which Disney said is “the question” of this time. The problem, Disney said, is that “men have never taken a billy club to the head for women’s issues. Things will change when men take some heat from each other.”
Anne Kirkpatrick SC ’14 found similarities between her experiences and Disney’s.
“Since having my newest position as Public Affairs Director at KSPC, working on producing my own media for radio, I started to see myself as having a greater responsibility to share women’s stories and women’s voices,” Kirkpatrick said.
Disney struck a chord with other students as well.
“I definitely liked her last point about how constraining our view of masculinity is,” Lily Foss SC ’13 said. “I’m a Gender Studies major, and there are a lot of feminist theorists who talk about that, and how that can motivate men to really understand what feminism is about. That it’s not men over women, it’s freeing everyone from these constrictive gender norms.”
Disney also founded the nonprofit organization Peace is Loud, which supports female activism, and cofounded the Daphne Foundation, which works to combat poverty in the five boroughs of New York City.