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A Scholarly Panel on Female Voices in the Realm of New Media

November 7, 2014
Cécile Kyenge via Skype, Sabina Ciuffini, Linda Douglass, Mary Beard and Kim Bowes
Guests at the Villa Aurelia
Sabina Ciuffini, Linda Douglass, Mary Beard and Kim Bowes
Linda Douglass and Kim Bowes
Sebastian Hierl
Peter Benson Miller and Lindsay Harris
Reception at the Villa Aurelia
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A distinguished group of panelists, including Mary Beard, Linda Douglass, Sabina Ciuffini, and Cécile Kyenge, recently joined Academy Director Kim Bowes, FAAR’06, at the Villa Aurelia for the Patricia H. Labalme Friends of the Library Lecture, as part of the ongoing series Conversations / Conversazioni: From the American Academy in Rome. The Friends of the Library was founded in 1961 as a group of concerned Fellows, Residents, artists, scholars and readers wishing to provide financial support and raise awareness for the Academy’s Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library. Simultaneous translation was made available to guests as the exchange was held in both English and Italian. The event, which drew a capacity audience, was made possible, in part, by the support of the Embassy of the United States of America.

The event opened with introductions by Dr. Bowes and Drue Heinz Librarian Sebastian Hierl, who spoke about the library’s recent reopening after a series of technological upgrades and a labor intensive reclassification of its over 155,000 volumes. This year the lecture adopted a slightly different format as a panel discussion on how the advent of new media has changed the nature and tenor of feminist discourse. Dr. Bowes clarified that the evening’s conversation was to revolve around how changes in media have allowed us to access and share vast amounts of information at unprecedented speeds. How, if at all, do these changes represent a democratization of the communication landscape and have they positively affected women’s participation in public discourse?

The lecture assembled an eminent gathering of international voices, representing a variety of professional backgrounds in academia, journalism and politics: Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and a Fellow of the British Academy who blogs for The Times and has hosted a number of documentary films. Linda Douglass was formerly a television news journalist and the Director of Communications for the White House Office of Health Reform; since 2010 she has been Vice President of strategic communication for Atlantic Media. Sabina Ciuffini is an entrepreneur, and blogger for Il Fatto Quotidiano, who recently launched a new project called UnaTalks, inspired by TED talks, to share women’s voices and experiences. Ophthalmologist, former member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies for Emilia Romagna and Italian Cabinet Minister, Cécile Kyenge joined the panel via Skype from Brussels, where she is currently serving as a member of the European Parliament.

Director Bowes mediated the panel and began by having each panelist describe an incident in which their public speech had been interpreted via the lens of gender. Each panelist addressed this question in the context of their own professional and national experience. Dr. Kyenge described some of the obstacles she had to overcome as a female surgeon, as well as the vehement opposition she has met in the political arena, particularly with respect to her stand for immigration reform. The panelists were then asked a series of pointed questions about the prevalence and speed of new media, including whether this advance has led to a democratization of voices, specifically for women.

While all of the panelists agreed that new media introduce the possibility of increased public participation, they also rejected the notion that such a relationship was straightforward. Linda Douglass argued that social media too frequently rewards uncivil commentary, becoming a kind of reportage without second thought, while Sabina Ciuffini pointed out that new media revolutions produce an invasion of words within a sensory vacuum. Ultimately, Mary Beard argued, a change in modality does not signify a change in message and legitimate democracy requires someone to be listening from the other side of the aisle.