Pat Mitchell

Pat Mitchell is President and CEO of The Paley Center for Media, which leads the discussion about the cultural, creative, and social significance of television, radio, and emerging platforms for the professional community and media-interested public. She was named to Newsweek’s 2011 list of 150 Women Who Shake The World, and in 2012 was named by the Huffington Post one of the most powerful women over 50 and featured in Fast Company’s Special Report, The League of Extraordinary Women.

I grew up in small-town Georgia in the dark ages before the Pill and before young girls with big dreams had many options or models for what kind of life choices were possible. If we wanted a job or career, our choices were pretty much limited to choosing to be a teacher or a nurse.

We know that one of the most effective means of disrupting cycles of poverty, abuse, early and multiple pregnancies is to ensure every girl and woman has a choice about whether or not to bear children and the freedom from fear to exercise it.

In 8th grade, I had an English teacher who expanded my choices by supporting my dreams of a life different from the one I witnessed my mother and most other women in my community were living. This teacher, Mrs. Reid, had chosen not to have children, although happily married, so she presented a model of an independent professional woman that was different and inspiring. I wanted to be like her. She encouraged me to study hard, think for myself, pursue my interests and broaden my horizons and choices. Young people, then and now need to see what they can be to aspire to be it. We all need role models and for me, Mrs. Reid was my first and perhaps, most important model for what was possible for me and other women.

That’s why media and the images that are perpetuated in the roles and representations of women in all media are so important. When I was young, those images or models were pretty much limited to “happy housewives” with lots of children who spent lots of time cooking while their husbands went off to work. Finally, with “That Girl”, there was a show about a single, working woman living on her own.

As a woman working in media…as a reporter, producer, executive…I have tried over the decades of my career to show the realities of women’s lives in the stories I have reported, the shows I have hosted and the media entities I have led: stories and programs that addressed the complexities of the choices and decisions that remain for many women about having children, the timing and number of children, the concerns about balancing motherhood and careers. Having the right to make an initial and critical choice about when to bear a child depends greatly on a woman’s access to safe means of contraception. That is why the Pill and other birth control made more readily accessible changed everything for women. It didn’t resolve all the other related questions about parenting, but it put personal freedom to make the initial and critical choices about when and with whom, just where it belonged…with women.

But let’s not forget that in too many places today, the right to make those choices is still nonexistent. Even in this country, the right to reproductive freedom and choice is threatened again and again by those who would roll back the clock and take back a woman’s right to choose. But it’s hard to imagine that we will ever return to the dark ages when so many of our other life choices about education and careers could be determined by an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy.

At The Paley Center for Media, we explore some the ways that these personal choices can be impacted by media and increasingly, technology. Some of the new communication technologies are proving to be a new force in the continuing struggle in many places in the world to give women control over their bodies and to make it safer and healthier to bear children when that choice is made. Mobile technology is empowering women with information about family planning, providing lifesaving medical support from physicians thousands of miles away and giving many women the information on how to exercise greater control over their choices about becoming pregnant.

Today, I consider my work with VDay, a global movement to end violence against women and girls, one of my most important commitments. We have to end violence before any rights for women can be secured. A girl cannot be educated if she lives in fear; a woman cannot contribute to her community if she fears repercussions, a child cannot thrive if the mother does not have the resources or good health to nurture and support her children. And in nearly country, the vicious cycle of violence and abuse leading to early and unwanted pregnancies perpetuates poverty for mother and her children.

Rather than debating the question of whether a woman has the right to choose whether or not to have a child or who controls a woman’s body, this country should be leading the world in a global outrage against the violence that takes all control and choice completely away through the rapes, incest, violent abuse that often leads to unwanted pregnancies that usually lead to the end of choice for the women and girls. We know that one of the most effective means of disrupting cycles of poverty, abuse, early and multiple pregnancies is to ensure every girl and woman has a choice about whether or not to bear children and the freedom from fear to exercise it.

All politicians – and all media — should be rated on their leadership by how effective they are at leading the efforts and supporting the programs that inform women and girls about their reproductive rights, and that guarantee them access to family planning for them and their families. This is every woman’s right, and it is also the most effective way forward towards a healthier, more prosperous and peaceful world.