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Natural Awakenings Naples and Fort Myers

The Men Behind Local Women Activists

Apr 28, 2017 11:05AM ● By Linda Sechrist

Bill and Marjorie Ziff-Levine

If we are serious about peace and development, we must take women seriously. Without peace, development is impossible, and without development, peace is not achievable. But without women, neither peace nor development is possible.”

~Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, former undersecretary general and high representative of the United Nations.


If asked to cite of the names of trailblazing female activists that have had the heart to lead campaigns to build awareness and address issues such as poverty, economic justice, labor rights, civil rights, social and environmental justice, a clean energy economy, the elimination of gender stereotypes, peace, women’s rights or political issues, it is highly probable that any one of us in Southwest Florida would recall only the most publicly recognized women. While names such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Rosa Parks, Alice Walker, Julia Butterfly or Winona LaDuke are some of the most likely, there are thousands more women that work just as diligently within their communities to support a mosaic of grassroots movements.

Grassroots activists dedicate significant time, energy and money to show up and be part of activities before, during and after marches, protests and rallies, gather thousands of petition signatures, listen patiently to opposing viewpoints, tolerate emotional discomfort and stress, educate themselves about complex issues and stay the course without burning out. Family time frequently suffers because there is less energy for balancing personal relationships, marriage and career.

One aspect of a feminist’s activism that is rarely addressed is the contributions of her “significant other” that provides a sounding board and understanding, as well as the financial and emotional support that helps to keep them from running out of steam or wearing out. Bill Ziff-Levine, Michael Seef and Whitney Smith, the husbands of three local activists—Marjorie Ziff-Levine, Bonnie Michaels and Ann Smith—talked to Natural Awakenings regarding their thoughts on their activist wives and the support they provide them.

Matching the Passion Thermometer

“I’m supportive and encouraging of the central themes of Marjorie’s activism, including her environmental advocacy, her participation in the Women’s March in January and her ongoing involvement with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), as well as human trafficking awareness and her latest Community Café Coalition of Southwest Florida (CCC). A female colleague where I work knitted a pussy hat for me, which I was proud of and gave to Marjorie to take with her to New York,” advises Bill Ziff-Levine.

Perhaps women activists are the canaries in the coal mine, calling attention to the soulless mindset of a new corporatized order which threatens to marginalize anyone that doesn’t play along with an increasingly destructive worldview.

“My wife is not shrinking violet, nor is she afraid to speak her mind. She gets passionate about ideas and challenges me to think really hard on topics and issues that she raises. I can match her on the passion thermometer, but my work and the practical world draw on my attention, which keep me from rising as quickly to her level of intensity about issues she is involved in,” says Bill.

A lack of private ruminating time and sifting through Marjorie’s expressive language are hurdles that Bill occasionally has to jump over to keep up. “Like most men, I like logical action talk, such as if I take this action today, these three things could happen tomorrow. It’s why I occasionally wish that women would use less emotional and abstract language and speak more concretely so that I would require less processing time. Marjorie insists on the urgency of now, but in my opinion, the sky isn’t falling every day. Every issue can’t be so critical that the world is coming to an end," he notes. Regardless, I’m grateful that my wife is my moral compass, because often I need to let go of the practicality of something to see the broader humanity of it,” he advises.

Carte Blanche Support

Bonnie Michaels and Michael Seef
Bonnie Michaels and Michael Seef
“Bonnie and I are of the same activist mindset and have worked together locally in policymaking with the leadership at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. We occasionally attend meetings of the Collier Board of County Commissioners,” says Seef.

Bonnie has Seef’s carte blanche support. “She has great judgment and wisdom. She is free to take action wherever she believes she can make a difference. Locally, as past chair of the Environmental Committee for the Collier County League of Women Voters, bird steward for Audubon, president of Collier Citizens for Sustainability, member of Gather the Women and the Cypress Cove Conservancy and Community Café Coalition, I’ve proudly watched her do that. I especially applauded her while I kept the home fires burning while she traveled to Uganda for a week. I admire women like Bonnie, Ann and Marjorie, who are allies for the greater good and stand up for what they believe,” he says.

Seef notes that his life as a single man living alone for a number of years before marrying Bonnie freed him of any dependence on his wife’s domestic support. “Bonnie and I are equals. Generally speaking though, I think that the ways in which women express their gender through nurturing, receptivity, empathy, tenderness, vulnerability, patience and quiet strength makes them admirable, and sometimes superior, to how males express gender traits such as aggression, competitiveness, independence and lack of emotions,” explains Seef.

Compatible Partnership

Whitney’s description of his partnership with Ann reflects a sense of strong and solid compatibility. “We’re in agreement on environmental and social justice issues, as well as women’s rights, which are human rights. I’ve always supported her way of thinking,” he advises.

An appetite for reading newspapers since he was 8 years old and magazines such as Time since he was 12 has kept Whitney well-versed in world events, as well as the issues that Ann and other women face, including wanting to find meaningful.

Whitney and Ann Smith
Whitney and Ann Smith
“Ann and I met when she was in nursing school and I was studying engineering. After we married in 1963, she counseled women on issues such as planned parenthood, securing jobs to get off welfare and starting a women’s shelter. By 1983, Ann really wanted a good, well-paying job. Although I didn’t hinder her when she got the director of women in mission and ministry for the Episcopal Church USA position, I didn’t like that she traveled 50 percent of the time for three years. That’s when I became mom and dad for our youngest daughter,” recalls Whitney, who continues to support Ann’s challenging work as a feminist locally, nationally and internationally through the United Nations and many non-governmental organizations.

The Open Democracy report circulated at this year’s United Nations CSW noted that the global accomplishments of the women’s rights movement over the last five decades are now in danger due to closed borders and rising intolerance. Gender justice cannot be achieved without the strength of women in solidarity around the world. Rights groups all over the globe are challenged to fight; not just for the causes they support, but for their very existence. Without the unity and support from more established women groups in developed countries, the movement could slowly vanish and lose all the ground gained over the last decade.”

According to Mary Ann Williamson, author of Tears to Triumph, “The passion-bearer’s role is to recognize what’s wrong in the world and invoke most passionately what could be made right. This role is not always easy or smooth, or guaranteed to win universal applause. It’s the heroic call of every age to smash old bottles and create new wine.” Perhaps women activists are the canaries in the coal mine, calling attention to the soulless mindset of a new corporatized order which threatens to marginalize anyone that doesn’t play along with an increasingly destructive worldview.

While men continue to deliberate over whether or not women’s issues significantly impact the global agenda for peace, development and human rights, it’s comforting to know that there are role models such as Bill, Seef and Whitney who recognize that no human endeavor is meaningful and worthwhile unless it has women at its center.

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