Not since Adam and Eve ate the apple has this earth been faced with a social issue as complex as that which drew the delegates to the International Women's Year Conference in Mexico City last June. The delegates, who were mostly women, came as representatives of their governments, which were mostly men, to talk about profound alterations in the balance of everything between the two sexes. They did not, however, look like revolutionaries: Imelda Marcos of the Philippines and her corps of silken butterflies; the U.S. delegation, carefully dressed in styles ranging from Lord & Taylor to Peck & Peck; the Africans in their richly woven cloths and elaborately wrapped turbans-certainly not the solid Byelorussians, with their knotted hair and flower prints. Nor were they united behind a single ideology: they were rather a microcosm of the differences which confront the women's movement as it gains international legitimacy. And, in fact, the women's revolution was immediately faced by what seemed like a counterrevolution-the delegates from the developing countries appeared for a time so intent on the redistribution of resources between rich and poor that the redistribution of power between men and women seemed for them a competing priority. That this threat to the liberation effort came from the oppressed was disarming. Both the women and the poor are trying to change the status quo, either by altering the existing power structure or by carving out a more advantageous place for themselves within it. For Western women, however, debate over any issue other than those directly affecting women could only be construed as wasteful and frustrating. They wondered whether the Third World position did not reflect a disdain or hostility by those countries and their male-dominated governments for the goals of the conference, an attempt to distract the women from how much they had in common. "The International Women's Year will have been another mockery," said France's Françoise Giroux, "if the results are subtly diverted toward either national or international political causes, no matter how pressing, respectable or noble their aims might be." A careful assessment must be made of these divergent positions. That political conflicts emerged between rich and poor, black and white, Arab and Israeli, signified that the event was taking place in the real world, not as an academic exercise or an oversized coffee-klatch. Women's issues remained paramount and a good deal of common ground was established there. The link between poor women and the world's poor was also felt and acknowledged by Westerners-perhaps in a new way-in discussing their own oppression. And yet the different perspectives the women revealed at the conference were highly significant. That both the conflict and the communication flowed almost exclusively between the Westerners and those from developing countries was striking. Regarding their own revolutions as complete, delegates from the communist countries complacently abstained from the revolutions of both women and the poor-except for an enthusiastic endorsement of all attacks on neocolonialism, imperialism and similar evils. As for the Western women and those from the Third World, the wide material and historical gaps between them were apparent from the outset. The consequent divergences in their attitudes toward the movement for women's equality are both ideological and psychological. In the most general terms, these two groups differ on the extent to which they cast the women's struggle as part of either an economic or a social revolution, and their feelings clash most obviously on the central question of conflict with men. II The Western women's movement itself encompasses a broad range of positions on these issues. But on the whole Western feminists see women's struggle for equality as distinct from strife between the poor and the rich and other "political" altercations, and they accept the inevitability of some conflict between men and women in the course of this struggle. Western women are often more openly bitter about their situation, and feel that this is justified. As Betty Friedan explained to the unofficial conference or Tribune: "There is a reason for rage in women. Women have the right to it when they are discriminated against. . . . For centuries they have been taking it out in self-hatred." Instead this anger should be expressed, as it was most eloquently in Mexico City by Australia's Elizabeth Reid. Ms. Reid didn't mince words in identifying the problem: "All women," she said, "are subject to colonization by mute consent." She also administered a notable dressing down to the (male-dominated) press, contrasting the headlines of the Australian papers on the departure of her delegation for Mexico City ("Women of the World Converge") with the more serious treatment of last year's Bucharest meeting on population, and quoting a British weekly as headlining its report on the conference: "The Hum of Thousands of Vibrators." This sexual conflict was dramatized by a group of American women, attending the Tribune sessions, during a Saturday-morning confrontation with the official U.S. delegation at the Embassy. Daniel Parker, the Administrator of AID and coleader of the delegation, was roundly shouted down before his hurried departure for a plane back to Washington. Several other male delegates fared only slightly better. Finally, Carl Hemmer of AID identified himself as a population expert and was not permitted very much more in the way of a statement before being asked whether he himself had had a vasectomy-he brought down the house by replying immediately and simply in the affirmative. The Western woman's ultimate skepticism about man's intentions regarding her liberation is contained in the archetypal anecdote retold by Françoise Giroux: Women have fought and died for countless liberation movements in the past, only to find themselves "making the coffee," when it was all over. Therefore a woman's feminist commitment often exists in an ideological vacuum-as far as classical political movements are concerned. Nevertheless, most Western women have undoubtedly absorbed at least the initial layer of a feminist ideology. At its most general, this is simply a new perspective on their own experience, edged into them during this past decade: consciousness of how their own attitudes and those of the men in their lives often trap them into a subordinate position; and of the need to risk assertiveness with men and to cultivate bonds of cooperation and trust with women. Beyond this, liberation is for many largely a matter of women's integration into the existing power structure. Much further along the feminist spectrum, however, the outlines of a truly radical position vis-à-vis contemporary society are evident. Gloria Steinem overwhelmed a group of Third World journalists in Mexico City with the full force of this ideology: The roots of sexual discrimination are deeply intertwined with those of racial discrimination and indeed all forms of oppression. Their common basis is in caste systems, which divide people up according to minor physical differences. The white supremacist system perpetuates racism, while women's oppression stems from the patriarchal organization of society. Both seek to justify a rigid hierarchical structure, in which power means control of the lives of others. Feminism seeks to redefine "power." What women want is autonomy. What we want is control over our own lives-not to exert power over others' lives. The essence of feminism is choice-for women and men. In the scope of its goals and its conscious attempt to alter permanently the way people think about themselves and the world, this radical definition of the struggle for women's equality finds its closest contemporary parallel in China's cultural revolution. This was heady stuff for the Third World women, who are not accustomed to hearing the rhetoric of political revolution-"exploitation," "oppression," "hegemony"-applied to women's situation. For their part, many of the Westerners at the conference appeared to define "politics" as the conflicts (such as the Middle East imbroglio) currently preoccupying the male power structure, and consequently resisted their intrusion into the discussion. Thus their frustration when women's liberation was cast as just another political gambit of the Western camp. The almost 1,500 American women at the Tribune were sharply jolted when they found themselves suddenly thrust into an adversary position by a group of Latin Americans there. They had, they thought, been working together with the other women at the Tribune (who were mostly Mexicans and Latin Americans) to move the official conference toward a stronger Plan of Action. Under the leadership of Betty Friedan, the women had enthusiastically passed amendments to the U.N. plan and marched them to the conference site in the Mexican Foreign Ministry. Therefore their shock was considerable when shortly thereafter groups of Latin American women seized the platform to protest against "U.S. imperialism"-and implicitly against North American domination of the proceedings. Many of the same Latin American women who had participated in the feminist action of the preceding days were unmistakably excited; portly, well-coiffed matrons clapped and cheered the radical Latinas (who were smartly garbed in jeans, boots, and an occasional rakish campaign hat). As for the U.S. group, the realization that nationalism could create stronger resonances in these other women than feminism came as a shock. Painfully, they found themselves representing a capitalist power structure from which many of them certainly had felt detached. They also caught a reflected image of themselves as particularly privileged beings. In relation to the Third World women they were relatively autonomous-free to live independently of men without irreparable harm to their reputations. "Choice" was easier for them than for the others. III Mexico's President Luis Echeverria sensitively identified the differences between the women of the industrialized countries and those of the poor countries by saying that while the former "are the dependent subjects of a way of life in the development of which they have no active part," the latter "are the proletarians of the proletariat." And the Third World women, despite the enormous variety in their social and cultural backgrounds, look at the West from the perspective of their own nations' poverty. Despite their status as a privileged elite within their own countries, as the poor of the world they demand redistribution. By and large, women from the poorer countries view the world from the vantage point of an ideology combining elements of Fabian socialism, Marxism, and, most importantly, anticolonialism. The educated class to which they belong has in recent years become increasingly imbued with this evolving Third World ideology. Thus they are at least on one level anti-Western, reacting against the former colonial powers, but particularly against the United States, as the preeminent capitalist power and recent massive antagonist of small, poor, non-white North Vietnam. Like the men in their countries, they are determined to change the current imbalance in the economic and cultural relationship between the industrialized nations and themselves. Therefore they supported quite automatically the introduction of various attendant political issues constituting a litany of oppressions against the Third World (apartheid, foreign domination, Zionism, etc.). They were also enthusiastic proponents of their governments' drive for a redistribution of wealth between rich and poor: women's development was seen as inextricable from economic development. Although well-off themselves, these women can't help but be aware of the problems of the poor, and of poor women, in their own societies-even if in the abstract-because there are so many. Some delegates, like those from Africa in particular, undoubtedly have relatives who live as illiterate peasants in the countryside. Others, like the Latin Americans, are detached by class and economic barriers. But they cannot move any distance from their homes without being presented at least visually with their poor-much of Mexico City, for example, is picturesque and gracious, but it is ringed with favelas, or slums, which even creep into the cracks of the center of the city. Third World women also stressed the problems of rural rather than urban women; they are, in Mao's formulation, the "countryside" of the world, and the great bulk of their female labor force is in agriculture (as much as 90 percent in some countries in Africa). Prime Minister Sirimave Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka clearly indicated the priority in her Mexico City speech: The modern sectors [of the developing countries] in their own way are little replicas of Western societies. The problems of equality affecting women in this small sector are not the principal issue. The crucial problems really lie in the vast rural hinterlands of our countries. . . . It is in the rural areas that the problems of poverty and underdevelopment are most acute. It is in these areas that the bulk of the population in the developing nations have to find a meaning or fulfillment in life. The disproportionately enormous burdens of the poor peasant woman were graphically represented by an African and an Asian woman who appeared on a panel on aid policies with Senator Charles Percy. They described the workday of the rural women, many of whom must walk miles fetching water and gathering firewood, as well as spending hours grinding millet or pounding cassava-after working a full day in the fields. And yet, they pointed out, aid programs continue to send tractors and bulldozers and other equipment which is often unusable in these rural areas, and to neglect simple, domestic, labor-saving devices such as grinding mills and pumps, which would release large amounts of female work-hours for more profitable endeavors. Although women often do most of the farm work, men are given the training in new agricultural technologies-men who frequently are not even involved in farming. In this situation, the liberation of women must be highly dependent on material things. Therefore the Third World delegates pushed for the strengthening of the conference's major substantive document, the Plan of Action, particularly in the areas of health care, education, and rural development. It is striking, nonetheless, how far the ideas of Western feminism seem to have entered the consciousness of the Third World women. Like most things Western, the women's movement is the object of fascinated scrutiny in the Third World press. The names "Betty Friedan," "Gloria Steinem," and "Germaine Greer" are not unknown in Ghana, Malaysia, El Salvador. From the level of awareness of women at the Conference (admittedly not a typical sample but certainly opinion-makers in their own countries), it would seem that the goals of sharing in public power and in domestic responsibility were widely appreciated. The Third World delegates clearly felt many of the same pressures, and oppressions, as their Western sisters: many were professional women, achievers in their own societies, and in private conversation expressed strong resentment at still not being taken seriously by their male colleagues, at battling to survive outside male networks of information and influence, at having to take full responsibility for their homes and families in addition to their careers. Repeatedly, however, they accused Western women of trying to provoke a confrontation with men, and reiterated the idea that men and women must share in the liberation struggle as "partners." A desire not to disrupt male-female relationships in a radical or obvious fashion was implicit in their attitude. Imelda Marcos gained considerable applause for her quintessential defense of the sexual status quo in her plenary speech. "My own people," she said, "have another story. It is said that the birth of humanity came about when a divine whim split a single bamboo and from it there sprang forth a woman and a man, and the woman was called . . . beautiful and the man was called . . . strong." It must be recognized that in the Third World abundant domestic help makes the lives of the professional women much easier than those of almost all Western wives and mothers who work full-time. The need to engage men on the question of domestic sharing is consequently less crucial. But more basically, the reluctance to upset the traditional sexual order is to a real extent a result of both their own and their countries' insecurity. Because their nation's problems (if not their own) approach those of sheer survival, many Third World women share with their men a sense of common struggle. Ms. Bandaranaike described what she saw as the relative unimportance of sexual equality for the poor majority of the world: That world, far from being able to afford the luxury of contribution or confrontation, as the case may be, between two breadwinners in a family, has to cope with the absence of even a single breadwinner. That world has no discrimination because it is a fraternity-a sisterhood-in poverty and privation. Beyond this, the political order is often so fragile that the women of Third-World countries hesitate to place additional strains on the social structure. In Mexico City they insisted above all on the importance of the family. And, further, they sought to safeguard the rights of paternity, inserting into every provision on family planning the right of "couples" (as well as "individuals") to decide on the numbers of their children. They also accused the Westerners of denigrating woman's maternal role. "It is no solution to our problems to tell women not to have children," declared Guyana's Minister of Information Shirley Field-Ridley. "Third World countries must not have that decision thrust upon them by those for whom their population is an embarrassment in terms of the aid they want." The Third World women showed much more anxiety than the Westerners about the effects of liberation on their marriages. They generally find it very difficult outside of marriage to live respectably and to earn their living independently. Therefore they don't have as much leeway as Western women to act on the anger and disaffection they may feel. In this respect, their sexual moderation would seem on one level to be a matter of tactics and tone. When an ad hoc feminist caucus used the tactic (familiar to American consciousness-raising groups) of excluding men, Third World women were outraged. "Female chauvinism is the last thing we want," declared an Indian journalist. "This would only lead to the isolation of feminists; we must talk together." And inflammatory rhetoric is taboo for sexual politics: despite the clustering "isms" throughout the conference documents, the word "sexism" was firmly excluded. Finally, there is subtle but significant resistance to feminism as a new form of cultural imperialism. Gloria Steinem's speech left a number of women distrustful of the clean sweep of her logic. "She claims that she does not want to choose for us," they said, "but she has it so well figured out that it seems to leave no alternatives; her speech was coercive." And an Ethiopian journalist wondered if the women's movement were not another Western ploy to divide and conquer the developing world, by setting its men and women at odds. IV The conflict between the capitalist and developing countries, as well as their own solidarity with the developing world, is the major preoccupation of the communist countries at the United Nations these days-and the subject of women did not alter this pattern. For a variety of reasons, the Soviets displayed an attitude toward women's issues which seemed to fluctuate between indifference and impatience. At her press conference, the popular head of their delegation, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, called such questions "secondary issues," asserting that although a minority at the conference insisted on taking up much time with these questions, the majority were interested in concentrating on imperialism, apartheid, racism, colonialism, and neocolonialism. The implication was that their lack of interest results from the satisfactory solution of the problems of Soviet women. As Ms. Tereshkova declared: "The victory of the October Revolution of 1917, the liquidation of exploitation of man by man, development of society on a socialist basis liberated the working masses, including women, from all forms of oppression, unemployment, crises and inflation." Consequently, feminism has no legitimate place in their societal order. In the Soviet Union, the massive scale of wartime and postwar manpower shortages made the economic integration of women a necessity, and both the Soviets and East Europeans have undeniably encouraged and facilitated the movement of women into the labor force and the professions. In relation to the rest of the world their record here is impressive: over 70 percent of Soviet doctors are women; over 40 percent of all administrators and specialists in industry; over a third of all engineers. In Russia women have attained numerical equality with men in professional employment: 52 percent of all employed college-trained people are women, corresponding to their share in the population. The Western pattern of the male professional married to a housewife is truly unusual there. And governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have gone furthest in providing maternity benefits and social services for working mothers. In Hungary, for example, in addition to five months of maternity leave, a woman is entitled to take three full years off with a government allowance-and at the end of this time she must be given her job back if she wants it. Nurseries and extended-time schooling are widely available. But while the communist societies have tried to utilize women economically, in none have women gained a measure of political or bureaucratic power proportionate to their numbers. Women are still far from attaining equality with men. Although they constitute a majority of the specialized labor force, their participation decreases sharply as they reach the upper levels. Only six percent of heads of industrial enterprises in the Soviet Union are women. Their representation in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is far smaller than in the work force-reportedly about 22 percent. The number reaching the Party's Central Committee has never been higher than four percent and only one woman has ever been a member of the Presidium, the inner circle which runs the Soviet Union. Beyond the undoubted effect of continuing male prejudice, Soviet women's failure to achieve equal power is closely related to their domestic serfdom. In their homes, women still handle almost all the cooking, cleaning, and child-care, with very little help from their husbands. Housing is cramped, labor-saving devices are scarce, and shopping is a lengthy daily ordeal that symbolically resembles the Third World woman's trek for water and wood. The lack of conveniences of course reflects the government's emphasis on heavy industry over consumer goods. Women, in effect, have borne the brunt of the Soviet drive to superpower status. As a result of her domestic burden woman's productivity on the job is not as great as man's, and her advancement is slower. She makes an excellent dray horse but wins very few races. She is, in sum, an extremely useful economic mechanism. Things are changing some with the less tradition-bound younger generation, but neither the women themselves nor the governments seem to have given much attention to changing the attitudes of men. A male member of the Soviet delegation offered this particularly happy view of women's double work load, which he seemed to see as an especially ingenious social invention: "No one in our country says it is an easy thing for a woman to combine her work and bringing up children; but we recognize that this dual role is a very honorable one for women. Our state has taken measures to help women in housework and family as well as remaining beautiful and slim." A Romanian woman put it another way: "We are too tired to fight about the division of labor." Women's lives should be made easier materially by current government programs to increase the output of consumer goods. But sustained efforts by women to improve their own position would not seem to be in the cards. Most basically, the idea that the Revolution has solved all these problems, that women have already been given opportunities to rise and they have risen, precludes dissidence on the part of women as well as anyone else. There can be no room in these socially conservative societies for a movement starting from below, with a thrust of its own and with incalculable effects. In fact, women in the Soviet Union may be moving in an opposite direction from Western feminists in their quest for freedom. Reportedly women there are increasingly emphasizing the liberation of their femininity. Because they have been denied leisure while doing two jobs, they now want pleasure and beauty; they want to dress up and be courted, perhaps to emphasize motherhood and domestic life. This route is an acceptable one to the state. (As the man said, the state wants the women to stay "beautiful and slim.") Currently, the Soviets are working to increase legislation protecting women from long hours, night work, heavy manual labor-exactly the sort of protective restrictions that Western feminists are trying to get rid of. Furthermore, the trend toward femininity should be reinforced by the current Soviet policy of increasing the population-with the consequent emphasis on the virtues of "motherhood" that has accompanied it. V Outside the communist world, women's feelings about their situation are expressed more openly, and these vary according to the religious, familial, legal and material structures which demarcate their lives. The Westerners are of course the angriest. They always have been. They have led the way. Their thesis, posed against the antithesis of male power, resulted in the first part of the twentieth century in "Emancipation"-which was then passed along to Asian women and to Africans at their independence. Western women's anger seems directly related to their inability to exploit this emancipation further. It is striking-and was strikingly evident at the conference-that despite their years of education, economic security and relatively unfettered lives, Western women have come no closer to a real sharing in public power and participation than many of their less advantaged sisters. Ms. Marcos' description of the Philippine delegation, "headed by a woman member of the cabinet," and including "a woman who is a justice of the Supreme Court, an ambassador and a distinguished writer," might give Americans pause. The institutions and attitudes which have held Western women back are, as everywhere, complex: Roman law, Christian sexual guilt and the ideal of woman as a pure and passive procreator, as well as the idea of the family as the sole source of succor. In addition, technological specialization consigns women to the kitchen and the nursery-and the only alternative often is trading places with her husband on the assembly line. The close relationship between money and status in our society has made the acquisition of wealth a masculine priority; women's exclusion from the realm of business and finance is a corollary. Moreover, the West's wealth and property has decreased social flexibility-empires must be guarded. Looking at the developing world, one can begin to understand more clearly the role which wealth and property play at different stages. In India, for example, Hinduism resulted in a tightly fettered and secluded life for upper-class women, a life within the strict confines of the home, and of motherhood. The poor, however, could not afford these restrictions, for women had to help with subsistence farming and petty trading, as well as feeding their families. This situation certainly prevails today in most of Africa and among the Indians of Latin America. The poor cannot afford the dubious luxury of a feminine mystique. In Asia, the Buddhist societies of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia have offered women a relatively greater measure of economic autonomy and power. According to Buddhism, man's spiritual supremacy is established, but beyond that, an ideal of harmony-and some equality-prevails in the secular realm. Indeed, women in these societies have long been active and successful even at the upper levels of business and land ownership. This power has rarely extended into politics, however, and it seems likely that man's spiritual precedence translates easily into preeminence in the transcendent sphere of secular life. The religion which has notoriously curbed women, especially in the Middle East, is of course Islam. The religion of Mohammed, with its male domination and restrictive protection for women, is especially resistant to change in general and changing the position of women in particular. Like Christianity it sets forth an all-embracing theocratic ideal which involves close monitoring of the details of secular life, and has a history of violent persecution of heretics and unbelievers. While oil may smooth the way for women's emergence from purdah, the obstacles embodied in these theocratic states still appear formidable. In at least one area, however, the Muslim woman is freer than women in Christian cultures. There is no societally induced mystique of sentimental love binding the wife in service to the husband. The self-interest on the part of both partners is overt. As for mystiques, African women seem, on the surface at any rate, to be least hampered by ideals of femininity, perhaps because their religions, like their economic structures, remained least stratified and elaborated with ideologies about the relationship of men and women. The Latin American women, on the other hand, are probably the most encumbered in this respect, combining a repressive Christianity with a history of violence; in their world, male honor and aggression and female chastity and passivity were cast as two sides of a coin. The message to the conference of Joaquin Balaguer, President of the Dominican Republic, seemed intended to express strong support for women's equality, but its language conveys the flavor of the society: "the influence of the delicate nature of the feminine soul on all aspects of man's public and private life must of necessity initiate a new stage on the history of mankind." These social forces can be assumed to be overriding for a majority of the women who were not at the conference-that is, most of the women of the world. Since the conference's Plan of Action must (as with most U.N. documents) be largely hortatory, its probable effectiveness remains an open question. But the event undoubtedly has made a difference. It has raised to the level of official respectability social issues which have always and in every society been minimized. It is notable, for example, that the Saudis felt constrained to come, and to release a statement justifying the continuing use of the veil and explaining how women are able to matriculate in seclusion at Riyadh University thanks to closed-circuit TV. Having aired their differences, the women also found a real congruence in their needs. The final Declaration, written entirely by the developing countries, contained a number of undeniably feminist measures. That the conference took place at all indicates a change in the world, which will work in behalf of both the women and the poor in their parallel demands for equity and equality. Explicitly, Mexico's President Echeverria declared: "The struggle for development and for full equality of opportunities for women entails complementary tasks. If the status of women is to be improved, social transformations in both the internal and the international order will have to be carried out, but these transformations, in turn, require increasing participation by women in all fields of activity." Congresswoman Bella Abzug put it more succinctly: "Women cannot succeed if we accept the status quo." If most of the governments represented had given this serious thought, one wonders if they would so blithely have sent their women off to Mexico City.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now