THE HISTORY & MEANING OF THE GLOBAL WOMEN'S MOVEMENT
By Sr. Maria Riley, O.P.
In 1963, Pope John XXIII issued the encyclical Pacem en Terris. In it he described three major characteristics of the contemporary world at that time. The second characteristic he identified was this:
"...the part that women are now playing in political life is everywhere evident. This is a development with perhaps of swifter growth among Christian nations but it is also happening extensively, if more slowly, among nations that are heirs to different traditions and imbued with a different culture. Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role of allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life, the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons".
This statement is extraordinary for when it was said, not just for what was said. It was the same year that Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" was published. So the women's movement is 30 years old. As Catholics we continue to fight the same battles: inclusive language, images of God, altar girls, or whatever the current issues are. Yet there has been a profound shift in human consciousness, very profound and far reaching social change touching the most intimate core of human relationships: the relationship between men and women.
It is not only very personal, i.e. our relating personally to the men in our lives, but also very local in terms of what happens around us and what happens within our homes. It is also very global because it is touching women and men throughout the world and all of this over the not-so-long span of 30 years.
Feminism A Political Word
At its base, a feminist is defined as a woman or man who believes in the essential equality between women and men and seeks to create social attitudes, policies and structures that reveal and sustain that equality. Simply, women and men are equal in their humanity.
Feminism is also a political word. By this I mean fundamentally that a person who says she or he is a feminist is making a political declaration, that is, defining his or her perspective, which is the perspective of the essential common humanity of women and men, and the political commitment to work for that humanity to be realized everywhere.
Another reason it is political is that when I say I am a feminist people know my position on the equality of women and men, and by doing this I am demanding that others define their position. Very often when something is the status quo such as the domination of men, say in politics, i.e. more men than there are women, men have more power, more control it is considered not to be an ideology, it is just the way things are. But when I say I am a feminist, then people say I have a political position. Although the people saying this would claim not to have a political position, they in fact do they have a masculinist political position.
One of the problems with the word feminism is that although its long range goal is equality, it sounds like its long range goal is the ascendency of women. I do recognize that as one of its problems, but right now I think it is politically important that we use the word because it continues to say there is something wrong in a relationship, in a political structure, in an ecclesial structure, in the way things are. And we need to even out these relationships. So to define oneself as a feminist in a world where women are generally in a subordinate position is to make a political statement.
Also feminism is not monolithic. There are many ideologies within feminism such as liberal feminism, socialist feminism, radical feminism, cultural feminism. Not all feminists have the same analysis of issues, nor the same solutions to issues, and feminists disagree politically. But that is perfectly alright. We don't expect all the men of the world to agree on everything, so why lay that burden on the women of the world. Thus within the concept of feminism there are a variety of agendas carried by different advocates of feminism, not all of which any one of us, I presume, would embrace fully. Because feminism is a movement, it is not a fixed doctrine or reality and as a movement it has all the strengths, dynamism and weaknesses of a movement in its diverse voices.
The global women's movement, or global feminism, has really enlarged the agenda of what started out as western feminism. The almost total focus on gender and gender relationships has expanded to include all forms of domination such as race, class, and neo-colonial domination as being unjust and not within the plan of God, and inhibiting the realization of the Reign of God among us. The movement has begun to recognize the multiple forms of domination of which sexism is an integral one, but so is racism and so is classism.
Feminism and the questions and struggles for full human liberation that women have been raising for the last 30 years is a breakthrough of God's new revelation. For years it was totally unquestioned that there was a dominant and subordinate relationship between women and men, even though that relationship played itself out differently in different cultures. Feminism is another example of God's revelation breaking through our age and calling again because it's not the first time for true equality and mutuality of all peoples and, with the breakthrough of the ecological consciousness, in our relationship with the earth.
When I talk about the history of the women's movement, I find that the easiest way to pull it together is to look at the United Nations conferences that began in 1975.
In the early 1970s, the United Nations General Assembly declared 1975 the International Women's Year. That happened because some of the women at the conference had been working with women in Africa and particularly Latin America under the "development decade". This new idea of bringing western development models into the lives of women and men in the countries of the world was beginning to have very negative effects. The first indicator that there was something wrong with the development model being imposed upon the countries in the south was what was happening to women. Women were being forced off their land so that the land could be used to grow crops for export. Therefore women were becoming poorer, their families were becoming poorer, and hunger issues were becoming more and more common.
When they lost their land they lost their means of survival. So the women involved went to the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women and said something is wrong with this development that is happening because women are becoming poorer and unable to feed their children. The commission asked that the UN look at this problem globally, i.e. what is the effect of development on women.
Whereas the men of the world had been meeting all along, the first international conference ever held in the history of humankind where women met as women to discuss what was happening to and for and with women, took place in 1975. Six thousand women attended this first meeting in Mexico City and it was a very difficult meeting. There was anger among the women of the south towards women of the north because of the domination of power by the north. Also, the issues were different. The women of the north were on issues of equality and things like that; the women of the south were on issues of survival. It was not an easy meeting, yet everyone left it saying we have to do this again and continue to talk as women from very different parts of the world. So the decision was made to extend the International Women's Year to the International Women's Decade, from 1975 to 1985.
In 1980 a mid-decade conference was held in Copenhagen. It was at this conference where I think the global women's movement began to grow up because the conference was torn apart politically, by conflicts between countries. It became clear in Copenhagen although some of this became clear in Mexico City that the problems women face around the world are shaped not only by gender subordination, but also by political, economic, social and cultural realities. And these differed in each society.
The other thing that became clear in Copenhagen and this is where the shift began is that all issues are women's issues, because all issues impinge upon the quality of our lives, the quality of our family lives and the quality of our community lives. All issues are human issues but women and men analyze and experience them differently because of their different roles and expectations in society.
In 1985 the closing of the decade, according to the UN, was in Nairobi, Kenya. This was a very different conference from Copenhagen thanks to the African women, particularly the Kenyan women. The women of Kenya were the hosts for these meetings and said, "You don't fight in my living room". So they did a lot of preparation before in terms of group processes and conflict resolution, and ran the meeting as tight as any proverbial "ship" as you can imagine. It was their commitment to dialogue and to making the meeting work that made all the difference in the world.
In contrast, nobody had been prepared for the Copenhagen meeting and it was very politically manipulated by the conflicts between countries.
The Nairobi meeting was supposed to be the closing of the women's decade and whereas 6,000 women had gathered in Mexico City, 16,000 had gathered in Nairobi.
The women decided to write a document called, "Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000". The work and the networking that had begun was not about to come to an end simply because the men at the UN said that the decade was over. A decision was made to have a mid-meeting before the year 2000 to assess where we were going. This meeting is the Fourth World Conference On Women being held in Beijing, China, in September, 1995, and 30,000 people, predominantly women, are expected to attend.
The Poverty of Women
The other thing that became clear in Nairobi was that even though some progress had been made for women, women's poverty was deepening all over the world, in the north and in the south, because of the global recession. Out of it came the phrase "the feminization of poverty", that impoverishment of women which continues today because of the effect of the globalization of the economy; because of debt, including the debt of so-called developed nations; because of technological advances that are decreasing the need for human labour; because of corporate downsizing of workers in overseas production schemes which put women out of work in the countries of the north, but hire women at below poverty level wages in the countries of the south.
Women and those dependent upon women, as well as their families and their communities were being more and more impoverished in the process of globalization of the economy.
So the primary agenda, the first item on the agenda for Beijing, is poverty and how to begin to address poverty, not only the poverty of women, but the poverty of families and the poverty of communities. Poverty for women is no longer simply an issue of the countries of the south, it is also an issue of the women of the north.
Some of the chief issues that women are going to be talking about, in addition to poverty, are employment and unemployment, and sustainable livelihood. How are we going to live in a world that does not create or allow employment for people, and in a world where all social support systems are more and more being eroded? How are we going to live? How are the poor going to live?
Violence is a very key issue for women. In more and more statistics and studies being taken, two issues women are naming most as critical are economic survival and violence violence in the home, violence in our streets, ethnic conflicts, environmental decay and the effects of poverty.
The agenda will include women's access to resources; women's human rights; shared power with men the issue of power; peace and the elimination of violence; and the encouraging of a new generation of women and men leaders for the 21st century.
These meetings really are moments in time and space when the power and the dynamism of the global women's movement becomes visible to the world in these small groups working for change, working for a new analysis of what the issues are, working for new solutions to old problems. All of a sudden this becomes globally visible because it is a global meeting.
These meetings are also the time when the women who are able to gather, sit down and begin to recognize that some of the issues we think of as very local are really global, and vice versa, that the global issues are local. We find both our commonalities and our differences. If we hadn't had these global meetings, we would not have the global awareness of the issues that women have been trying to raise at local levels. We would still be talking to one another locally, but we would not have this breakthrough in global consciousness; that these issues are not just the issues of a few malcontent women, but they are issues that the women of the world are continuing to raise, from very different contexts. Another thing we wouldn't have is the growing global network.
The Work That Women Do
Global feminism is a profound social, cultural, political and economic shift that we're living through. Women have been and I'd say continue to be even though there have been some changes what I like to call the traditional infrastructure of social systems. We're the glue that has kept the system working: the family, the church, the community. And we've been taken for granted. The work that we've done has been presumed to be our natural preoccupation and it has been given no credit that it is at the base of social structures which allow business and politics and everything else to happen. We have kept the system stable in all the ways that a system needs to be kept going, with no recognition and no credit. And what's more important, this work that women do is devalued.
A couple of summers ago at a course I was teaching, one woman began to talk about the fact that when she and her husband got married, her education had prepared her to earn a higher income than her husband. So when they had their first child, they made a decision that he would stay home and be the houseparent, and she would go out to work for the economic well-being of the family.
For them it seemed like a very logical decision, but it was traumatic, she said. First of all both their families excoriated him for being a failure as a father. As well, when he began to be the houseparent, everywhere he went, whether it was preschool, kindergarten, or the local playground, he would be the only male. And he was really kept at the margins as if there was something wrong with him: What is this man doing with his children? He lost contact with all his male friends because they didn't have anything in common with him: What's he doing staying home?
What she observed, she said, was the erosion of his self-confidence. She could see it happen to him because what he was doing was valued by no one. They used to talk about this a lot, and he said he began to understand why women would say, "I'm just a housewife".
Years later, when the kids were old enough, he made out his resume and began to seek employment. He was technically prepared to do the work, yet at every interview he was asked where he had been for the last 12 years. When he said that he'd been a houseparent, there was suspicion that he was an alcoholic, unable to keep a job, lying, covering up, whatever. It began to reveal that really the work that women do, which is absolutely essential, is not valued. And it only really became clear for this couple in that role reversal.
The work of building the human family and the work of maintaining and sustaining the human community is the most essential work that must go on in any society. But that work is undervalued, unpaid, is taken for granted, and it lacks the social support systems it needs. So when we begin to ask what is the meaning of the women's movement, we realize that because women are the traditional infrastructure of the society, as women change, every other structure of relationship will change. And we're living through some of that right now.
The meaning of the global women's movement, from my perspective, is that we are redesigning the relationships and the division of labour from those relationships that have existed for thousands of years.
So it was truly prophetic when John XXIII said, "...women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity... Women are demanding both in domestic and public life the rights and duties that belong to them as human persons".
I think it's still what global feminism is all about.
In a recent interview I said that I did not expect to live long enough to see everything I dream about and work for. The thing I dream about most is that someday the institutional church will recognize the full humanity of women, and then all of these questions of inclusive language, images of God, altar girls, ordination, will become non-questions. They are only questions because the full humanity of women has not yet been accepted, not only by the church but by the society.
This move toward being equal partners with men in all spheres is also making new demands on men in the home, in the public sphere and in the church. And that's an issue that I think is very threatening to men.
The Struggle for Human Liberation
What I have learned in the process of trying to work mutually with women from different cultural and class backgrounds is the necessity of taking my own liberation with great seriousness. Unless I am serious about my own liberation I am only being maternalistic towards others I am entering the arena asking how can I help you.
What I would like to say to men is that as a group they have not begun to consider their need for liberation. Some men have, but as a group men have not even begun to ask the question, How am I unfree in this structure? It's not something they can turn to women and say, Tell me how I am unfree. We can no more interpret your experience for you than we allow you to interpret our experience for us.
We might tell you a lot of things that make you very angry. Some of my very good friends who are men and who have entered into the feminist process sometimes come out of the meetings totally battered and don't understand why. They will say to the women, I'm here because I'm with you, let me help you with it. It is a kind of paternalism. There's no liberation for any of us if maternalism and/or paternalism is operating. What we are talking about is mutuality. Men need to recognize this struggle for human liberation as integral to their own humanity.
For example, violence of men against women is a diminishment of men's humanity. Sex tourism, where men demand 12- and 13-year-old virgins, is not only a horrible abuse of women, it is a diminishment of men's humanity. Not just the individual male who's taking part in it, but all men. Men need to do what women have done in the early days of the women's movement and take part in what we call consciousness-raising groups; to look at their experience of being male and talk about what has been liberating and inhibiting in that experience.
Men need to take that experience very seriously, the same way women have taken our own experience very seriously, and try to figure out where they aren't free. Just as there have been serious developmental flaws in the pulling forth of the whole humanity of women by the expectations put upon us, there have been serious developmental flaws in pulling forth the full humanity of men.
In his individual life a man could be gentle, compassionate, gentlemanly in the best sense of that word, then he hears a woman complain and he says, "This is a lot of hogwash, I have spent my life being a good husband and father, and now all I ever hear is that I'm an oppressor". Thus there is the absolute necessity for men and women to distinguish between a) the individual male experience and how the man has lived his life, and b) the hierarchical, patriarchal structures of exclusion that are social, ecclesial and political. They are very different.
It's a very confusing time for men, I would say all men. We as women need to own that. As an analogy for men, I use my experience of being a white person in the United States. It took me a long time to make the distinction between being a personal racist and being the person who lives on the good side, the privileged side, of a racist society. Personally I would reject racism in any and all of its forms. However, I live in a society where being white automatically gives me privilege. It is privilege that I don't even see because I take it so much for granted. I expect to walk into a place of business and be treated in turn and with respect. I expect it as a given. I continue to discover many of my African-American friends do not expect that as a given. Whereas only very overt racism is against the law in the United States, there's still a lot of ways that we continue to let people of colour know that they are a cut below.
I do not personally choose these privileges. They are what accrue to me by the very fact that I live in a racist society. Until we undo the racism of the society, I will never be able to escape the privileges of being white. Lots of men I know are not personal sexists and have really worked through a lot of the personal problems of sexism; however, they live in a patriarchal world where, no matter who or what, they have privileges to which women simply have no access.
There are perks in patriarchy that men cannot escape. For example, if a group of men walk into a restaurant and there is a group of women already waiting for a table, the women have to be quite aggressive to be sure to get served in their proper order. There is a kind of unconscious gravitating towards seating the men first. People are often moving men into a position of privilege.
There are these subtle things that go on, so that even if the man himself is not a sexist, there are benefits, just as there are benefits for me as a white woman.
It is essential, and I think we are getting better at it than we were initially, that we distinguish between individual man and the structures of patriarchy within church and society. Some men are patriarchs and so they deserve being challenged. Not all men choose that role even though they're caught in that role.
The other thing I think is really imperative for us as women is not to make false claims about ourselves, such as women are the peacemakers as if women are the only peacemakers; or, women are compassionate yes we are, but we don't have a corner on compassion. Another is that women are the nurturers. Yes we are, but we are not the only ones.
Women also have to admit that we don't really have all the answers. We have a growing analysis of the problems, but the answers are a little more elusive than naming the problems, in terms of reconstructing a new humanity.
It Is About Power
The other thing women need to do consciously is not to deny their power, and know where they exercise their power. It's debilitating to women to pretend that we are universal victims. We're not. So we must not deny our power, which I think brings us to the crux of what the question is all about. It is about power, who has power, who has access to power, who is listened to, who has access to resources.
That's the whole reason why women get into the ordination question. Historically, ordination has been linked to jurisdiction in the church, so that women's insights, voices, had no way of getting into the specific decision-making of the church at its core. There are areas in which we do have decision-making, but it's not decision-making at the level of essentials in naming who we are as a Christian community and who we want to be.
Power in itself is neutral. It is like energy. It's what we do with it that makes it constructive or destructive, that makes it liberating or controlling. Women want and do need power. We need to clarify what we mean by power, what is our vision of power.
What I think women are about, and what people of colour are about, is claiming our own power within the structures, and demanding that those structures continue to open up space for the power of other people to be formative of our political and economic questions.
The last thing is that we must not be premature about yoking women and men together for a transformed future, because I do believe that we still have a lot of work to do. Men have a lot of work to do among themselves to clarify where they are in relation to these issues. So I have this thing about what I call women's space and men's space. We have to create space where we can do work as women and as men, and then we can come together in human space for the creation of a transformed future and a truly liberated humanity. We are in the midst of a profound social revolution and it continues to raise many questions for which we need to create new answers. The old answers are no longer working, that much we do know. We've created the struggle, but we haven't necessarily moved toward any of the social answers and that I suggest is our challenge for the future.
This is the first in a series of four articles by Sr. Maria Riley on the subject of Global Feminism. Other articles will be featured in subsequent issues of Scarboro Missions.