FIFTEEN YEARS AGO Robin Morgan observed the beginnings of a feminist movement in America. In Sisterhood is Powerful she wrote of an incipient movement that exists where three or four friends or neighbors decide to meet regularly over coffee and decide to talk about their personal lives. It also exists in the cells of women's jails, on the welfare lines, in the supermarket, the factory, the convent, the farm, the maternity ward, the street corner, the old ladies home, the kitchen, the steno pool, and the bed.
In Morgan's latest effort, Sisternood is Global, we learn that the drive for women's economic, political and social parity with men is not confined to the United States, or even to democratic, "developed," or industrial societies. Feminists are to be found, to name a few places, in South Africa, fighting for the end of forced sterilization of Black women, in Cuba and Nicaragua, vying for political recognition from their revolutionary brothers, in China, seeking to stem the recent upsurge of female infanticide, and in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, demonstrating against development policies and multi-national corporations that threaten their traditional homebased economic systems.
Morgan's work--the result of a 12-year effort and a staff of hundreds--is a collection of essays by women in 70 countries worldwide. The contributers, who detail the status of women and the extent of feminist movements in their countries, range from longtime activists of established movements--like Simone de Beauvoir on the state of French feminism, and Amanda Sebestyen, a veteran of the British movement--to women who write under aliases to avoid persecution from their governments. "La Silenciada," (the Silenced One) writes of Cuba, and we hear from an "anonymous white South African feminist" who doesn't disclose her identity because she comes out against the double persecution of Black women under apartheid.
Sisterhood is Global is a gold mine of statistical and factual information. It will be an invaluable reference book for anyone interested in the social status of women worldwide. Each essay is accompanied by detail after detail on the role of women in all spheres of society--female employment, wage differentials, participation in government, equal rights legislation. More than one-third of all families in the world, we learn, are now headed by women, and the statistics on the number of these families with incomes below national poverty lines lead credence to recent observations of a "feminization of poverty."
Some of the most significant findings of this colossal work focus on issues of "gynography" in the various societies, such as the availability of birth control, and the extent of rape, prostitution, and wife battery. Two-thirds of the world's women have no access to contraceptive information or devices, and more than half have no access to trained help during pregnancy and child birth.
ANY NOTION that feminism is a recent or purely Western phenonenon should be dispelled by this book. You will find no calls for the maintenance of the status quo because the book was not intended to give air to any conservative views women might have. And while the contributers in some cases refer to progress taking place, they overwhelmingly call for change. But for all the similarities we find in the calls for action, we leave the book with a profound conception that the immediate concerns, obstacles and priorities of these activist women are anything but uniform across the globe.
Tatyanna Mamonova a writes that the Soviet government has made significant steps to ensure pay equity between men and women in the workforce, a reform that is called for in almost all the other essays. What feminists in the USSR are greatly concerned about, we learn, is the lack of accessibility of birth control, leading to a situation where it is not unusual for a Soviet women to have fourteen abortions in her lifetime.
A greater degree of reproductive freedom is a priority that almost every contributer harps upon. In China, feminists are ambivalent about the "one family, one child" policy which, while giving urban women the freedom to compete with men in the work force, has led to an increase in female infanticide in rural areas where men are considered more valuable than women.
In Latin America, almost half of the yearly "maternal" deaths are due to improperly performed illegal abortions. The figure is almost as high through of most of Africa where, the Nigerian contributer writes, abortions are only granted when the women's health is in danger. And in South Africa the "anonymous" white South African feminist" reports, black women are "often forcibly sterilized after having children in State hospitals."
In Britain, Amanda Sebestyen writes, the feminist movement "has spent too many years apologizing for itself and seeking a niche in the male-dominated socialist movement." Sebestyen's piece is one of the few that rings with a pessimistic tone. "Much of the last 10 years or so of our movement has conducted itself with truly British reticence. The mass marches of women in Italy, the United States and Ireland never happened here."
A BLACK SOUTH AFRICAN echoes a recurrent theme in the contributions from Third World women, one that they believe jeopardizes the possibilities for change--the tendency among social reformers within countries to relegate the reproductive, economic, and political concerns of women to the bottom of reformist agendas.
"The impact of apartheid on our lives creates pressures to relegate 'women's issues' to a remote priority," writes Motlalepula Chabaku, the national president of an outlawed multi-racial woman's organization Chabaku writes that "women's issues" actually impact the lives of all Black South Africans, especially the idea of equal pay for equal work.
"La Silenciada" of Cuba writes the after twenty-five years of socialist communist government, women are virtually absent from any positions of political power. Of the Cuban women she writes:
"Wherever she looked she saw women working, she saw women organizing the neighborhood committees, the committees for the defense of the revolution, she saw women carrying guns, and alphabetization manuals, she saw women working in their homes and in the factories...And yet the national hero, the national director, the national leader, the national army chief, the national ideologist, the national eye to survey the state-- all were male."
WITH A DESCRIPTION of the British feminist nuclear movement at the Greenham Commons military base, Sebestyen touches upon a theme that pervades Sisterhood is Global. Much of the "world feminism" that Morgan has given expression to is directed toward overall societal reform. No single essay details the concern of women in a particular country to be solely in bettering their economic and political position. The book is not so much a clarion call for equal rights for women, but rather a blueprint for a myriad of social changes. In contribution after contribution, the activists express a need for greater attention to the plight of oppressed minorities within their societies, for a more equitable distribution of income, for an end to the nuclear arms race, and for a greater respect for the indigenous cultures of Third World peoples.
Morgan herself is on the radical left of the American feminist movement. She tells us in her introduction that her goal is "not only to change drastically our own powerless status worldwide, but redefine all existing social structures. Her sentiment, echoed over and over is perhaps best expressed by Mola Ogundipe-Leslie, a professor of English at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria: "It would seem that I am arguing that men are the enemy. No, men are not the enemy. The enemy is the total societal system, which is a jumble of neocolonial and feudalistic, even slave-holding, structures and social attitudes. As women's liberation is but an aspect of the need to liberate the total society from dehumanization, it is the social system that must change."
Ultimately, the feminism in Sisterhood is Globalis one that has vision of a better human order, not victory of a women but a victory or value that have been traditionally female nonaggression and interdependence, problem in all visionary feminist work that this one doesn't escape, is overestimating the adherence of today women to these historically held priorities. Morgan speaks of a "cross cultural opposition women express to war and our healthy skepticism of certain technological advances." This certainly true of the women who contributed to her book, but to put a women in this category is to neglect the Margaret Thatchers and Phyllis Schlaflys of the world who have, either by choice or necessity, adopted more traditionally patriarchal views. Morgan's movement, if it is to be successful, has to reach out to these women, as well as to the men who dominate positions of worldwide political authority.
Finally, in calling for a mobilization of the world's women, Morgan need no sound as exclusionary toward reform minded men, since her goal is to end discrimination of all kinds. When she writes of a "global movement of women that will have enormous impact through the end of the century," she evokes the hopes of women worldwide, but she also risks the exclusionary attitude that so plagues the male-dominated societies portrayed in her book. For as the anthology contributers so eloquently express, it is only when women and men work together in all spheres of life, and understand their common interests, that real equality and progress be found.
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