This weekend, 8,000 to 10,000 women from 159 nations begin arriving in Nairobi, on Africa's east coast. Among them will be more than 50 women from Los Angeles and Southern California.
They will participate in two events marking the close of the United Nations Decade for Women--a forum for non-governmental organizations followed by an official U.N. conference of government-appointed delegations.
Launched in Mexico City in 1975, the Decade for Women was intended to further the rights of women.
The forums and conferences held in Mexico City, and midway through the decade in Copenhagen in 1980, were beset with divisiveness.
Despite this, a World Plan of Action was adopted, and many women reported that friendships were formed and a consciousness-raising about women was launched and has been growing ever since.
The forum for non-governmental organizations begins Wednesday. It is to this meeting that most of the Southern California women are headed. The forum will overlap and be followed by the official U.N. conference, which runs from July 15-26.
Maureen Reagan is leading the 36-member U.S. delegation to the official conference.
The women profiled below are a sampling of Southern Californians attending the conferences.
"Maybe one indicator of how far I've come (during the Decade for Women) is that I did not attend the Mexico City Conference in 1975 because I was afraid to go alone !" Billie Heller said recently. Getting an early start to Nairobi, she was speaking by telephone from Paris. "I'm embarrassed to say it. At that time I didn't know my peers. I did go to Copenhagen five years later by myself."
Married and the mother of three grown children, Heller has combined feminism with volunteerism. "I came out of the Nader movement," she said, referring to consumer activist Ralph Nader. A resident of Beverly Hills, she was an original convener of the Gray Panthers in Los Angeles County and worked with OWL, Older Women's Liberation. She is on the steering committees of the National Women's Political Caucus and Women For:, a local political support and action group.
She traveled to the Copenhagen conference alone, with a journalist's credentials representing Spokeswoman, a now-defunct periodical. She is attending both Nairobi conferences with credentials from NWPC's newspaper. And, she said, she has registered as a participant at the non-governmental organizations forum.
"I would like to do something there on elected women," she said. "A lot of workshops sort of evolve on the spot, and I'm hoping this will be the case."
She said she was "as traumatized as most of the American women who went" to Copenhagen: "I saw it, I felt it, but I learned a great deal. Some of the women who were involved in workshops on aging came away feeling they had accomplished more in those 18 days than they could have done in years. . . . It's true the PLO or their supporters had someone at almost every workshop. It was rough. But as traumatic and difficult as it was, the one-to-one contacts were very real. Those relationships were worth everything, no matter how divisive it was at the formal level. A lot of women go with the desire to share."
Including Heller. She is taking the next few weeks seriously. "I'm very concerned that there are a whole lot of problems involving women, but most women are too busy trying to put bread on the table to do anything about them. People like me have a certain amount of luxury. . . . I used to be embarrassed by it, now I'm not. Someone has to do this, and most can't."
Gracia Molina Pick of San Diego traveled to Mexico City and Copenhagen for the previous U.N. conferences, and she will be on the spot again in Nairobi--as international chair of Comision Feminil Mexicana Nacional. She is, she offers in the following order, "a feminist, an activist and a Chicana."
Pick said she came to the feminist movement from a 30-year background in the civil rights and peace movements. She is a founding member of the National Women's Political Caucus and Comision Feminil, the latter out of her conviction that for the time being, the concerns of Latinas need to be addressed separately from those of men.
She is going to Nairobi to attend the non-governmental organizations forum with the national chair, Beatriz Olvera Stotzer. In Los Angeles "the home team" will be managed by Sandra Serrano, who will keep members informed about the proceedings.
At the forum, Comision Feminil will be especially involved in 12 workshops concerning migrant workers, she said. The commission is a member of the International Organization for the Defense of Migrant Women's Rights, formed after the Copenhagen forum, she said, and is at the point of drafting a treaty.
"We are concentrating on services that can be provided. Whether one is undocumented or not, there are basic rights we want to establish--access to health care, benefits according to taxes paid, schools, services to allow a family to go through cultural transition." To those who criticize the forums and conferences for getting diverted by issues that are not specifically women's issues, Pick would reply that any issue that concerns women is a women's issues.
"More than ever, the whole question of violence and peace will come to the front. European women have organized marches of half a million people for peace. Are you going to tell them that's not a proper issue to concern them? Equality, development, peace--you can't separate them. . . ."
The divisiveness and political battles at the last two forums that are almost certain to be a part of the current proceedings do not concern her, she said.
"Bringing women together is always a political question. Contrary to what most people think, women are very political. They point to issues that are vital to the country, to its weaknesses. . . . They (the past two forums) have been the scene of the greatest consciousness-raising--for example, the concept that whatever work women do inside or outside the home, with or without pay, is an economic contribution to the wealth and development of each country.
"The forum is highly emotional and politically charged, but women are anxious to get to know each other and talk about the things that worry us most. Women the world over have a lot in common," she said with conviction and little irony. "We tend to be poor, powerless and invisible."
Kaygey Kash will be one of 10 women representing the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith in Nairobi. She also holds credentials as a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Jewish Community Bulletin, a weekly publication of Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.
In addition to her involvement with ADL, she is past international president of B'nai B'rith Women, past president of the Women's Conference of Jewish Federation and chaired the pre-Nairobi planning conference convened by the three organizations in Los Angeles last March.
"For a very long time I've been interested in women's issues and active," Kash said. "B'nai B'rith Women is an advocate organization for a full spectrum of issues--employment, comparable worth, the ERA. . . ."
Honored by Mayor
Married and both a mother and grandmother, she works for the county as a public affairs/cultural consultant promoting tourism. She has long been involved in volunteerism, she said, having worked for United Way, the city's Human Relations Commission and the Constitutional Rights Committee, and has been honored as an "outstanding volunteer" by Mayor Tom Bradley.
Although she did not attend the earlier conferences, she said she followed them closely and was distressed when the Mexico City conference "was subverted and resulted in that infamous resolution (equating Zionism with racism). I felt very deeply about what has happened. Women are being robbed of an opportunity to discuss their concerns."
She is concerned lest the same thing happen in Nairobi, she said, and has attended several briefings for non-governmental organizations forum participants. (She will also be attending the official conference.)
"Part of our responsibility there will be to attend the workshops. We'll interpret much of our own mores and concerns and listen to what's being said."
Her experience meeting and planning with women at the March conference she chaired, which drew participants from numerous organizations that crossed religious and ethnic lines, has made her regard Nairobi as "an exciting prospect," she said. "I'll be interested in meeting with women around the world and finding the issues we do have in common. . . . Hunger, apartheid are of concern for all of us. I think the forum will help all of us realize we do not live in a vacuum."
Bobbie Hodges-Betts directs peace education and social justice programs for the local branch of the American Friends Service Committee.
"All the conferences have had poor participation of Third World women. These women have a lot to say, especially about development."
She will be a panelist at a series of seven workshops AFSC is offering in conjunction with the National Black Women's Conference on women and development at the non-governmental organizations forum.
Violence to Be Covered
"We'll cover militarization and violence--its sociological, psychological, physiological impact globally on society, especially women and children. And as well, I will, of course, always be articulating the fact that development goes begging in the question of war. It's the regular AFSC stuff," she said, chuckling a little, "but it's serious. You know, everyone is dealing with Ethiopia and the famine, for example, but who's tying in the fact Ethiopia has the largest standing army in Africa?"
Perhaps the same "regular AFSC stuff" influences her approach to the Arab/Israeli conflict. Inevitably the subject will arise, she said.
" . . . . I do not want to get into the whole Arab/Israeli conflict without having something to mediate it," she said, commenting she would like to see women find ways to further the debate constructively.
The path that has led Dorris Wittrig of Alhambra to the non-governmental organizations forum as one of the American Assn. of University Women's representatives, is full of classic symbolic milestones.
Now widowed and the mother of three adult children, she was a housewife and leader of Brownies, Girls Scouts, Boy Scouts, YWCA groups and church groups during her child-rearing years. Then she went back to school, and graduated in 1976 from Cal State L.A. with two degrees, in clinical psychology and child development. Those same years saw her join the National Organization for Women, AAUW, march for the ERA and be appointed by the United Methodist Church as Pasadena district director of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women.
Ran Husband's Company
In 1981 her husband, John, died in Cairo, while the two of them were on a trip through Greece, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. She returned home and assumed the presidency of her husband's company, Thomas & Wittrig Inc., a patent illustrating and lithography business.
She ran it for three years, asked herself "what was I making more money for?" and decided to close the company. She didn't need to make any more money, she said.
It was not until last year that she caught up with the U.N. Decade for Women. She has been making up for lost time, attending planning and briefing sessions and conferences in California and New York.
AAUW will be conducting workshops in Nairobi, and Wittrig will participate, she said, but "my real role will be kind of as a good-will ambassador. I'll circulate, meet people on a one-to-one basis, especially university women from other countries. When I return, I'll be meeting with AAUW branches and organizations of church women, "urging their action and support on many of the problems that face women all over the world."
Connie LaFace-Olson, director of the Commission on Sex Equity for the Los Angeles Unified School District, will be in Nairobi to conduct workshops on "Increasing Educational Opportunities for Girls and Women" at the non-governmental organizations forum.
The focus of these workshops, she said, will be to discuss ways in which teachers can encourage girls to go into non-traditional jobs where women have not worked in any significant numbers before, to make them aware of options and search for innovative, low-cost ways to do it.
Financing Own Trip
She will be representing the school district, and will bring with her its guidelines, curriculum and materials, but she is financing the trip herself.
Director of the commission since March, LaFace-Olson, who is married, has been with the district for 20 years, having taught English, economics and agriculture at North Hollywood High.
"That's my non-traditional background," she said of teaching agriculture. And that experience, she continued, is one reason why she wants to impress upon government and agency officials attending the workshops that "if they are giving training in agricultural technology, they make their best effort to include women since women are doing so much of the work."
"I hope to bring back concerns, ideas, ways of doing things we haven't tried," she said. "For example, I know in Denmark some of the big companies open their offices to women in the evenings to teach them how to use some of the new equipment. It's sort of an apprentice situation."
This will be the first such forum LaFace-Olson has attended. The political and nationalistic divisiveness that plagued the prior two conferences do not much concern her, she said.
"When it comes down to it, this is really women helping women. I plan to offer my name and resources to people there and leave with (the same). I want to see us go beyond seeing the differences to the things we all need in common."
Marcella Howell is a political consultant who chairs the women's caucus of the California Democratic Party and is a member of the Democratic National Committee. She is going to Nairobi with the African American Institute, and will be participating in its workshops on women and political participation, "more or less" representing the Democratic Party, she said.
Later, she will also attend the official conference, she said, and report on it for L.A. Weekly.
When she returns she said, she expects to be using her experience from Nairobi as she works with others in the Democratic Party to rethink their strategy in the light of what she calls "negative backlash" against special-interest groups.
A divorced mother of a 14-year-old son, Howell will turn 37, she laughed with satisfaction, "on Aug. 26. I was born on Women's Equality Day. I like that!"
Teacher and Lobbyist
Howell has taught women's studies, black studies, creative writing and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, she said. In Los Angeles she has been a lobbyist for Nine-to-Five Working Women, a lobby coordinator and organizer for American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and national director of women's issues for Gary Hart's presidential campaign. Currently, she said, she is a consultant on cable television to Assemblywoman Gwen Moore's (D-Los Angeles) Utilities and Commerce Committee.
Howell was at the Mexico City conference, and while she found it productive, especially "given it was a first," and was impressed with the Plan of Action for the decade that emerged, she is not impressed by what transpired after.
"I just happen to think that as women--as far as a global network is concerned--we failed to really build the bridges, globally and here at home." She said she hoped what will come out of the Nairobi forum is that women will build a global network. "It's been the failure of the women's movement so far. What was good about Mexico City was the rapport. There were a lot of different groups pulling together."
Fae Pannor has been active in the National Organization for Women, the National Women's Political Caucus and said she has integrated her feminism into her work as a licensed marriage and family counselor. She is an associate of the L.A. Women's Therapy Center in Venice, which she describes as a "non-hierarchal group of therapists with a feminist perspective."
She is going to the Nairobi non-governmental organizations forum, however, representing just herself. "I've been aware of the decade since the beginning and read the results of the past conferences carefully. I wished I'd been there. A year ago, when I was reading about Nairobi, I said, 'I want to be there.' I wasn't sure I could afford it, or manage it, but I scrimped and saved, and I made it my priority."
Pannor, who is 61, "long divorced" and the mother of two adult children, said she has been "in the women's movement ever since Betty Friedan wrote 'The Feminine Mystique' in, what was it, 1963? I've felt the women's movement has expressed the struggles of my own life very closely. In that way I feel very emotionally involved in it personally."
In the past she attended a six-week women's institute in Greece, a monthlong women's institute in Israel, and traveled to China, driven partly by her interest in socialism, to see how it was working, and, in particular, how women were faring there.
"I really do want to see how the women of the world live. And, for me, it ties in with my work as a therapist. I honestly feel I've been called upon to make the world a better place to live in."
Mental health, as an isolated field, will not necessarily be her focus at the forum she said, explaining, "I think my whole interest is in the status of women. There's no way you can separate a woman's life from her sense of self-esteem and personal power. "
"I'm also interested to see if women can make contact with each other in more fundamental ways than they did at the other conferences. We certainly need to support each other."