Forum '85 Women Ask 'What If . . . ?'

Times Staff Writer

What if women ruled the world? Would it be any different? Would it be any better?

Interesting questions. Bella Abzug, former congresswoman and adviser to President Jimmy Carter, put a panel together on the topic and invited 18 women from 15 nations to discuss it.

It was one of the best-attended sessions of Forum '85, the nongovernmental world meeting for women held at the University of Nairobi from July 10 to last Friday.

"Since this is the end of the United Nations Decade for Women, we should be discussing the nature of women and political power," Abzug told the women in the packed lecture hall where simultaneous translation was offered in six languages. Saying that a combination of tradition and socioeconomic conditions were keeping women out of political power, thus preventing them from overcoming their oppression, Abzug called women the world's most underrepresented population group and said, "We're here today to change that."

Theoretical Queries

The discussion focused more on the theoretical questions than on the nitty-gritty "how to's" of politicking. There seemed to be consensus, most succinctly expressed by Guadalupe Gomes Maganda of Mexico, that "our government is much too important to be left in the hands of men."

The panelists conflicted, however, about just how women were different and in what ways things would change. Several called women more emotional, nurturers, mothers, closer to life. Others saw those images as a trap.

"We do ourselves an injustice when we call ourselves more emotional, perceptive, more helpful in welfare programs, etc.," Tamar Eshel of Israel's Labor Party warned. "My dear friends, that is just where they want to put us."

There was agreement that women would make a difference, bringing different concerns, values, behavior and ways of doing business.

'A Bona Fide Feminist'

Sweden's minister of disarmament, Majbritt Theorin, said there would be more hope for peace, more food and fewer weapons, a simpler and less complicated bureaucracy, fewer babies and, due to women occupying elected offices, fewer men in politics.

One of the most popular speakers was Margarita Papandreou, the American-born wife of Greece's prime minister. Once active in Minnesota's Democratic Farm Labor Party and now working with the Union of Women in Greece, she is head of her country's delegation to the United Nation's Conference on Women being held here at the Kenyatta Conference Center. She left the official proceedings long enough to attend part of Abzug's panel.

To her, "a bona fide feminist" was a socialist and vice versa, she said. Feminists had to have a proper ideology if they were going to make a difference. They had to challenge all patriarchal attitudes.

"I have yet to hear a man in a decision-making meeting, red faced and angry, banging his fist on the table and shouting, 'We must have more child care centers.' Perhaps, he would if he had the sole responsibility for the children," Papandreou said.

There was a moment during the presentation when a star was born. That was when Monica Barnes, a member of Ireland's Parliament, the Dail Eireann, spoke. A heavyset woman, she was an unknown to the assembly. To everyone's amazed delight, she came on as an impassioned toughie with a heart.

She wanted to talk about the problems women faced when they were elected to office, she said, and of the fact that elected women were sometimes reluctant to see themselves as women.

"They're afraid. They're entering an old boys' club. They don't know the rules. They're afraid to ask questions. They're intimidated by the language." It is an atmosphere, she said, in which they are expected to be unemotional and objective, to debate rather than talk.

"My answer to that," she said, fist on her hip, "is I was not there when they made the rules. I certainly do not see that I should keep them. And as for language, if you are objective and debate, you can talk about anything. You can even talk about the elimination of the human race. We need to bring debate down to discussion and dialogue."

Men and women use words such as security, development and planning differently, she said: Security means cruise missiles to men, a house and a future for one's children to women; development of territories they had conquered to men, development of the human race to women; planning a budget to men, planning the survival of the planet to women.

By the time Barnes got around to saying it was no coincidence that the women's movement grew up alongside the environmental movement, holding her arms in the air as she said women wanted to protect the animals and insects and "all God has given us," and then, fist on hip again, saying, "We did not think we had the right to muck around and destroy the planet," the audience had fallen in love.

Next Panelist Spoke

They cheered her. Papandreou and Egypt's Farkhonda Hassan, who had simultaneously turned to see who was speaking so extraordinarily, sat transfixed, admiring smiles on their faces. As the next panelist spoke, a steady flow of women approached the stage apron, stretched up and held out scraps of paper and notebooks for Barnes to autograph and indicate how she could be reached.

She was not the only speaker to describe her uneasy entry into a legislative body. Brazil's Ruth Escobar told of the animosity she encountered among her colleagues in the legislature when she supported a bill regarding rights for homosexuals.

They accused her of being a lesbian, of perhaps not being a "real woman," of, in any event, not having the "right physical equipment" to express an opinion about male sexuality.

Sometime previously, Escobar told the audience, she had lost most of her hair from illness and always wore a wig. The next time she got up to speak in favor of the legislation, she removed her wig. She was nervous, and her colleagues were shocked and embarrassed when she asked them if perhaps this too meant she was not a real woman, that perhaps this too meant she lacked the right equipment.

Not Enough to Elect Women

Throughout the three-hour discussion, women had mentioned that it was not enough simply to elect women. Canada's Sheila Firestone had warned that there would be no change for the better with women in power "as long as we maintain a dialogue that is confrontational rather than an exchange of views that is consensus building," as she said some had been doing in Nairobi.

Finally, toward the end of the afternoon, the question of confrontation was raised again, this time by an Indian woman who spoke of the "painful experience" Asia had had with two recent women rulers, the late Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, prime minister of Sri Lanka.

Citing Gandhi's harsh and "illegal emergency conventions" that she had imposed during her first term, the woman went on to criticize Gandhi for "denouncing Israel constantly rather than going before the nonaligned nations and promoting discussions, just as she failed ever to denounce the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan." As for Bandaranaike, she said, her repressive rule was so terrible she feared for Sri Lanka if she should ever return to power.

"Can we add Margaret Thatcher to that list?" a British woman called out.

The issue was central to the whole theme of the panel, and Abzug took it on.

"The women you are talking about," she said to the Indian, "are products of a male power structure, not of a political women's movement. If they were, they would have been different."

Offering her own country as an example, she said: "American feminists have built a strong ideological movement. They oppose sexism, racism, poverty and institutionalized violence (whether it is) against women (or) abroad."

And that is where the difference would come in what people meant, she said, when they talked of women ruling the world.

"We are not interested in replacing an elitist white male power structure with an elitist white female power structure," Abzug said. "We are looking to elect women committed to fundamental principles who will change the nature of society."

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