Ruth Rosen Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Women's Movement in Historical Perspective: Conversation with Ruth Rosen, historian and columnist; 12/5/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Women's Movement as a Global Phenomenon

What is the most important message from this story of the women's movement in the sixties? Does some part of it stand out in your own mind that we haven't already covered? Help us understand why history is important for a generation that may not have to go through everything that the people you're describing went through.

People tend to think that major events are the issue. This happened; that happened. But it's the story behind those events, the slow changes, what historians often call "latent facts," things that change very gradually, that are really the big story. That slow naming of injuries throughout the 1970s changed American society in profound ways. And what happened as the Commission on the Status of Women was meeting, what they did, slowly and gradually -- it's a story behind the report, behind the naming of the Commission -- had a tremendous impact way out of proportion to the actual event.

To put it another way, sometimes people tend to overlook the importance of social movements in changing society. I think the biggest thing that people ought to notice from the history of the women's movement is that it took two generations, who came out of two very different experiences, but both based on social change movements -- movements that were very indigenous to American society. Older women and younger women who took those experiences and then began to hold society accountable and ask the question, "What about women now?" The importance of social movements in creating and making social change is often overlooked by people.

I know that you've thought a lot about the global dynamic. How do we see this phenomenon changing the world? Talk a little about that and what you see as pivotal in awakening women's consciousness all over the world about the issues of women's rights.

This has been an amazing experience. Starting in the early seventies, Western women began knocking on the door of the U.N. and saying, "Hey, we have to have some international women's conferences." Finally, the U.N. gave in and said, "We'll have an International Women's Year in 1975." Again, it was a kind of buying off these women, "Let them have their conference. Have it Mexico City. It will be one year. It will be over." Well, the first thing those women did in Mexico was extend it into a decade. And the second thing they did is they started talking about their lives. I don't mean the formal delegations from the governments, but the parallel nongovernmental groups. They discovered a lot of differences about what women thought, but they also discovered two really big similarities. One, that women everywhere were poor; and, secondly, that women experienced all kinds of brutality and violence in their lives, different sorts, some of which were sanctioned by governments, most of which were sanctioned by custom. Those conferences continued in 1980 in Copenhagen, 1985 in Nairobi, and then 1995 in China.

Now, during the course of all those years, what happened as a result, again, of conferences -- the conferences were just catalysts -- in between, these networks grew, and they began to talk about gender issues everywhere. They also encouraged women to identify, "What are your gender issues?" So women in Africa talked about fuel and water being women's issues. Or women in some country said, "Dowry deaths are our issues." In other countries, they said, "It's genital mutilation." "It's honor deaths." And people were beginning to identify different kinds of brutality, different kinds of violence to the body.

This, ultimately, had an impact, a cumulative impact. By 1992, women around the world were instrumental in getting the U.N. to expand its view of human rights. Violence against girls and women was passed by the U.N. General Assembly as being a violation of women's human rights. Now, that's a very, very big thing, because it means that all kinds of customs were now being described as illegal and unacceptable to a civilized nation. It doesn't mean it was going to stop it, but it was creating a moral reference point. That meant that beating wives was unacceptable; harming people, general mutilation, dowry deaths, all kind of violence to the body, was unacceptable.

And then in 1994, '95, when there was a conference on development and on population control. Again, women came to the U.N. conference and said, "Look, we have another way of looking at population control. If you educate women and given them control over their own bodies, you cut population immediately and you improve the standard of living. This is an alternative view." They also provided an alternative view to development. They said, instead of creating vast hydroelectric industries that change the natural ecology and human ecology, the social ecology, give women small grants, like the Grameen Bank [had done], and allow women to use those small loans to create small enterprises. This had been very successful. The loans had been paid back. It's very much part of the international agenda to consider that you go in and you think about development in a different way. You don't necessarily assume that people should industrialize in five years, and that that's the best way to go about development.

So once you add gender to international issues and you think about globalization in gender terms, you start looking at such things as global traffic in women and children. You start noticing that women and children are the poorest people everywhere in the world. Suddenly, it was like history when I first started [women's] history. Once you put women into the picture and you say, "Yes, I'm looking through both eyes. I'm going to notice men and women," you, for example, notice that the problem of refugees is largely the problem of women and children. Most men have been killed or they're in combat, they tend not to be the refugees unless they're very elderly. So then you provide the right provisions and you give the right relief to the right people.

It really has had an impact by talking about gender and globalization. It has challenged a lot of policies.

What I'm hearing you say is, then, as a historian, is that it's important to tell the story, to know the elements of the story, because the story is still unfolding. And by knowing that past story, you can affect the story as it's being written.

We encourage everyone, whatever their field, to look back and to say, "Look, we didn't think about this until these ideas were introduced by women. Now that we're looking at this new problem, how would we look at this problem differently if we added women to the equation? Would we pursue the same policy, or would we slightly alter it, or would we dramatically alter it, because we're thinking now about women being involved in the problem?" By knowing how much was changed in the past, you may think about the future problems in a different way.

The last International Women's Conference was in held in China, which is not a place that necessarily had women's equality on the top of its agenda. But having the conference there changed things, as you've realized in later trips. Tell us a little about that.

It really did. I mean, I didn't expect that. But, in fact, the President of China, in his address to all these people -- 30,000 women had come from all over the world -- said that the fundamental state policy was gender equality. And when the conference was over, even though the Chinese government had tried to subvert it in every conceivable manner, even moving it to this remote area in Huairou, nevertheless, the educated women of China took that statement and began to use it as a patriotic obsession, almost: "As patriotic women, we need to achieve gender equality. We need rape crisis centers. We need shelters for domestically beaten women. We need women's studies programs." And they've gotten a lot, simply by using the language that the president had to use, against the government itself, and in the name of being patriotic women.

It turns out that every country that has held international conferences like this, has had a ripple effect. You think that these conferences don't have an impact, but, in fact, you look at them and they do, because the government has to put on a good face. The international cameras are whirling. The lights of the journalists and cameras are on the government. Whether it's the Olympics or an International Women's Conference, people are peering into your society and you have to present yourself in your best light. And it does have an impact.

A recent opinion page column that you wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle points to what you've just said as even true on the United States, that we are now engaged, after the events of 9/11, in a war in Afghanistan. And lo and behold, our president, President Bush, is now talking about women at the table in the negotiations for the new government in Afghanistan. And his wife has gone on the radio to talk ...

Yes, these are unprecedented events. I mean, if Hillary Clinton had done this in the absence of women walking around in blue burqas being "invisible," she would have been pilloried. But in this moment, Afghan women became icons of the oppression that the Taliban wrought on Afghan society. And as the iconic image, when our Secretary of State made such a statement as, "the rights of Afghan women will not be negotiable," that was an incredible statement. We've never had a foreign policy that included "the rights of women in another country will not be negotiable," as a result of some kind of a peace treaty. I mean, whoever heard of such a thing? This is unprecedented!

Now, whether that will really change the lives of women in Afghanistan, who knows? Whether it will change anything for American women, who knows? But it's been said and it can't be taken back, and it does take on a life of its own. I think what struck me when I heard those words come out of Secretary of State Colin Powell's mouth, I realized this was a historic moment. I realized those words are going to come back to haunt some future president. Because at some point, for some president, maybe it will be George W. Bush or some other president, women will be saying around the world, "How dare you sell weapons to Saudi Arabia! Look at the way women are treated. What do you mean you're protecting the democracy of Kuwait, when women can't even vote in that country?" The democratic rights of women will now be at issue when American foreign policy is being discussed. It won't be able to be taken out.

And in a recent episode of West Wing, it is exactly what the press secretary says ...

I wrote about that in that column. C.J. Cregg, as the communications expert, dissolves into tears as she thinks about the idiocy of America selling weapons to this country, this mythical country in the Gulf which beats women, stones them, shoots them and so forth. And she dissolves into tears, and she's enraged at the proposition that women's rights are not part of American foreign policy. And that happened virtually the week I was writing that column, so I included it, because it struck me as something that entered popular culture already, quite amazingly so.

Next page: The Role of Journalism

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See Ruth Rosen's SF Chronicle article on women's rights and the Afghanistan war: "Women's Rights Go Global" (12/3/01)