Women’s History Month: Why and how were the Soviets poised to take the lead on international feminism?

Mexico City
Look at these folks gathered in Mexico City to discuss women’s issues! Oh to have been there. Image courtesy of PBS.

Learning about the Puerto Rican pill trials had me so vexed the I took a couple of nights off from my women’s history deep dive. During my break, Atlanta turned the warm weather back on which gave me all the impetus I needed to take my boys to the zoo on Saturday and enjoy symphonic music for the very young with them on Sunday. While at the Woodruff Arts Center, I ran into Pearl Cleage who was there accepting bouquets of flowers and accolades for the release of her latest play entitled Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous. She was gracious enough to give me a hug and smile warmly at my sons although I’m sure she didn’t remember who the hell I was.

I first met the fabulous Pearl Cleage about six years ago while pursuing my MFA in Writing at Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta. A great aspect of the program is the constant parade of local, national and international writers who visit campus, speak with our classes, and participate in one-on-one sessions with students. At SCAD, I met Augusten Burroughs, Roxane Gay, Elmore Leonard and Camille Paglia among several others. My one-on-one with Pearl Cleage, however, changed my life because here was this awesome accomplished author and playwright who read my pieces and actually told me, “I read your essay Roll Call and I wished I had written it; it was so good.” After that encounter, you pretty much couldn’t hit me in the ass with a red apple.

Anyway, running into her got me thinking about great women playwrights, so I consulted Dr. Google and came across this comprehensive list of female playwrights here followed by this list of must-read plays by women here. I was first reminded of my old friend Dennielle A. who once told me that she aspired to be a playwright (and I hope she’s still writing today).

Then I was reminded of the intense dislike I developed for author/playwright Ayn Rand after reading Atlas Shrugged. The problem for me was not so much her belief system and politics but rather why the hell it took her three full pages to describe a single room. I have never enjoyed any writer who provides an overkill of detail in their writing. Like…could you provide me with a nice little framework so I can employ my imagination, please?!?!? Cheesus.

Anyway, the fact that Ayn Rand was a Russian-American reminded me of the three conferences that took place during the Decade for Women (1975-1985) and the huge beef between Russian and American feminists that defined the first two conferences in Mexico City and Copenhagen.

Again, the Decade for Women was established by the United Nations to promote equal rights and opportunities for women all over the globe. As this Britannica web page states,

The UN Decade for Women concentrated mainly on women and development. The UN women’s conference in Mexico City produced two major documents: the “Declaration of Mexico on the Equality of Women and Their Contribution to Development and Peace” and the “World Plan of Action for the Implementation of the Objectives of the International Women’s Year.” The conference in Copenhagen was used to report on progress since the Mexico City meeting and produced a “Programme of Action.” The conference in Nairobi celebrated the accomplishments of the Decade for Women and established an agenda that would guide future efforts to promote worldwide equality for women. The Nairobi conference adopted a document titled “The Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women.” A Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in September 1995 to accelerate the implementation of the policies outlined in that document.

What the web page leaves out is the fact that there were two major competing schools of thought on feminism: the US approach to feminism and the Soviet approach to feminism. I learned that from reading this Harvard article here.   Now, I do invite you to read it, but I’m going to guess that your eyes will gloss offer after the first few paragraphs because it’s not quite as riveting as A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry or The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. So I’ve kindly summarized the major points below. (You’re welcome.)

It must be noted that these conference took place during the height of the Cold War and in many respects were an extension of the dick-measuring contest going on between the USA and the USSR. What’s incredible is that while each of these major powers claimed to be the foremost authority on female empowerment, neither volunteered to host any of the conferences. In particular, the US government believed women’s issues were a cover of and magnet for communist activism and you know how ‘Muricah feels about communism.

Mexico, therefore, stepped up to host the first conference in Mexico City and the USSR played a very active role in its planning which made the US hella nervous about sending any high-profile representatives like First Lady Betty Ford to represent. The US was scared that the conference was going to turn into a hotbed of anti-capitalist sentiment and didn’t want women’s issues in America to be associated in any way with any “anti-American” ideas. Conversely, the Soviets showed out by sending Cosmonaut Valentina Nikolayeva-Tereshkova who was “the first woman in space, a prominent politician, hero of the Soviet Union, and two-time recipient of the Order of Lenin.”

So…the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City was very well attended with more than 2000 delegates representing 125 of the 133 member nations of the UN and 6000+ delegates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attending a parallel convention. The vast majority of these delegates were women and it was the largest meeting of its kind at the time to address women’s issues.

The US representatives attended with that same patriarchal attitude of American exceptionalism and really thought they were going to run the show. However, many women from developing nations had beef with the US too and were digging the Soviet stance much more. Again, during the Cold War, the US made a habit of meddling in foreign affairs to the detriment of may nations and so the women of those affected nations were like, “Whatever, Bitch,” with regard to all of the US ideas.

Now exactly what were those ideas?

The US and other capitalist nations were of the mind that the conference should concentrate on women’s economic equality with men, so they advocated for equal opportunity with regard to employment, pay, and wealth opportunity. On the other hand, women in the Soviet Union and other communist nations already enjoyed a great deal of parity on those fronts so they pushed for women to be more involved in international affairs in order to confront and dismantle neo-colonialism, apartheid, racism and Zionism which they view as being male forces that worked to empower a few to oppress many including women. A lot of the delegates leaned toward the Soviet view while the US pretty much got told to take several seats. The same dynamic happened at the conference in Copenhagen.

Finally, by the third conference in Nairobi, the US got their crap together and was determined to have more of leadership role. So the House of Representatives put on their big boys pants and held a hearing to address how not to once again get shown up by the Soviets. Effectively, they decided to give a gosh darn about women’s issues because they didn’t want the Soviets to win.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1989, Western feminism dominated the international women’s movement and Soviet ideas on how to achieve international gender equality fell along with it. For me, this begs the question of where US women’s rights would be if we still had to compete with a foreign power like the Soviet Union. Perhaps we’d better understand the exploitative nature of capitalism and the ways in which women and marginalized groups fall prey to that exploitation. Perhaps we wouldn’t still have to be hoping for the ERA or equal pay or reproductive rights or an end to the unfair tax on tampons. Perhaps all the women who voted for Trump would have gotten some sense and actually voted for Hillary or stayed their silly asses at home. I don’t know.

Let me stop before I begin to be viewed as “anti-American.”

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