NAIROBI, Kenya — American black women have come in extraordinary numbers to Forum '85, the non-governmental world meeting for women being held here. And so have black women from all over Africa. They are running or participating in countless panels and workshops, holding informal meetings, some closed sessions, circulating petitions, networking, enlisting support. The African and American black women, including women from the Caribbean area, are doing much of it together.
The image of the African woman as wood gatherer, water bearer, farmer and oppressed wife is a true one, and characterizes the overwhelming majority of women in every country. However, it is not the only valid image.
The Africans who have come to Forum '85 are making a strong impression. They are standing out in a gathering of strong women, as other forum participants are increasingly remarking almost with awe at times. They are revealing themselves to be strong leaders, aggressive businesswomen, shrewd negotiators, sophisticated politicians, and no-nonsense feminists who see no contradiction in talking about Third World economic problems and political ideologies one moment, and wife beating, female illiteracy and overwork the next.
On Tuesday, African women came together with American black women under the auspices of a group that had arrived in Nairobi already well aware of their abilities and problems.
The National Council of Negro Women, a 45-year-old American organization, held an all-day seminar at the Norfolk Hotel, across the street from the University of Nairobi where most of the forum is taking place. The subject: a dialogue between African and American women on developments during the decade.
The council's international division has been working with African women since 1975, "twinning" with women's organizations in African countries on development projects.
They started in 1975 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of their founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, according to Dorothy Height, 73, NCNW president and convener of the seminar.
"We felt that during her centenary we needed to do something to move our work to another dimension. She always stressed that we be interracial and international. Since 1975 was the international women's year, we decided to take what we had been doing and relate directly to the year by working internationally."
The seminar, Height told the group, was intended to take a look at "what's been happening over the past 10 years, what changes have taken place socially, economically, politically . . . to see what's happened that advances women to a better life and what is left undone."
Equally important, she told the women, they would be hearing from South African women since "we are very concerned about apartheid and its impact on women and children" and wanted to discuss what they could do about it.
Maureen Reagan Speaks Out
(Meanwhile, at the simultaneous official U.N. conference here marking the end of the Decade for Women, Maureen Reagan denounced apartheid.
("Apartheid is abhorrent to the government and the people of the United States," Reagan said in her 15-minute speech.
("In addition to its demeaning and destructive effect on the black people of South Africa, its effects upon women are especially severe."
(Reagan, head of the U.S. delegation, received loud applause when she called for a "conference of women, by women and for women" and also when she pledged she would not deny any woman from using the conference as a platform for political opinion.)
The group of about 100 attending the workshop dealing with black women's issues tended to be more middle- to late middle-aged than young. Among the Americans, there were Lois Carson of San Bernardino, Pat Canterbury of Sacramento, an executive in the secretary of state's office, Glendora Putnam, national president of the YWCA, and several elected officials, including Erma Henderson, president of the Detroit City Council, and Carolyn Kirkpatrick of the Michigan State Legislature. At one point in the afternoon, Betty Shabazz, widow of slain black leader Malcolm X and a faculty member at Medgar Evers University in Brooklyn, came in and joined the discussion.
They were for the most part conservative-looking, solid types short on rhetoric and ideology, long on practical experience and hard, persistent work.
Their comments, from the panel and from the floor, are a good indicator, not only of the interest African and American black women are taking in each other, but of what the U.N. Decade for Women has been about. Here is what some of them had to say: