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

July 22, 1985|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — 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

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