WASHINGTON — When Sally Motlana, president of the Black Housewives League in South Africa, finished her keynote address to a standing ovation from nearly 800 women gathered in the ballroom of the Sheraton Washington, a teary-eyed Mary Grefe, president of the American Assn. of University Women's Educational Foundation, thanked her.
At Grefe's suggestion the audience joined hands and raised their arms victoriously as a gesture of support for Motlana's struggle. Then Grefe turned to Motlana, put her arms around her and clung to her, eyes shut tightly, weeping quietly, unwilling, it seemed, to release her.
Not a typical scene from the world of conferences, but then this one, sponsored by the AAUW Educational Foundation, with 60 co-sponsoring women's organizations, was called "Equity by 2000: Meeting the Nairobi Challenge." There were several moments at this conference that brought back the magic of Nairobi, the scene of last year's world gathering of women that marked the end of the United Nations Decade for Women.
And as in Nairobi, so in Washington--the emotions that sometimes brought tears, brought them not so much out of sentimentality as an awakening sense of solidarity. Women have been finding it powerful stuff.
Motlana's speech on how the public policy of apartheid influences private lives had been powerful stuff.
Equity by 2000? She was talking about the particulars of apartheid, about women in rural areas of South Africa, forced to remain there with their children while their husbands worked in cities. One of the many tasks in their heavy workloads is building the family mud hut. Often rains destroy them and the women have to rebuild them. One of the many tasks of Motlana's self-help group was to teach the rural housewives to make more durable huts out of bricks with straw and mud, Motlana told the middle-class feminists seated in the air-conditioned ballroom.
By now Americans are familiar with passbooks and the laws of influx control in South Africa, which were supposedly abolished earlier this year only to be reintroduced in a different fashion. It was another story to have Motlana hold her passbook up before them and call out, " This is the book that controls my movement. This is my badge of serfdom." Visibly shocked, the women started and gasped audibly.
She thanked them for inviting "an insignificant woman like me. I feel elevated. In my country I am but nothing. Here I feel like somebody."
The invitation to Motlana was an unmistakable sign, as were those extended to other speakers from Kenya and Sri Lanka and panelists from Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe, that the AAUW, a 175,000-member organization with 1,900 chapters in 50 states, sees itself as part of an international women's movement.
This was, after all, a conference, as described by Sarah Harder, AAUW president, "to translate ideals from Nairobi into practical planning at home . . . (to) identify tangible two-year objectives for women working together." The reason for inviting women from about 30 other countries to join them, she said was so that "our U.S. objectives will be infused with a global reality."
The Nairobi conference ended with the unanimous adoption by 157 nations of a plan of action called the Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, with the year 2000 set as a target date for their implementation. The Strategies have been widely described as radical if abstract, recommending everything from family planning services, to the inclusion of women as decision makers in development plans and programs, to shelters for abused women and laws against domestic violence, to including women's unwaged work in the home and agriculture in countries' gross national products, to encouraging governments to bring women into international diplomacy and arms negotiating.
The Strategies are not law for any nation. Moreover as AAUW conference leaders and literature made clear, there has been little progress over the decade in the United States, and in the year since Nairobi, with stagnation or setbacks at the governmental levels in such matters as child care, parental leave, pay equity, equal education, health care.
Therefore, Harder said, "real progress for women is in our hands. We will hold ourselves accountable for exploiting the possibilities related to the Forward Looking Strategies."
Although conference participants were mainly middle-class women from mainstream organizations, the agenda went far beyond "how to make it up the career ladder," and there were reminders throughout not to forget, as Mary Grefe put it, "the faces of women who are not here, who are domestic workers scrubbing floors, farm wives, single mothers raising children."
Dorothy Height, whose National Council of Negro Women played a large role in the conference, reminded people that women headed 47% of black families and that 58% of those families were poor.