World Culture War
The situation is complicated by the fact that the World Bank does have an agenda for women: It wants them to have enough education to read instructions for birth control pills, to have enough freedom to work outside the home in export processing zones and to have enough money to feed themselves and their children. The World Bank has understood, in sub-Saharan Africa at least, that women keep some societies from falling apart completely, and for that reason it wishes to support their efforts at financial independence. But that does not mean it will intervene to protect them when things turn nasty. In Russia, for example, women have borne a disproportionate share of the burden of economic transition and the disappearance of social services. According to Nadia Azhgikhina of the Association for Russian Women Journalists, more than 70 percent of those fired from industrial jobs are women and only 12 percent of Russian women now have access to adequate healthcare.
While poor women and children are the largest group of victims in the global culture war, feminist writers, educators and organizers are those most deliberately targeted by atavistic social movements, because they give voice to the discontent of others and describe their misery. As president of Women's WORLD, a global network of women writers fighting gender-based censorship, I hear many such cases. Take, for instance, women writers in Kosovo. Did you assume there weren't any? This, according to Sazana Caprici, editor of the Kosovo feminist literary magazine Sfinga (Sphinx), is part of the problem: "The Yugoslav state authorities do their best to deny not only the existence of Albanian women writers, but the very possibility of the existence of such a category of Albanian women.... Among Serbs [government propaganda] has created a stereotype of the Albanian woman: an uneducated woman utterly subjected to her husband's authority.... Albanian men, on the other hand, make use of this propaganda to reinforce their control over Albanian women. Every time women try to speak up against their inferior position, they are accused of being in the service of the state, which in Kosovo is considered a foreign occupier."
In Zimbabwe, where the Mugabe government has been arresting journalists and persecuting gays and lesbians to distract from social unrest and economic crisis, the Supreme Court has just undercut all laws protecting women, in a 5-to-0 decision that cannot be appealed. The Court ruled that, following African cultural traditions, a woman should be treated as a "junior male." The government has also targeted individual feminists. Patricia McFadden, an outspoken African feminist born in Swaziland, was subjected to a 1997 deportation campaign that may well recur when her two-year visa expires this December. She had made herself unpopular not only by defending gay rights but by calling for a new, more aggressive political direction for the women's movement. As she put it in her speech to the 1998 African Women's Leadership Institute, the African women's movement is "taking over the civic responsibilities which the state should be shouldering, and we are not critically asking ourselves whether this is our agenda or it is an imposed agenda.... If we continue to separate the private from the public, our Movement will die, and we will be wrapped up in welfarism and catering for everyone else's needs, and we will never reach our political goals."
Participants in the African Women's Leadership Institute made a list of terms used to describe feminists in their societies: "Lesbians, Power hungry, Emotionally deprived, Sexually frustrated, 'Beijing women,' Sexually promiscuous, Unmarriageable, Against God's plan, Castrators, Westernized, Witches, Women who want to have testicles, Elite." US feminists, who have been targeted by conservatives for the last two decades, have added another term: femiNazis. Twenty years of conservative attack and media stigmatization have put us in a place where even the "official women's movement," as it was called at the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, has had to fight for its life, while more radical alternatives are virtually invisible.
Censorship of feminism has also become noticeable in education. The State University of New York's board of trustees, largely appointees of Governor George Pataki, led by Candace de Russy, has conducted a two-year witch hunt among teachers at SUNY New Paltz in the name of preserving standards and protecting the interests of taxpayers. Why? Because the women's studies program had a 1997 conference on female sexuality that ruffled a few feathers and was attacked in the Wall Street Journal. A similar right-wing campaign, spearheaded by religious groups on Long Island, resulted in a lawsuit against Nassau Community College in which the plaintiffs argued that course materials covering abortion, birth control, sexual behavior and homosexuality were intended to influence students to reject "traditional" Judeo-Christian religious attitudes toward sexuality and adopt an antireligious ethic of "sexual pluralism." This past February, however, Federal District Court Judge Nina Gershon dealt a blow to creeping theocracy in the SUNY system by dismissing the case, concluding that the course materials were designed to teach about human sexuality as an academic subject, not about religion. And at the University of Arizona, following a threat by the state legislature to cut off funding for women's studies, the administration has just polled its faculty to see how they feel about putting the warning "course content may be deemed objectionable" on some course syllabuses. The powerful grassroots Christian conservative movement regularly launches school and library censorship campaigns against any children's book that depicts an "abnormal" family (like my own Families), has characters with anti-authoritarian or irreverent attitudes, or even deals with magic, since fairy tales are seen as an introduction to New Age religion and Satanism.
If feminists are being targeted by reactionary movements all over the world, one might assume that progressives would leap to their defense. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Denunciations from the right have been too often echoed on the left, from the "defense of the family" in the mid-eighties to the attacks on affirmative action and "identity politics" now. Some US progressives today argue that the way to build a strong movement is to concentrate on electoral or economic issues and forget about the things that divide us. This strategy overlooks the fact that the fastest-growing sectors of the work force, not to mention the labor movement and poor people's movement, are full of women and minorities who do not check their identities at the door.
Nor can a purely domestic approach to politics work in an era of global culture war. It is wonderful to see the labor movement start to come alive again. This reborn movement, however, will only be as strong as its ability to learn from the diversity inside its ranks and to build coalitions with the international movements for human rights (including minority and gay rights), the environment and the emancipation of women.
None of our movements will get very far unless we recognize the centrality of struggles around culture. As we can see from the former Yugoslavia, culture wars around questions such as national identity, women's roles and minority rights have a way of turning into wars of blood. The way we frame our issues now will resonate for generations. Unity in the US progressive movement--not to mention survival, and our ability to defeat the antidemocratic, atavistic forces that have tied up the federal government for the past year--depends on solidarity with all those attacked by racists, zealots and thugs, at home and abroad--whether, like Tabitha Walrond and Amadou Diallo, they are targeted merely because they are poor and black, or because, like feminists the world over, they represent a threat to patriarchal control of female sexuality and productive and reproductive capacity.