Beijing Plus 10, the follow-up on the momentous 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, is opening at the United Nations as I write, and like other UN gatherings since George W. Bush became President, it offers a great chance to spend time with our new best friends. Egypt! Qatar! the Holy See! You look wonderful! Actually, since I wrote that sentence, Egypt and Qatar have changed their minds and won’t be backing our attempt to insert antiabortion language in the one-page reaffirmation of the platform document. So now it’s just us and the Pope. As with global warming, the world is moving forward without us.
Most likely nothing will come of this attempt to wreck long-settled consensus, unless you count the wasting of thousands of precious delegate hours that could have been spent talking about girls’ education, maternal mortality, HIV and getting more women into government. The United States will have its reservations noted, the document will be approved by almost everyone else in the world and Bush will have once again made our country look ridiculous in order to prove his devotion to his right-wing Christian base. Let’s hope that’s the worst of it, but why oh why does it have to be this way every single time? With our wealth and our fabulous medical and scientific resources, to say nothing of the Bush Administration’s oft-stated commitment to women, we should be attending to every need of the global women’s rights activists gathered here–people like Nigeria’s Bene Madunagu, head of the Girls’ Power Initiative, which fosters sex education at the grassroots level and fights child marriage, and Argentina’s Mabel Bianco, whose NGO, FEIM, educates girls and women about HIV.
Our own delegation, by contrast, is a blush-making collection of hacks and fanatics with no bona fides in women’s rights or international development. Lead delegate Ellen Sauerbrey, ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, is an antichoice former Maryland state legislator who twice ran unsuccessfully for governor. Chad Bettes is a former spokesperson for Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, currently making headlines for demanding the private medical records of women who’ve had second-trimester abortions. Other delegates include a former chair of the Louisiana Republican Party, a former chief of staff to Representative Tom DeLay, and Janet Parshall, a right-wing Christian broadcaster notable for her claim that Osama bin Laden wanted John Kerry to win and for this scary bon mot: “We must use our spiritual bayonets. We must use the bayonets, for the nation must be taken for the love of God.” Get those things away from me!
Imagine that you were a delegate from the Third World, where one in sixty-one women dies of maternity-related causes, where a host of ills–poverty, violence, illiteracy, corruption, discriminatory laws and customs, reactionary religion–work together against women. What would you think of a global superpower that sent such people to a crucial meeting? “We’re losing an opportunity to have a good discussion about how to move forward on the whole range of problems women face,” Mabel Bianco told me. “All the Americans want to talk about is abortion!”
Even though the Beijing document has no legal force, it gives women leverage to press for legal changes, for more attention to girls, for a bigger share of political power. Indeed, since 1995 at least fourteen countries–including Mexico, Rwanda, Indonesia, France, Bosnia and Herzegovina–have set aside at least 30 percent of government seats for women. Little by little, the global women’s movement inches forward: Twenty years ago, Charlotte Bunch of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership reminded me, Amnesty International didn’t see violence against women as a human rights issue; now it’s leading a huge antiviolence campaign. Should we be further along? Yes. Beijing Betrayed, a report just out from the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, lambastes governments around the world for failing to live up to their commitments: “Many women in all regions are actually worse off than they were ten years ago.”
Unfortunately, the only time the Bush Administration pays attention to the human rights of women is when it is trying to justify invading their countries.
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My father, Basil Riddiford Pollitt, died at 85 on February 25 of a cerebral hemorrhage suffered two weeks before. He was a lawyer, a radical, civil libertarian, a lifelong opponent of racism and capital punishment, a devoted–if sometimes critical–reader of this magazine and a kind, generous, original person. In what he would never have admitted was old age, he was still thinking new thoughts, making new friends and looking forward to new experiences–going to see The Gates in Central Park, reorganizing his garden (this was going to be the spring he finally got it right), attending his sixty-fifth Harvard reunion.
My father wasn’t a famous lawyer, but he was a very good one who used his skills and gifts in just causes. In the 1950s he worked for the United Electrical Workers and defended Steve Nelson, Andy Onda, John Killian and others on assorted McCarthyite charges. In 1970 he put together a mountain of sociological data to prove that the way grand juries were chosen was racially and sexually discriminatory. He lost that case, as he lost others he deserved to win, but the argument he crafted eventually helped change the way grand juries were chosen. Like so many victories of the left, we take this one for granted: It’s simply become part of the fabric of everyday life, “progress.” We forget that every inch of that progress was won in struggle.
A few days after Bush’s re-election, Dad called me up. “‘What though the field be lost? All is not lost!’ Who said that?” It was Milton, I told him, but unfortunately those bold words were spoken by Satan, as he is weltering about in Hell and has, in fact, lost everything. I liked to play the pessimist to his optimist, and this time I thought I really had him. Dad would have none of it. For months he would leave that quotation on my answering machine: “What though the field be lost? All is not lost”!
I only wish I had saved that message.