The Pebble and the Lake

The Power of the Word II: Women's Voices and the New European Order
This article, originally a speech to a Women's WORLD European team meeting at Bellagio in 1999, goes over the organization's politics and principles, and then gets down to personal vision. The first parts of the article repeat material from other articles on this site; the last half is different.
I. The World Situation
            Women's WORLD was founded in 1994 in response to changes in the world situation caused by the end of the Cold War: globalization, on the one hand, and the rise of backlash social movements, on the other.
            By globalization, I mean a new form of capitalism in which fundamental economic decisions are removed from elected politicians and local financial leaders and placed in the hands of an international financial ruling class accountable to no one. Increasingly, the nation state is being superseded by multinational corporations and international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whose policies of "structural adjustment" have imposed a dog-eat-dog, nineteenth-century version of the free market upon countries in the Global South and Eastern Europe. "Structural adjustment" has brought widespread starvation and economic chaos to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, while, in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe, it has led to a resurgence of ethnic war, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and crime, a dramatic rise in the traffic in women, and the descent into poverty and unemployment of millions of people.
            Everywhere globalization is producing a widening gulf between rich and poor, with women and children making up a disproportionate percentage of the latter group. This is true not only in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but also among the poor, minority, and immigrant populations of North America and Europe. At the same time, the new weakness of the nation state, easily perceived by demagogues and aggrieved groups, has led to an increase in local conflicts led by warlords trying to carve out their own nations or ethnic enclaves. Driving peasants off the land and into cities and borderlands where they cannot feed themselves, these wars have created an unprecedented number of refugee women and children fleeing extermination or starvation. These local wars are one result of an epidemic of backlash social movements, atavistic movements that yearn for the age of barbarism, invoking the mythic past of their people, tribe, or religion. Atavistic social movements target their next door neighbor, the hereditary enemy. They emphasize control over women, whom they see as symbols of national or communal honor.
            Virulent nationalism drives one kind of atavistic movement; religious fundamentalism another. Fundamentalist movements have taken advantage of the weakness of the nation state to sow the seeds of theocracy in many places. Creeping theocracy can be seen in Egypt, where the courts enforce a Shariat law substantially different from the laws enacted by the legislature. It can be seen in Israel, where fundamentalist settlers, believing they are destined to control all the land that was Biblical Israel's at its point of greatest expansion, have repeatedly derailed the peace process. It can be seen in the United States, where a conservative Congress brought government to a standstill for almost a year in its zeal to enforce, not the law of the land, but a "higher law" under which a President could be impeached for sexual misconduct.
            Women today are caught between the two conflicting forces of globalization and backlash social movements. The pressures of globalization draw them out of villages into factories and export processing zones, breaking down age-old patterns of female subordination and isolation. Local patriarchs, losing economic and political power to global forces, see this breakdown of the traditional family as the most disturbing aspect of globalization, the place where they must reassert control or lose everything. The women are caught in an intolerable contradiction, pulled at once towards a commercialized future and pushed back into a traditional past.
            Women writers—feminist writers—express this contradiction in vivid, memorable language and, by articulating the issues, make other women more aware. But, by doing so, they become the targets of traditionalists, who see feminists as the most vulnerable symbol of the modernity that is destroying their power and their way of life.
II. The History of Women's WORLD
            Women's WORLD formed in 1994 to protect women writers under attack and to amplify their voices. The feminist network that became Women's WORLD began to organize in the United States, where our confidence that women were making progress was jarred in 1986, at an International PEN Congress in New York. (International PEN is a world writers' organization founded after World War I.) Norman Mailer, then President of PEN American Center, had told the press this Congress would bring together "the best writers in the world," and it became a media event, occupying the front page of The New York Times every day. This is not normal in the United States, where literature is normally confined to the back pages of newspapers. But writers attending the Congress found that "the best writers in the world" appeared to be almost all white men from Europe and North America. Out of nearly 120 speakers, only 13 were women. For American women writers, this was disturbing partly because there had been a strong feminist presence in our country for twenty years; we felt as though we were being swept back into the 1950s. Two hundred of us held a spontaneous lunchtime meeting in the hotel ballroom;; we developed a petition to circulate among our fellow writers, gave a press conference, and refused to leave the hall until we were granted speakers at the closing assembly.
            We went on to organize a Women's Committee in PEN American Center. Grace Paley and I were its first co-chairs. Though there was some opposition at first, our committee organized such brilliant, well-attended literary events that within a year or two we were considered a credit to PEN. A number of members of the Women's Committee were elected to the board of PEN American Center, and, in 1989, I was made a Vice President and sent to an International PEN Congress in the Netherlands. The small number of women delegates there indicated a need for some feminist organizing, and a few of us came together around the idea of starting a Women Writers' Committee in International PEN. International PEN was then led by a small group of elderly European men whose views on the subject were summed up by one French Vice President, "I love women, they are my muse, but why a committee?" Still, by the time of the 1991 International PEN Congress in Vienna, we had convinced the majority of delegates that a Women Writers' Committee would be a good thing. The birth of the Women Writers' Committee was the first of many changes that have since come to International PEN, including new leadership and a reformed constitution.
            I served as founding Chair of the International PEN Women Writers' Committee between 1991 and 1994, a period when the number of feminist writers being persecuted seemed to be on the rise, as did the seriousness of their cases. In 1993, Svetlana Alexievich, a brilliant Belarussian oral historian who broke the story in Russia of what the army was doing in Afghanistan, was put on trial by the military. In 1993 and 1994, the "Five Croatian Witches," charged by the Zagreb gutter press with insufficient nationalism, were subjected to a "trial by public opinion," which eventually drove three into exile. In 1994 and 1995, Taslima Nasrin, whose book Shame exposed persecution of Bangladesh's Hindu minority, was indicted by the government for offending the views of religious Moslems and put under death threat by Islamist politicians. She went into hiding, and people in International PEN, including the Women Writers' Committee, played a role in getting her to safety in Sweden.
            The rising influence of virulent nationalism and political fundamentalism illustrated by these cases convinced a group of us that a new organization was needed to pursue a more aggressively feminist program on women's right to free expression than was possible in PEN. At feminist book fairs and conferences, we had made contact with writers and publishers from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, who were not in PEN and wanted to work on issues of gender-based censorship. In 1994, Paula Giddings, Ninotchka Rosca, and I incorporated the Women's World Organization for Rights, Literature, and Development. We held a founding meeting that fall. Those present were Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Marjorie Agosin (Chile/USA), Lucy Friedman (USA), Paula Giddings (USA), Aicha Lemsine (Algeria), Ritu Menon (India), Ninotchka Rosca (Philippines), Mariella Sala (Peru), and I; Grace Paley agreed to be the first Chair of our Board of Directors.
            Our first project was to write down our analysis of gender-based censorship and the changing world situation in a pamphlet, The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship, and Voice,  which we brought to the UN's Beijing Conference on Women. We then began to try to imagine a program that would be both local and international. Because our resources were very small—for much of our history I have been the only staff member—we decided to work on the basis of partnerships with local organizations. We began to outline a strategy for this in 1996, at our first world conference on gender-based censorship, held at the Rockefeller Foundation's Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. We now have partnerships forming or underway in Albania, Argentina, Ghana, India, Italy, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Uganda, and the United States, as well as an international program consisting of defense and support work in individual cases of censorship, coordination of regional programs, and the development of publications and a website. All these programs address the intersection of gender and censorship, which we define more broadly than do most human rights organizations.
III. Gender-based Censorship
            We define censorship as any means by which ideas and works of art that express views not in accord with the dominant ideology are prevented from reaching their intended audience. Every society has some degree of censorship, which it carries out by its normal means of social organization and control. In a military dictatorship, censorship is exercised by the military; in a communist country, by the state; in a market-driven society, by market forces, though the state may have to intercede if these do not suffice.
            Gender-based censorship, as we see it, is much broader and more pervasive than official, organized suppression. It is embedded in a range of social mechanisms that mute women's voices, deny validity to their experience, and exclude them from political discourse. Its purpose is to obscure the real conditions of women's lives and the injustice of patriarchal gender relations. It strives to intimidate women writers, targeting women who don't know their place in order to silence the rest. While some of those who silence women writers are government officials or religious fanatics, other forces of censorship are parents who think it doesn't pay to invest in a girl's education, teachers who discourage girls from having ambitions beyond motherhood, publishers who don't think it worth their while to publish books by women, and critics who are unable to take work by women seriously. Such pressures from one's family or closest associates can lead to the most pervasive form of censorship, self-censorship, that holding back inside when one cannot face the consequences of speaking the truth—consequences that can range from loss of love to causing pain to being thrown in jail, pushed into exile, or killed.
            Gender-based censorship can also be seen in the economic and political priorities that mandate widespread female illiteracy. The terrible illiteracy in which so many of our sisters are kept is not simply an unintended consequence of poverty and overwork; it is a social mechanism designed to perpetuate discrimination and deny women a public voice. Attacks on female education are a manifestation of the same agenda.
            The rise of atavistic social movements means that open gender-based censorship is becoming increasingly visible in the world today. But that does not mean it is a phenomenon only found in traditional societies. North America and Europe, too, have their own ways of muting the voices of those who protest, methods that combine traditionalism with the new power of globalization. The United States provides an advanced example of this combination of pressures.
IV. Gender and Censorship in the United States
            While women in the United States have overcome most obvious barriers to publication of their books and recognition of their literary achievements, ancient patterns persist: major literary prizes generally go to men; there is still a tendency to treat literature by women as being of a different, lower order; and women authors who violate taboos still tend to be discussed in terms of their morals, if not, indeed, their appearance. But these patterns of gender-discrimination are relatively minor irritations compared to two factors affecting all US writers: the concentration of the publishing industry in a few hands, and the culture war against all the ideas of the sixties.
            In the last fifteen years, US publishing has been transformed from a relatively broad and diverse industry, marked by many independent, medium-sized presses, to an industry dominated by three multinational media corporations. Most publishing resources are now concentrated in the hands of these corporations, which are entirely ruled by commercial values and a culture of celebrity. In this world, brand-name writers are marketed as commodities, and pre-publication tie-ins between books and other media are increasingly sought; literary or socially conscious authors lack commercial interest or are considered passé; while poets and radicals have become endangered species outside the university. New, small presses are springing up to fill the vacuum, but differences of scale and resources make it difficult for them to compete with the hegemony of the corporate giants.
            An additional difficulty, for feminist writers at least, is the culture war waged for the last twenty years by right-wing ideologues with enormous access to money and to the media. These conservative intellectuals are particularly worried about changes in the position of women, minorities, and homosexuals; they launch campaigns against any book with a progressive agenda in these areas. In the resulting climate of political backlash, publishers may prefer to publish "post-feminists," particularly since these can often find their own funding from right-wing Institutes. Conservative groups also attack feminist books for children and try to remove sex education materials from the public school system. One of my own books, Families, was removed from the first-grade curriculum of the state of Virginia after a campaign by the Christian Coalition; it was then dropped by its publisher. Right-wing groups also attack women's studies, gay studies, affirmative action, and sex education programs at the community college and university level.
            The same conservative lobby has successfully pressed for cuts in all federal spending on social services, particularly welfare and education. This means that the poor are increasingly denied the education necessary to gain access to publication, the media, and a public voice. Such economic censorship feels so natural that it is not even recognized as such; in the years of debate over welfare, for instance, almost no one who actually receives welfare has ever become a media spokesperson; women on welfare are routinely represented by others, and this is so normal no one remarks upon their lack of voice. Economic censorship, which functions by denying access to adequate education, intersecting with a public information system entirely controlled by commercial interests, has effectively excluded the voices of large parts of the population: the poor, minority groups of all kinds, and anyone whose ideas challenge the reign of the almighty dollar. Since the majority of the poor are women and children, one aspect of this exclusion is gender discrimination.
V. The World of Thought and Action

            In her book Cassandra, Christa Wolf reminds us that Athena, the goddess of abstract thought, was not born of woman but sprang full grown from the forehead of her father Zeus. She asks, what would "the history of thought" have been like if it had come from some place other than the head of a male god? What would it have been like if women had helped to shape it? Until very recently, political thought in particular has been almost entirely the work of a small group of privileged men, emerging from their life experience and vision. Most of the human race has been excluded even from literacy, let alone participation and voice. This should be remembered when politicians invoke "our people's sacred traditions," or "our ancestral culture."
            Despite the fact that feminists have been organizing for a couple of centuries, an extremely small number of women have had the time and social space to develop their ideas to the level of abstraction required by "the history of thought." Few women's movements have even been able to sum up their experiences, raise them to the level of strategic thinking, and transmit them to the next generation. Over and over, feminist movements have arisen, won some changes, and been swept aside by a tide of conservative reaction, their achievements washed away like writing in the sand, buried in inarticulate memory and obscure archives, to remain out of print until another feminist upsurge starts the process over again. If this has been true of the movements of educated women, it has been a thousand times more true of the movements of grassroots, working, and peasant women, who have kept few written records. Our organizations did not last, and the lessons of our work were not summed up and passed down, so each generation of feminists has had to re-invent the wheel. People who are re-inventing the wheel seldom reach the point of strategic thinking.
            Globalization has increased women's burdens by making subsistence more difficult. But it has also begun to create the conditions for transcendence, conditions that may permit the global women's movement to overcome its historic limitations and to reach a new stage of development. For most of human history, too few women were literate to preserve the experience of women's popular movements. Recording, describing, analyzing demands a substantial number of women who can read and write. Despite the still dismal literacy statistics, and the cutbacks due to globalization, more of the world's women can read and write than ever before. As our writing and thinking accumulates, it reaches a strategic mass; finally, there will simply too much stuff to wash away.
            And if feminism is buried in one country, it can be preserved in another, for we are now a global movement; we can help one another survive. This was not true to the same degree for past feminists; the suffrage movement and women's labor movements of the early twentieth century tried to link up internationally, but were hampered by lack of funds and very slow communications, and overwhelmed by two world wars. Today, despite our fragmentation, we are learning to wage global campaigns. Linked by modern communications technology, we can begin to imagine having many bases in the same struggle.
            We can even imagine strategizing together, for we are learning long-term strategic ways of thinking to which we have had little access in the past. Men, working in business, accumulating estates, serving in military campaigns, even leading sports teams, had occasion to think strategically, to make long-range plans, to build organizations that could outlive them. But, until very recently, women were barred from such activities; we could not accumulate capital or order armies. Most of us worked in subsistence agriculture and handicrafts, childcare and household management, low-level mercantile activity, garment or food production for small local markets. In our centuries of small-scale work, we developed habits of thinking that emphasized cultural transmission, frugality, the value of human life, the importance of human relations. The end of a separate economic sphere for women, the penetration of women into government, business, sports, and even the military, has opened up new sources of experiential knowledge; we can combine what we already know with macro, long term, strategic methods of thinking previously monopolized by men. And by combining and interrogating these methods of thought, we will transform them.
VI. Our Mission and the Global Women's Movement
            The global women's movement today is larger, more international, broader, better educated, and more able to think strategically than ever before. It has the potential to learn how to defend women against both globalization and the backlash movements that attack us. But at the moment, this is only potential, because we lack what we need most--a clear and compelling vision and strategic plan. In fact, we have not one but many global women's movements:
  • The international women's health movement, whose victories are enshrined in the documents that emerged from UN conferences in Cairo in 1994 and Beijing in 1995—although the gains of these documents represent have proven more difficult to win in practice.
  • The international movement for women's human rights, which has forced mainstream human rights organization to recognize that violence against women—including rape and domestic violence—are human rights violations.
  • The movement of women in economic development, which has changed the lives of many poor women.
  • The international movement for political representation, which has focused on women's legal rights and on getting more women into positions in government.
  • The international environmental movement and peace movement, both led by women activists in many regions, with feminist caucuses within them.
            While each of these movements has made enormous gains, they go their separate ways, working on their own issues, with no overall vision or strategy to unite them. There is not even any global forum or publication where such strategic debates might take place. And culture is a missing link in their discussions. Although culture is the terrain on which most of our struggle with traditionalists takes place, it is a curiously neglected aspect of women's emancipation in terms of program. We talk of economic development, health care, equality, human rights, the environment, and peace—but women need more than bare survival, more than political representation, more than clean water and the absence of war. In 1912, during a textile workers' strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, immigrant women first raised the slogan, "We want bread and roses too!" Nobody in the women's movement talks about roses anymore. This is a mistake, for, in the words of Mariella Sala, "sustainable development, political equality and peace must be based on full human development. . . . art and culture are therefore strategic questions."
            One purpose of Women's WORLD is to put roses—free expression and cultural development—on the agenda of the global women's movement. Women writers must make sure this happens for we cannot do without it. In order to do so, women writers need four things:
  • Land: We need our own spaces, all over the world, "rooms of our own," both real and virtual; safe places where we can come together to read, write, study, and talk; where we can say things nobody has ever said before because there was no place to say them.
  • Money: We need money of our own with which to build and save our work and our lives, money that is fluid enough to move from one country to another if things get dangerous. The situation in the world today is so unstable that any country could change completely in just a few years. We must preserve our ideas.
  • Organization: We need local, regional, and international networks in order to overcome our isolation, strengthen our voices, and make it harder for our enemies to silence us or suppress our work. We need to work in coalitions with other women's organizations and other free speech organizations.
  • Voice: We need our own media to make our voices heard: presses, journals, radio and television networks, and internet and distribution networks to ensure that our work will reach its intended audience. We also need access to mainstream media, so we are not marginalized.
VII. A Vision
            Ten years ago, in 1989, when I started doing international work, I had a vision. It came at a dark time in my life, when I was trying to find a way to leave my second husband. I had no money, no home, two children to take care of, and I was not doing much saleable writing because I was so obsessed with building an international network. One evening, sitting alone in my room, almost in despair, I asked myself, "Why am I doing this? Am I out of my mind?" And I had a vision.
            I saw a lake in the middle of a dark forest made up of fir trees, a kind of tree that grows in the northern parts of my country. In a forest of fir trees, nothing else can live. They sap and devitalize the soil, growing so close together there isn't room for anything else. In a forest of firs, no light gets through; the air is close and stuffy, and nothing moves.
            In the middle of this forest, there was a lake, clear, blue, and absolutely still. No fish, frogs, or birds disturbed its surface. It was like a pane of glass. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a pebble dropped into the middle of the lake, and ripples began to spread. Beyond all reason, the ripples spread further and further, growing more powerful as they grew larger, until they reached the shore, where the fir trees grew almost to the edge of the water. But the ripples didn't stop at the water's edge, they spread onto the land, and, as they spread, some of the trees began to fall.
            It was like watching one of those slow-motion films where you see a flower grow; everything seemed to be happening very quickly, though I knew it must actually be taking a long time. As the trees vanished, the sun shone in; winds blew; the air became clean; the water seemed to sparkle. I heard the buzz of insects; plants and wild flowers sprang up in the clearing; then other kinds of trees: oak, maple, crab apple, chestnut, rowan, flowering sumac. Rabbits and squirrels appeared, and robins and blue jays; a deer came down to the water to drink; ducks and geese floated on the lake; herons dipped their beaks; fish jumped. The place had come alive.
            And I said to myself, "What does this mean?" As soon as I asked the question, I knew the answer. The trees are the words of men. The ripples are the words of women. And we—the conscious ones, the ones who want to change the world—we are the pebble.