If Women Hold Up Half the Sky, Why Are They Not Heard?

In 1980, China had paid lip service to women by saying “women hold up half the sky.” Yet when the United Nations declared the 1980’s “The Decade of Women,” we wondered if things were any different here versus elsewhere?

While men of one nation squared off against men of another nation, the women’s stake in the struggle seemed different and even vague. Is a woman whose rights are denied in the name of Islam all that different from a woman whose rights are denied in the name of Christ? When men are the exclusive interpreters of authority, be it religious or secular, do women feel a stake in the outcome?

Fundamentalism is fundamentalism and one of the fundamentals of fundamentalism is that women are fundamentally at the bottom of the heap. Why is that so? God, who conveniently is a “man,” said so. How do we know? A person of authority, coincidentally also a man, interpreted it in that way.

True enough, womankind is not monolithic, yet women in the third and fourth world whose husbands beat them are not so different from women in the first and second world whose husbands beat them. Domestic violence is not the only issue. Lack of education. Poverty. Caring for children. Reproductive rights. These are issues that unite women more than national boarders divide them.

We say we have it better than our mothers and our daughters have it better than we did. This statement has the virtue of being true. In the United States more women are entering the professions-doctors, lawyers, accountants, and political leaders. Yet, surprisingly, many are not progressive and more than a few are reactionary. We wonder why the label “feminist” is no longer in vogue. There are many reasons, but some are of our own doing.

I am reminded of one of the most pivotal moments in the film “Gandhi.” Just back from fighting for rights in South Africa, he is still a relative unknown in India. Gandhi makes a speech before the Congress Party, which is demanding home rule and freedom from British rule.

Gandhi: Here we make speeches for each other, and those English liberal magazines that may grant us a few lines. But the people of India are untouched. Their politics are confined to bread and salt. Illiterate they may be, but they are not blind. They see no reason to give their loyalty to rich and powerful men who simply want to take over the role of the British in the name of freedom. This Congress tells the world it represents India. My brothers, India is seven hundred thousand “villages” not a few hundred lawyers in Delhi and Bombay. Until we stand in the fields with the millions who toil each day under the hot sun, we will not represent India, nor will we ever be able to challenge the British as one nation.

So it has been for women in their struggle for equality, hoping liberal magazines may grant us a few lines or as it is said, “hoping to be mentioned, even if inaccurately.”

In the summer of 1979, a group of media women gathered at the National Press Club in Washington DC at an all day conference. We discussed how isolated we felt not only from each other, but from women whose struggles were much the same as ours, yet who lived outside our boarders.

One of our number, Rhoda Epstein, set up a demonstration. It was not yet called the Internet. It was still called ARPANET, but one of our number had a computer which connected by telephone lines to another computer-this one in New York. We crowded around at the breakout sessions to see how two people might communicate-long distance, no less!-using local lines to get a message out. It funneled through Electronic Information and Education-EIES-linked through the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In it, we saw the future!

We could not have been any more thrilled than had it been a message from extraterrestrials.

It was not long before I wrangled a property pass from Hewlett-Packard to borrow and take home one of their small, obsolete, desk computers. On Labor Day, five of us met in Boston, behind the glass French doors of my sun porch office, to try out our new found technology.

A photo was snapped at the time and it survives.

What a world on ARPANET. There were forums on EIES and people were exchanging ideas, not just women issues, either. There were men, too. The conversation sizzled about politics and technology, and what was happening in the world. The data fired back and forth-all at 300 baud.

At the same time Donna Allen and The Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, WIFP, organized a teleconference around the World Conference of Women of the U.N. Decade for Women in Copenhagen. Terribly expensive, WIFP got the satellite time. Words like “uplink” and “downlink” and “satellite feed” became part of our active vocabulary. Using the same technology and hardware used by the major media, people half a world away were conferencing.

To be sure, the idea of virtual conferencing or telecommunication was not unknown. What had happened, however, was that women had seized upon it. Like the seven hundred thousand “village” of which Gandhi spoke, we realized we had far more in common with each other than we thought.

We all struggled in a world where dialog was largely shaped by media. The media was controlled largely by corporations or governments. These corporations and governments were almost exclusively run by men and what women there were in those governments, they subscribed to the agenda that the leaders put forth in the name of the people.

Perhaps for the first time people could speak across the divide.

That was 25 years ago. It seems only like yesterday.

We can see so far because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

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