Bella Abzug, Women’s Environment and Development Organization
Lynn Cutler, public member,
US delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women
Theresa Loar, member, US delegation
Kathleen Hendrix, member, US delegation
Judith Heumann, member, US delegation
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
BELLA ABZUG: They used to only give us a day. It was called International Women’s Day.
Then they gave us a year—1975—this is the United Nations. Then they decided to give us a Decade
for Women, from 1975-1985, where we had the three conferences. I said at the time, maybe, if we
behave, they may let us into the whole thing.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: Former US Congresswoman Bella Abzug was one of 40,000 women at last
fall’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. During this edition of Common
Ground, we begin a two-part series on what’s happening in the United States as a result of
ABZUG: Our struggle is not just about advancing women’s equality, though that is
important, nor do women want power for power’s sake. Our struggle is about creating violence-free
families, free cities, and borders; about building communities, not just markets. Our struggle is
about ending poverty and hunger by one out of five people on the planet, our struggle is about
creating sustainable lives and obtainable dreams; our struggle is about justice and peace.
DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
The United Nations began holding its series of conferences on women twenty years ago. And I
talked to Bella Abzug after a recent speech in the Midwest about the impact those conferences
have had on the past two decades of the women’s movement.
ABZUG: Women in the South, which means the developing countries, are fighting for their
lives. Their struggle is for food, for water, for environment, for human rights, for
participation, for education, for jobs, and for a sense of security. And they are organized very
heavily. In fact, I have secured perhaps my greatest enthusiasm from working with women in the
developing countries to see how strongly they are organized to take care of their problems. When
we went to our first conference on women in Mexico City, it was very different in a sense it was
felt that some of the women who came from industrialized countries (the Northern countries) were
trying to tell people in the developing countries how to live and try to help them—which was
considered patronizing, condescending, and inaccurate. Now, those women are organized themselves.
DAVIDSON: While in Beijing, women from nongovernmental organizations exchanged valuable
information about their work—promoting health, education, economic opportunity, and preventing
violence against women. Just as important, says Bella Abzug, was the official document from the
conference, the Platform of Action, which was adopted by 189 countries.
ABZUG: It’s a statement of what really is needed. A human statement as to what is needed
for women to improve their lives, to improve the lives of girls. You heard a lot here about
education, about literacy. The conference also dealt with violence, which is a very serious
problem in this country. There’s violence in the home; there’s violence in the streets; and of
course, there is violence in the borders which affect everybody when there is war and conflict.
There are tremendous peacekeeping suggestions in which governments and the United Nations are
mandated to have women at the peace table. Now, that’s brand new. If we could establish peace for
the world, we would have fewer problems in our own country. There is much discussion about
decision making and that women should participate on all levels equally with men in making
decisions in our lives. That would improve the atmosphere in this country and probably improve
There is much discussion about human rights, which we see violations of every single day. There’s
a great deal of discussion about health and reproductive rights and women having the need to be
the focus of determining their own reproductive decisions. It’s a very strong agenda for people,
ordinary people. It’s the mirror opposite, this consensus agreement, of the Contract for America
of Mr. Gingrich. We’re back here in order to speak for what we know and also for the many
millions of women that we represent who want to see to it that there is a different atmosphere in
this country in which we don’t attack the elderly, we don’t attack the poor, we don’t attack
young people, we don’t attack women and people of color—which is exactly what is happening. That
was the consensus that 189 countries agreed to, which dealt with the real problems of people who
work, the problems of people in the home, and the problems of people in the community. The
problems that are being dealt with in the Contract for America is an insult and an assault on
America, and we have to remedy it.
DAVIDSON: The Clinton administration sent an official delegation to the Beijing
conference, which negotiated with other government representatives about the content of the
Platform of Action, and they announced the administration’s commitments to women in the United
States. Lynn Cutler, the former Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, was a member of
the delegation. She says UN documents like the Platform of Action don’t have any enforcement
mechanisms, but they’re important nonetheless.
LYNN CUTLER: Most nations, unless they’re totally crazy like Libya or someplace, care a
lot about what the rest of the world thinks of them. There is a moral suasion in having a country
say that women shall have the right to inherit. Most of the Muslim world, since time immemorial,
has not allowed the inheritance of any goods to women in the family, because the understanding
was that the boys would take care of the girls. Which, of course, often did not happen. It gives
those women something to go home and use as a tool. That’s all the document can be, is a tool, a
statement of principle, a moral document that gives people the weapons to fight. Some women went
home from Beijing and probably faced immediate imprisonment for their activities there.
We were rejoicing in the fact that we were able to get into the Platform a woman’s right to say
“no.” A woman and a girl. The girl has the right to say no to improper sexual advances, whether
it’s her father or somebody on the street. A married woman whose husband has AIDS has the right
to refuse him. In most of these countries where this is such a humongous problem, the women do
not have the right of refusal.
We ended up with a terrific document. This document was geared toward action after Nairobi, which
was a statement of problems at the conference ten years ago in ’85, the Third World Conference.
These conferences are important, because they help to enforce among women the feeling that they
can make a difference. Some of these women came to this conference at peril to their lives,
literally. After going home, they were watched and carefully followed. These conditions are
foreign to us here in the United States, but are experienced to some extent in China.
There is a great feeling of solidarity that comes from this, and support is very important. We
don’t, by any means, go in as though we’ve got all the answers; because we don’t. Sure, it’s much
better for us than it is for most of the nations of the world, but not as good as some of the
European and other countries. We went to be helpful, to play a leadership role as the United
States should, and we were able to affect the Platform in many ways.
Ambassador Geraldine Ferraro, ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights, achieved some
great breakthroughs on the human rights language. That all was easier after the first lady’s
speech, because she really laid down the benchmark. When Mrs. Clinton stood up and said, “human
rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” the whole tenor of the
conference became clear. People took great heart from that, to have the first lady of the United
States stand up and articulate not only that, but then in some detail the specific
problems—female genital mutilation, the bride dowries issue, sex slavery. All of these things
are hard for us to understand in this country. Little girls literally wait until the boys are
through eating before they’re thrown any scraps from the table. They have little value in their
families and in their societies.
If we can help these women to have courage to go back and effect change in their countries, we
will have done a great deal.
DAVIDSON: Are there things that you, as a member of the official US delegation, gained
insight into work within the United States from the Third World?
CUTLER: One of the great strengths that we derived from the other women, for me
personally, certainly was the new sense of commitment based on the courage that many of these
women have to get through their life every day. Which, of course, is a challenge. It’s a big one
for many women in America, single moms trying to get through and keep their head above water and
take care of their kids and earn a living and all the rest of it.
There is a great deal you take from those women. In addition, in the area of microeconomic
development. It was very exciting to learn about this. Women in many of these countries with $50
or $100 open up a little fruit stand, and they become the entrepreneur and the breadwinner. It
makes an incredible difference, and they almost never default on their loans. They work very
hard, and everybody who’s in international finances now come to full recognition that investment
in women is the best investment they can make.
You can compare that to what’s happening in the States, where most of the new small businesses
are being started by women. Eighty percent of all our new jobs are in small businesses. We talked
in our commitments about the fact that the president has led the Small Business Administration to
increase. There’s something like a 70 percent increase in the number of loans to women starting
small businesses in this country.
In addition, we have made a huge commitment on domestic violence, which the president again
started. It was bipartisan. This is a problem that cuts across every income guideline, across
every socioeconomic level, and across all countries. As one woman said to me in South America,
“if I’m not free from violence in my own home, how can I say I’m free? What difference does
democracy make to me if I go home and my husband brutally assaults me?” That’s an issue women in
this country face too often, unfortunately.
One of the other initiatives that our government is undertaking is a partnership appeal by the
Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor. Trying to get more and more businesses to partner with
family-friendly policies—flextime, child care provisions in these larger companies—the kinds of
things that enable families to work and to succeed with as little stress as possible. Our family
and medical leave legislation, which was the first bill the president signed, went a long way to
helping families. It’s not as good as most of the bills in Europe.
DAVIDSON: Because that’s an unpaid 12 weeks guaranteed for companies that have a minimum
of 50 employees.
CUTLER: Right. We came back, and the main reservation we took on the document was the
fact that we did not have money for new programs. Most of us when we started this process didn’t
know we were going to be fighting so hard to hold on to what we have. It’s a very, very difficult
and ironic position to be in at this time.
DAVIDSON: As far as the US government’s list of commitments, where do they stand now as
far as being carried out; and how much is dependent on future funding?
CUTLER: Where we can, without money, the government has made a whole series of public
policy initiatives, put them into place or are looking at putting them into place. There really
is almost nothing that requires new money, because we know that we don’t have it. Also, the
president, on August 26, while most of us were either in Beijing or getting ready to go,
announced on Women’s Equality Day the formation of the White House Interagency Council on Women,
which is to exist for a year in the White House to carry forward on the US commitments in the
Beijing document and to focus the government on the problems of women and their families.
It was interesting in the preparation for the conference to see how much already happened just in
preparing. Because as we said to each of these agencies give us a list of the things you’re
doing. They had to focus and look at it. It was amazing how much it brought these issues to the
forefront. The most fundamental piece of all of this, implementing the Platform of Action or
implementing anything, is for people to understand that there is a connection between the things
you care about profoundly and deeply—whether it’s children, elderly, the environment, or war and
peace—and who is sitting in city hall, the mayor’s office, county government, state legislature,
the governor’s office, congress, or the president’s office. There is a very real connection. In
35 years, I’ve never met an issue that is not somehow affected by who is sitting in government.
Once you know that, then whatever your values are, whatever your issues are, you are almost
compelled to come into the democratic process—register to vote, see what people stand for, vote,
participate, make change.
DAVIDSON: We’re talking on this edition of Common Ground about the US follow-up to
the Fourth World Conference on Women held last August and September in Beijing, China. We’ve
heard so far from Bella Abzug, former member of Congress and cofounder of the Women’s Environment
and Development Organization; and Lynn Cutler, a member of the official US delegation to the
Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage
dialogue on world affairs.
My next guest was also a member of the US delegation to last year’s meeting in China. She is
Theresa Loar from the US State Department. She served as director of the Global Conference
Secretariat and is a member of the president’s new Interagency Council on Women. Theresa Loar
says the Clinton administration won’t be walking away from the commitments to women that it made
THERESA LOAR: We’ll be working closely with the public and the vast NGO community to
figure out the best way to communicate what we’re doing and also to decide how we’re going to do
it and what efforts and initiatives we should be pursuing. The commitments that the US government
brought to Beijing were just the first steps in what our government can and will do, and the
further steps in the additional initiatives that we undertake will be driven a lot by the NGO
DAVIDSON: So far the administration has made commitments to women in eight areas, one of
those is education. Judy Heumann is assistant secretary of the US Department of Education, and
she is that department’s representative to the Interagency Council on Women.
JUDITH HEUMANN: I am the assistant secretary of the Department of Education in
Washington, DC, for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. I also was a
member of the Beijing delegation. For me, the participation in the Beijing conference was
tremendously exciting. There were about 200 disabled women from around the world who participated
in the NGO meeting and about 15 who participated as part of governmental delegations. It was the
first time that the disabled women’s community was being seen as concerned about the variety of
issues that women across the world were addressing.
The main thrust of why the women were there was really to say that issues in the area of
education, health care, violence, the environment, etc. are issues that affect disabled girls and
women. We don’t want to see issues affecting disabled girls and women as a part of a separate
agenda. As far as the next steps are concerned, both in the Department of Education, we have a
very strong commitment to moving forward on implementation of the agenda. It’s also fair to say
that we are very concerned about proposals that are coming forward in the Congress right now on
issues like Medicaid and Medicare that will adversely affect our ability to constructively move
this agenda forward and will have a very negative impact on children in general—girls, women,
older women—and will make it much more difficult for us in reality to allow what we believe to
be a very positive Platform to be appropriately implemented.
LOAR: The US commitment is really to the whole Platform. We did bring a series of
commitments that affect the whole range of women’s lives, setting up the president’s Interagency
Council was one of the commitments. There are commitments in the area of working women, where the
Department of Labor has established and is developing an honor roll of organizations and
companies that are making real efforts to improve the lives of women at the workplace as a way of
helping them to balance work and family.
The Department of Justice now has a separate office that was set up by the crime bill. It’s been
in operation for a year now. The president highlighted this in October when he announced that
October would be National Domestic Violence Awareness month, and there was a lot of press
attention paid to that. That’s one of the first obvious bringing Beijing home events. There also
was a commitment from the president to educate employees at all the federal agencies about
violence against women and the resources that are available. That training is starting already.
In the area of women and economic security, the Department of Treasury is establishing an awards
program to honor the microcredit small, lending programs that are happening around the country.
That is just the first step in the overall microcredit program. Overseas, the US Agency for
International Development is working on that very same issue.
In the area of health, I know Health and Human Services has made a number of commitments such as
KATHLEEN HENDRIX: Teenage pregnancy, how to prevent teenage pregnancy.
DAVIDSON: This is Kathleen Hendrix from the State Department who also serves on the
president’s Council on Women.
HENDRIX: A real program they’re going to go on to reducing smoking among young people.
Their commitments, if you track them, that they have listed thus far, have an overall lifespan
approach. There is something at every level of the lifespan where they are concentrating on
issues that affect women and ending with an overall emphasis on research, using women in a
clinical as being part of a clinical sample trial.
The Department of Education, since we have come back from Beijing, has announced several
initiatives that they’re taking. One of them is going to be an advocacy for leadership for young
women. I am not familiar with the details of how they’re going to go about this. The commitments
that were announced in Beijing were actions that the federal government knew it could take that
were related to the Platform, which it could take right away. Sometimes people confuse it and
think that that’s what we’re going to do. That’s what we’re going to do right now. We expect all
year long to be finding ways to, even without new resources, implement the Platform. A lot of
that is going to come from nongovernmental organizations who have the issues that they’re working
on. Who are familiar with the issues and the Platform or who get familiar with the issues and the
Platform; and using that Platform as a springboard to be in contact with their government to say,
can’t we do this now? Part of it is programmatic, policy change, and part of it would perhaps
require new legislation.
So they’re going to have to work with the entire government at all levels—at the federal level,
legislative and executive level, at the state level, at the local level—to come up with
initiatives. So when we say commitment, we’re talking about something much broader than the steps
we announced in Beijing itself.
HENDRIX: We plan to institutionalize the changes. It’s all fine and wonderful and
rewarding to go to a conference and to come back and say you’re going to do this and that. But to
institutionalize the changes so that three, four, five, six years down the road these initiatives
are put in place are part of the way government does business and not a flash in the pan or some
fleeting idea or some program that seems attractive to somebody who was in office at the time.
One of the changes we hope to initiate is to make each of the federal agencies more responsive to
the nongovernmental community. We at the State Department in preparing for Beijing made a real
extensive effort for outreach and involvement of the NGO community in our preparations. We have
far to go for sure, but we will encourage other agencies to pick up on that and expand that. We
hope there’ll be a lot of sharing back and forth on how the federal agencies can bring the
nongovernmental organizations into their process when they’re deciding policy. A lot of this is
going to come out of the Beijing program. Because many American women were activated and
energized by the conference, they are expecting things to happen. They are going to let their
government know that.
ABZUG: We should be sharing the political space at more than 10 percent, which is all we
have now essentially in the Senate and the House of Representatives. We’re not entitled to a lot.
As I always say, we’re not asking for a lot. We only want 50 percent. We want 50 percent of the
political space, we want 50 percent of the economic resources. This is the 50th anniversary of
the United Nations, and we’re at least 50 percent of the population. So we’re asking for
something really quite equitable. [laughter]
In my opinion, the some 5,000 energized women who went to Beijing together with women’s
organizations from all over this county and other movements—such as the men and women in labor,
environment, elderly, youth, people of color, gays and lesbians, etc.—can certainly change the
walk and change the talk.
Sometimes people wonder and ask me why I keep going for so long and how I manage to remain
optimistic. For example, when governments were removing the brackets, which are the points of
disagreement between the official delegates, from the document during the last two weeks of the
Beijing conference, the French tested another nuclear weapon in the Pacific. NATO was bombing
Bosnia, and the Serbs were shelling Serajevo. Refugee camps overflowed in too many places around
the globe. Conditions for women on factory floors did not change. Women died in childbirth and in
their homes. Hunger gnawed at the bellies of millions. The world went on in its downward spiral,
we all know all too well.
In the face of so much pain, and I feel it like you all do, I still remain an incurable optimist.
I’m fueled by the passion of the women I have been privileged to meet and work with, especially
women of the developing countries of the South. I’ve been buoyed by their hopes for peace,
justice, and democracy. I’m strengthened by each of them. To each government delegate who pushed
the boundaries of progress, we have to thank them. I wish each of you well and sustainable
optimism for the days ahead. Never underestimate the importance of what we’re doing here. Never
hesitate to tell the truth, and never ever give in or give up.
DAVIDSON: That was former Congresswoman Bella Abzug speaking to a meeting of American
women about the Fourth World Conference on Women held in 1995 in Beijing, China. In part two of
our series following up the Beijing Conference, we’ll talk to grassroots activists about their
work. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security