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Thoughts From Different Conferences

Ulla Eberhard of Germany recently sent a questionnaire to previous participants of WRI Women’s Conferences (France, 1976; Scotland, 1980; Ireland, 1987) in order to gain a historical view of the conferences. The results of some of the interviews were published in the German magazine on nonviolence “Graswurzelrevolution”. Here are some excerpts:

“The idea for the second conference was born at the WRI Triennial in Sonderborg in 1979. We had a Commission on Women and Militarism that met every day, and as we shared our stories about the difficulties facing women in the peace movement, the need for a conference to break women’s isolation seemed very important…

There were a lot of questions about whether this was really the kind of work WRI should be doing and why the conference had to be women-only…

“I was the US contact and I think about 8-10 women from the States attended. It was more of a casual gathering than a structured conference. Some US and German women talked the first night about how unstructured it was and how it might be helpful to put together an agenda to propose to the whole group. So they worked into the night… But when they made their presentation the next morning, the rest of the women were FURIOUS. They said, “How American, how German, and how male-like, for you to structure something and then bring it to the rest of us, rather than letting us all work together this morning on producing a common agenda.” I heard from the US women that this was very consciousness-raising for them. It certainly caused them to be a bit more subdued in their style during the conference, but I think most of them still enjoyed it.

“However, this story had some repercussions for the Ireland conference that were not as satisfying. The US participants had all heard the agenda story many times. The Ireland conference was also relatively casual and some US women had problems with this, but felt it was unacceptable for them to talk about their discomforts out loud or suggest agenda changes. Consequently, I think some of them stayed together in a small clique and never really became part of the gathering.

“I guess the lessons in all this is that when we face cultural differences in our groups, and we take steps to make sure that women from the South have a voice, we also need to make sure that the women from the Western and traditionally dominant cultures feel safe as well…

“In working on this (Thailand) conference, I have become more worried that the women’s conferences have very little effect on WRI’s politics. What has happened is that because these are women-only events, we are given the resources and left to work on them with other WRI women. But that means that the issues never touch the lives of the WRI men, nor the WRI in general. We are off on the side, meeting and planning. We are not stirring up change in the full organisation. We will always need women’s conferences every few years, but I think we need to begin strategizing how we are going to integrate feminist thinking into the mixed organisation. This is a job we have barely begun…”