WCW at the UN

Research & Action Report Spring/Summer

  In March of 2005, with funding from The Margaret L. Keon International Understanding Initiative, representatives from the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) attended the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) conference in New York. The program focused on two issues: 1) review of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of the special session of the General Assembly, entitled "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century" and 2) current challenges and forward-looking strategies for the advancement and empowerment of women and girls.

Side events throughout the conference were organized by nongovernmental organizations. One such program, "Women's Voices: Contested Territories," a side program co-sponsored by WCW and the Anglican Consultative Council, generated stimulating discussion about who speaks for women, why it matters, and how it shapes public policy. The panel examined the anti-feminist women's movement, the role of faith-based organizations, and the impact of women's social activism.

Moderated by Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D., executive director of WCW, the panel featured presentations by Jean Hardisty, Ph.D., founder and president emerita of Political Research Associates and senior scholar at WCW; the Reverend Margaret Rose, director for Women's Ministries, Episcopal Church, USA; and Avis Jones-DeWeever, study director for Poverty and Income Security at the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR).

Hardisty opened the program by addressing commonalities and subtle differences among three conservative women's groups: the Eagle Forum, representing the traditional view that women's privilege is one of the greatest strengths women possess; Concerned Women for America, organized by the Christian Right and portraying women as spirit-filled; and equality feminists, who abhor all discussion of women as victims, or as needing any special protections.

The common focus shared by these groups, according to Hardisty, is their opposition to the feminist women's movement. Ironically, she states, one of the major themes connecting these groups is their disdain for any discussion of women's victimization, yet these groups identify themselves as voiceless and as victims of a dominant feminist women's movement. Hardisty emphasized the importance of understanding the missions and ideological differences among these right-wing factions.

Reverend Rose continued the program with an examination of women's roles in faith-based organizations, as well as the lack of media coverage of liberal religious perspectives. Rose recalled that the 2003 controversy over the confirmation of a gay bishop revealed that much of the work of women in the church was far from the central arguments being raised by the bishops. Out of 800 official members of the decision-making bodies in the Episcopal Church, only 30 were women, and there was little or no questioning of traditional views of power, masculinity, femininity, women's bodies, or patriarchy in these official bodies. The appointment of a woman observer in the UN Observers Office, however, has made women's issues a top priority for the church and the UN Office. At this year's CSW meeting, a 41-member delegation, representing 26 provinces globally, spoke on HIV/AIDS and issues around trafficking of women.

But Rose noted that what the public is learning is often skewed by the media's lack of comprehensive coverage of religious groups and voices. Rose shared examples of recent news stories about women's and/or religious issues that did not include quotes by women, or referred only to Secular Liberals and the Religious Right, as if there were no other religious voices. Her hope is to have all women's voices heard in churches, in the media, and by the government.

Jones-DeWeever elaborated on this hope by sharing examples of women's programs and projects that have directly affected public policy. She focused on women involved with faith-based organizations and women in low income or otherwise disadvantaged communities, citing a study conducted by IWPR that revealed that most see their social responsibilities tied to their faith. Another commonality among these groups is the struggle with the patriarchal nature of the religion. The progressive women, according to Jones-DeWeever, tend to find the activist women in the Bible, and use them as models to justify what they do. The conservative women acquiesce to the notion that men should take the lead; however, they report that men are not stepping up to the plate and if women don't do the work, it will not get done. Examples of effective, faith-based, and grassroots women's organizations that have influenced public policy include Operation Holy Ground and LIFETIME, whose missions focus on anti-drug campaigns and advocacy for welfare recipients, respectively. These organizations have positively impacted the lives of women and families in their communities.

"Women's Voices: Contested Territories," concluded with comments and questions from the international audience. Discussions focused on several topics including higher education as a more effective anti-poverty measure than marriage promotion; the potential backlash for women in developing countries who use their faith to influence politics; and the correlation between racism, cultural-imperialism, and antifeminism.

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