The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Progress for Girls in Colombia

Susan McGee Bailey In ColombiaClose to half a century has passed since I lived in Bogota, Colombia. In the early 1970s my husband, Jerry, and I had conducted research for our dissertations in there. Jerry’s work explored training pharmacists to provide birth control pills to women in countries where medical prescriptions were not required. My data collection focused on eight-, ten-, and 12-year-old students from different social strata. I was particularly interested in gender differences in their views of citizenship.

After completing our doctoral requirements back in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, our plan had been to live wherever I found a job. I wanted to work on issues related to women’s equality. But it was 1972. It was frowned upon for mothers with young children to work outside the home. I found nothing. My faculty advisors were of no help and uniform in their responses: “Susan, you have a child. Once you and Jerry are settled somewhere you can find a part-time position.”

Jerry was offered his dream job working on family planning with the Population Council in their Bogota office. We returned to Colombia with two-year-old Amy.

Again I searched for work without success. Inspired by Robin Morgan’s 1970 classic, Sisterhood is Powerful, I started a consciousness-raising group. Eventually I accepted a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from John’s Hopkins School of Public Health for work in Cali, Colombia. The project focused on developing sex education materials for junior high-aged students. Discussions in the consciousness-raising group on sexuality and women’s roles had reinforced my sense that women needed to be in charge of our own bodies if we were ever to achieve equality. And sex education was key. All students deserved clear information about the physical and emotional aspects of puberty, sexual relationships, and family life.

Cada Familia WelcomeBut as much as I believed in my work and as much as I loved Colombia—the food, the people, the mountains, majestic and ever changing as clouds and sun played hide and seek—I realized Amy’s physical and developmental challenges required medical care and educational programs unavailable in Colombia. Amy and I left. I was unsure if I would ever return.

This past January I returned for the first time since leaving for the U.S. in 1974 with my daughter, Amy, but without her father. That 1974 journey eventually led me to Wellesley and the Center for Research on Women* a decade later.

Boarding the flight for Colombia in Boston last month, armed with the positive data that 94 percent of girls now complete lower secondary school, and 43 percent of women are in the paid labor force, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Perhaps I’d feel like a modern day Rip Van Winkle—and in many ways I did. Some changes disappointed me—the pollution and urban sprawl in Bogota, the modernization of smaller cities that robbed them of some of their original charm—but others, particularly those related to girls and women, were encouraging.

The small group I traveled with met the first morning for a tour of Bogota. The day started on a happy nMedellinColombia2ote for me. One of the bits of information our guide mentioned as we passed a large public school was that schools were now required to teach sex education to students starting in the early grades. Recalling the opposition our sex education project had encountered years before, I asked if the requirement was enforced or merely a regulation on the books. He smiled. “Well, Senora, I can’t speak for the entire country, but certainly in the big cities and towns it is a regular part of the educational program. The law was passed in 1994.”

Everywhere I turned there were new highways, parks, and museums. Among all the positive changes, the most impressive for me was Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city and the hub of the drug trade in the 1980s and early 1990s. Time magazine had labeled Medellin the most dangerous city in the world in 1988. Fifteen years later, in 2013, The Wall Street Journal dubbed it the world’s most innovative city.

CableTramsColombiaA spectacular cable car/tram system completed in 2010 transports people from the very top of the mountains to the city center. Purposely built to travel through some of the poorer barrios, the system has transformed them from unsavory and dangerous to typical lower middle class neighborhoods. Riders who cannot afford a ticket are asked to bring plastic bags and bottles to recycle in lieu of the fare.

Our group hopped off the tram in the Santo Domingo barrio on our way down the mountain. As we stood at a small plaza taking photos of the city, five girls in their school uniforms walked up, giggling and staring. Our guide talked with them briefly. They wanted to know where we were from. When I replied in Spanish they giggled even harder. The guide asked about their school, their ages, and what they thought they might do when they finished their studies. Their answers were immediate and self-assured: “I’m going to be a doctor!” “Yes, she is, but I’m going to be a surgeon.”

“Are youSantoDomingoBarrio all interested in medicine,” we asked. “No, I’m going to study psychology,” another replied.

The next girl laughed. “Well, I’m going to be a model!” And pointing to the last girl, she added, “She is still thinking, there are lots of things to do, you know!”

After more small talk and much laughter, they left to walk home, but not before pointing out their public school—a large, new-looking building with a playground crowded with soccer games and cheering onlookers. I was near tears as I thought back to the conditions of many of the schools where I had interviewed students decades ago. Then, most girls, unlike the boys, had been shy and uncertain. These eleven- and 12-year-old girls sparkled with self-assurance. Their exuberance was contagious and inspiring.

I returned home more hopeful about the world than I‘ve felt in many months: Sex education in the schools, young women participating in far greater numbers in education and confident in their opportunities, a greater focus on women in the workforce. Struggles remain—e.g., gender violence continues, the situation of Venezuelans seeking refuge in Colombia poses new challenges—but persistence matters. Progress is often slow, but it does happen.

Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D., directed the Wellesley Centers for Women from 1985 to 2011. She is currently completing a memoir, Are We There Yet: The Education of a Feminist. The book weaves 50 years of social change and feminist history with the collision of theory and practice she encountered as a single mother determined to shape a career fighting for equal rights while caring for her physically and developmentally challenged daughter.

* Wellesley College founded the Center for Research on Women in 1974 and the Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies in 1981. The two centers came together in 1995 to form a single organization—the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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Human Rights, Women’s Rights: Plodding Toward Progress

This article, by Susan McGee Bailey, was originally published on the Girl W/ Pen blog on March 20, 2015.

“Fighting for women’s equality is an arduous but necessary process, ploddingly pursued by dedicated women and men who refuse to accept a lesser role for women in society.” Jean Hardisty (1945-2015)

March is Women’s History Month, but the history being made in the U.S. is far from uplifting. Women continue to be an easy batting ball for political impasses. We continue to struggle for basics readily available in most other developed nations: e.g. paid family and sick leave, adequate childcare, health and reproductive rights. As an antidote to setbacks in this country—where we seem to be in the two-steps-back phase of the old ‘three steps forward, two steps back’ adage—I’ve looked at reports released in conjunction with this month’s 59th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). There are some encouraging signs. But progress is slow, uneven; the struggle for women’s rights and equality is far from over. Nevertheless, celebrating positive accomplishments can provide motivation needed to keep us all plodding ahead, no matter how soggy the road. Jean Hardisty knew better than anyone how critical plodding along is. For all of us around the country—and in various corners of the world— who knew Jean as a beloved colleague, mentor and leader in the battle for human rights and justice, there is no better way to honor her life and her work than to keep on plodding.

So, some good news gleaned from reports on progress for women since the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing:

~ The global rate of maternal deaths in childbirth has dropped by over 40 percent;
~ Adolescent births have fallen by more than 30 percent;
~ Many countries have made significant gains in girls’ education, particularly at the primary school level;
~ And people everywhere are paying more attention to gender gaps in access and opportunities on everything from health services and education to leadership, employment and earnings.

Sadly, for almost every positive statement one can make, there is a ‘but’. And some ‘buts’ are so overwhelming it seems pointless to mention the positive. For example, awareness of violence against women has grown, but the violence itself has not lessened. One third of the world’s women have experienced physical or sexual violence. It is estimated that the number girls among trafficking victims has increased by more than ten percent in the past seven years.

The Beijing meetings two decades ago were electrifying. A total of 17,000 women and men from 189 countries attended the official Fourth United Nations Conference on Women. Another 30,000 took part in the parallel NGO Forum held outside the capital in Huairou. We returned to our homes around the globe committed to doing whatever we could, both individually and collectively, to implement the Beijing Platform for Action. Many of those unable to attend the meetings in China were eager partners. In country after country, women and men worked together to ensure the ‘full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life.’

But the transformative promise of the Beijing Platform for Action has not yet been fulfilled. The Platform was a call for a change in focus from women to gender. A call for recognizing that the structure of society and relationships between women and men must be rethought if women are to be fully empowered as equal partners with men. The Platform affirmed that women’s rights are human rights, that gender equality benefits everyone. In retrospect these called for changes in thinking and action were exceedingly ambitious given the ten-year time frame originally stated. Even after 20 years we have not succeeded. But ambitious goals generate ambitious plans, and ambitious plans are required to sustain commitment, passion, and determined action.

As the Women’s Rights Caucus stated last week in response to the draft declaration from CSW: “At a time when urgent action is needed to fully realize gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls, we need renewed commitment, a heightened level of ambition, real resources, and accountability.” Some UN member states may not share this perspective. Nations that do must speak loudly. Within a few days over seven hundred and 50 organizations had signed the caucus statement. NGOs representing women from all parts of the world and all strata of society must push, and push hard to ensure that the spirit as well as the letter of the Beijing Platform is carried forward.

None of this work is easy. Much of it is unpopular in certain circles. But we have pushed and plodded our way this far. A 40 percent decline in maternal morbidity is a major step forward. The progress in access to primary education for girls is impressive. Many more huge steps await. We have done it before; we can do it again. And again, and again, and again!

Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D. served as Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and a Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Education at Wellesley College for 25 years. She attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

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Learning from Amy

This article was originally published December 19, 2013 on Girl w/ Pen by Susan McGee Bailey, who served as executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and a Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Educationat Wellesley College for 25 years.

Heather Hewett’s December 5th blog post on Girl w/Pen, “What’s a Good Mother?” hit a nerve. My daughter Amy was born in 1970, the same year Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and Robin Morgan’s anthology, Sisterhood is Powerful were published. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique had already become part of my daily conversation. I read Firestone, Morgan, Germaine Greer, Our Bodies, Ourselves—everything I could find on ‘women’s liberation’. It all made so much sense. My husband and I agreed; we would share parenting. Our family wouldn’t follow the usual gender patterns, we’d be equal partners and we’d steer our daughter clear of sex stereotyped toys, clothes, and expectations. A huge cultural shift was underway; we’d be part of it.

We have been; but not in the ways I anticipated 40 years ago. Children complicate lives in unexpected ways. Amy was born with a variety of disabilities, some immediately evident, others less so. She tested our facile feminism; we chose different answers. I am a single parent.

Parenting a child with physical and developmental challenges is a politicizing activity. Mothering such a child alone is a radicalizing one. Mothering a child with disabilities requires not only the culturally sanctified female roles of caregiving and ‘traditional good mothering’, but aggressive independent action. You must lobby the legislature, pressure the school board, argue with the doctor and defy the teacher. And, oddly, while these ‘unfeminine’ behaviors might, in other contexts, be deemed deviant or too aggressive, performed in the context of mothering a child with special needs they are considered appropriate, even laudable.

But for a single mother, even this culturally permissible deviance is insufficient. My life with Amy is different from the lives of most of my colleagues and friends. I could not provide emotional, physical and financial support for Amy without re-envisioning motherhood. Amy and I have lived with a shifting assortment of male and female students, single women as well as married women with children. Work for me is not possible without round the clock care for Amy. This is true for all mothers and children, but it is a need that is normally outgrown. Not so in our case. Amy fuels my passion for feminist solutions; not simply for childcare, but for policy issues across the board. I know first hand too many of the dilemmas confronting women, from the mostly invisible, predominately female workers who care for others in exchange for poverty level wages to successful business women struggling to be perfect mothers, perfect wives and powerfully perfect CEOs.

While there may be no individual solutions, there are individual decisions. As a mother and a feminist, I long ago made the decision to work toward a society in which power and responsibility as well as independence and dependence are equally available to women and men.

But it’s a lovely winter day, snow is sparkling on the pine trees, and across the street children are sledding. To talk of the challenges of motherhood without sharing the lessons in joy Amy offers is only a part of the story. My particular good fortune is in Amy’s special way of seeing the world. Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat writes about people he calls ‘simple’. “If we are to use single word here, it would have to be ‘concreteness’--their world is vivid, intense, detailed, yet simple, precisely because it is concrete, nether complicated, diluted nor unified by abstraction.” Amy never misses a sunset, a baby or a bird. She notices and she insists that others notice.

“Mother, come here! Now!”

“Amy, I’m busy, I’ll be there in a minute, OK?”

“No, not OK, red bird will fly away, come NOW!”

I hurry to see red bird. What kind of silly person would think it reasonable to miss a cardinal in the snow?

This is only one of many joys my daughter has taught me.

It’s the Christmas season, a time of hope. Lately life has begun to look bleaker each day as we move further toward a nation of haves and have nots; but today I choose to believe in hope. Someday, not so far away, women and men working together will beat the odds. We will succeed in creating a more just and equal world.

Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D. has received numerous awards for her research and public advocacy, is frequently quoted in the media, and has appeared on a variety of radio and television programs. In 2011 the National Council for Research on Women spotlighted her as a feminist icon. She has worked for more than 35 years with community organizations addressing the needs of disabled children.

 

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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