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Women Soldier On Through Rain and Mud

September 1, 1995

HUAIROU, China (AP) _ It was a world’s fair for women with a muddy touch of Woodstock.

The women didn’t seem to mind a downpour, but their Chinese hosts did. The rain washed out their Tibetan display tent. Compounding their embarrassment, Friday was a major anniversary of Chinese rule in the Himalayan territory, and security guards waved umbrellas to block photographers from taking pictures of the disarray.

The 19,000 delegates attending this biggest-ever women’s gathering soldiered on through slippery mud and ankle-deep puddles.

They flocked to a hall to hear leaders of their organizations call for gender equality, and to hundreds of workshops in the huge array of tents and pavilions set up in the Beijing suburb of Huairou.

Although they come from all over the world, borders seemed to melt away in a happy glow of sisterhood.

Every workshop drew a rainbow of races and nationalities. Swedes and Fijians listened to a Sudanese describing how the failure of democracy in her country had set back women’s rights.

In the ``elderly women tent″ a Chinese woman explained the problems widows have remarrying.

``Their children object. It embarrasses them and they lose face,″ she said.

Penny Young of Concerned Women for America listened to Russian women describing the issues facing working women after the collapse of communism.

In Soviet times, they said, 90 percent of women worked. Now, an opinion poll says 40 percent would rather stay at home and raise kids.

Laurie Geschke of Real Women of Canada chimed in with an opinion poll saying 77 percent of Canadian women put family above career.

Young and Geschke want the rights of non-working women to be strengthened in the declaration to be adopted by the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, which opens Monday in Beijing.

Ms. Young believes the women’s movement has gone too far. She cited a Kenyan physician who had told her that ``in her clinic she had children dying for lack of penicillin, but plenty of diaphragms.″

In another tent, the subject was ``breastfeeding as a feminist issue.″ Women said restrictive work arrangements, social stigma and false information are denying them a choice in how to feed their babies.

``People say political change empowers women. ... Well, we say breastfeeding empowers women too,″ said Penny van Estrick, a Canadian speaker.

Elsewhere, women in T-shirts reading ``Grandmothers for Peace,″ were discussing nuclear disarmament.

``We need to issue a proclamation of condemnation of nuclear weapons, nuclear testing, everything. Otherwise we will leave this meeting with nothing but a pile of garbage to show for it,″ said an American woman.

``You’ll have to speak louder,″ a listener said. ``Some of us don’t hear too good any more.″

Ursula and Leah Retherford of Hawaii are among dozens of mother-daughter pairs at the gathering.

Leah Retherford, newly graduated from college, said the draft resolution before the conference seeks merely to preserve women’s gains instead of advancing them.

``They’re saying, let’s keep countries from backsliding. If that’s their attitude, not a lot is going to be done,″ she said.

Ursula Retherford said her feminism was ``not quite as radical as Leah’s,″ but the stories she had heard at the gathering about the oppression of women made her ``realize that we need to be a bit more radical.″

The non-governmental organizations sponsoring the Huairou gathering will be addressed by U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton on Sept. 6. High-profile Americans already in Huairou on Friday included feminist pioneer Betty Friedan and actress Sally Field, who is with the Save the Children delegation.

There are even a few male delegates, including Charles MacCormack, president of Save the Children.

Asked how he felt to be a member of possibly the tiniest minority at the conference, he said: ``I think it does us good, because we’re not accustomed to not being in control of things.″

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