An Actor in Her Own LIfe

September 01, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- You might have thought the only real issue was the relationship between China and United States. The China question -- should we or shouldn't we ''reward'' them with our presence? -- dominated the Sunday talk shows.

For that matter you might have believed that the gathering of 30,000 women from some 180 countries was of importance only for its effect on American presidential politics. Journeying ever-rightward, Bob Dole said the whole event was about inflicting a ''left-wing ideological agenda'' on the world.

It wasn't until the activist women finally arrived into the chaos of -- China that the relationship between the world and its women became more than a political footnote.

The People's Republic of China is as awkward a backdrop for a women's conference as the exploding city of Cairo was for last year's population conference. Geraldine Ferraro, vice-chair of the American delegation, says that when China volunteered to host the meeting, ''they thought it would be like the Olympic Games. We'd go in, run our races, and leave.''

Instead, for all their ham-handed acts to stifle activists, the Chinese have learned how hard it is to control the message when you have democratic ''guests.'' While the government released a thousand doves in welcome, a thousand stories soared across the world about female infanticide, forced abortions and work inequality in a country that holds one-fifth of the world's women.

Nevertheless, the dirty little secret is that China ranks smack in the middle of the U.N.'s index of gender equality, just between Guyana and Syria, well below Sweden and well above Afghanistan. On this list are countries where women can't vote, where wife-murder is barely a misdemeanor, where rape is a booty of war and girls are ritually mutilated.

Across the globe, women make up 70 percent of the poor and two-thirds of the illiterate. There are few enough nations where women are equally educated, none where the political structure is made up of equal numbers of men and women. In the U.N. itself, Madeleine Albright is one of only five women ambassadors.

So the ''left-wing, ideological agenda'' of this two-part conference of grass-roots activists and governments is to try and push this man's world another revolution or two on its axis, making it a fairer, safer, place for women.

Officially, the U.N. goal will be to produce a document signed by government delegates that affirms universal rights and goals for all women -- no small thing for nations where gender equality is still a dangerous, modern notion. This process of change through consensus can seem agonizingly slow and cumbersome. Yet over time the interaction between activists and governments can make a difference.

Ten years ago, when the last women's conference met in Nairobi, the issues of domestic abuse and female genital mutilation were barely on the world's agenda. Two years ago in Vienna, the U.N. recognized women's rights as human rights, and violence against women was defined a violation of human rights. Just last year, the world agreed that controlling population depended on educating women.

Now in Beijing, amid the wrestling over diplomatic words, the subjects range across women's lives. The talk is about violence, about human rights abuses, about access to education and credit and medical care, about legally recognizing women as equals to men before the law, even in divorce and child custody.

No document can overhaul a culture where the right of inheritance is regarded as an assault on religious teaching or where genital mutilation is defended as a tradition. But it becomes a lever for change, a signed flag to wave before a recalcitrant government. The activists return to their grass roots carrying proof of the world's support in their suitcases like a combustible souvenir. So do the 7,000 Chinese ''observers.''

''This conference,'' says Ambassador Albright, head of the American delegation, ''deals with a woman as an actor in her own life. . . . It's about having the education she wants and marrying whom she wants and planning her family and her work. . . . It's about the whole picture of women and what we can do in the world when our talents are freed up.''

Today in China, a baby girl may still be a cause for disappointment or infanticide. Meanwhile, even in America, the most high-profile woman in political life is still the wife of a president. Everywhere you look, the ''whole picture'' of women is due for enlargement.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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