Feminist conference closes with call to widen movement

Leaders vow more action, urge participants to reach out to poor women

April 03, 2000|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Feminist leaders wrapped up their three-day conference in Baltimore yesterday vowing to push for action on a range of political issues and to draw America's poorest, most disenfranchised women into the movement.

Invoking the school shooting near Flint, Mich., in February, Gloria Steinem said that women leaders must reach out to, rather than demonize, women like the mother of the 6-year-old boy who took a gun to school and is accused of shooting to death a girl in his first-grade classroom.

The mother had left her son at a relative's house, where he found the gun, in part because she was working two jobs to make ends meet. Steinem argued that basic tenets of the women's rights movement such as increasing the minimum wage might have made a difference and should be made known to poor women, possibly through literature booths at shopping malls.

"Where are poor, working class women going to encounter the women's movement?" said Steinem, a longtime leader on women's issues and co-founder of Ms. magazine. "What black churches were to the civil rights movement in the South, shopping centers could be to the women's movement."

Steinem's call to action on the final day of Feminist Expo 2000 was part of a broad promise by leaders to work to improve the lives of women in this country and around the globe. The conference, held at the Baltimore Convention Center, drew more than 7,000 participants.

Leaders urged women to renew a lobbying and letter-writing campaign to push the United States to ratify an anti-discrimination treaty adopted by the United Nations in 1979 that has been broadly described as an international Bill of Rights for women.

The treaty, formally called the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, has been adopted in 167 countries, said Krishanti Dharmaraj, director of the Women's Institute for Leadership Development for Human Rights.

The treaty aims to guarantee equal treatment of women by requiring nations to take "all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women."

Former President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1980, but it needs two-thirds majority approval in the U.S. Senate to be ratified. Dharmaraj said the treaty is stalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and urged women to pressure committee chairman Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina to send it to the Senate floor.

Participants also said they would fight to end human rights abuses in Afghanistan under the Taliban, a militant Islamic regime.

Before the Taliban takeover in 1995, women in Afghanistan enjoyed many of the same freedoms as women in the United States. But today, they have been forced out of schools, jobs and many other public places, banished to what amounts to house arrest, said Mavis Leno, a member of the Feminist Majority Foundation's board of directors.

Giti Shams, a young woman who left Afghanistan for the United States six months ago, offered powerful testimony at the conference yesterday. She told of women who had their fingers cut off for wearing fingernail polish. And she said she was beaten for going to the public baths.

"I wasn't allowed to go out, but I went out because I knew it was unfair," Shams said. She pleaded for the women left behind: "Please help them."

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which organized the conference, closed the event with a broad challenge.

"Are you prepared to go out there and make the world equal for women?" Smeal said.

The Feminist Majority Foundation expected 6,000 people to attend the conference, which included panel discussions, book signings and old-fashioned consciousness-raising. Spokeswoman Julie Bernstein said yesterday that registration topped 7,000.

Many of those participants said they were leaving with a renewed commitment to fight for women's issues.

"There's so many feminists doing so much to make our world a better place -- it's just phenomenal," said Ruth Whitney, 62, a women's studies professor at the University of South Florida.

At 25, Keimeh Sirleaf is a younger recruit to the women's movement. She said she left the conference energized.

"All these women have come from across the country to put their issues out there," said Sirleaf, a journalist from Hillside, N.J. "That's a great thing, and it needs to happen more often. That's the only way anything is going to happen for women's development."

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