THE WORLD CONGRESS OF WOMEN CONVENED IN JUNE IN Moscow with 2800 delegates from 184 countries. The expectations of the 103 Canadian delegates were as varied as our delegation, which was a cross-section of the Canadian mosaic with respect to age, region, occupation, ethnicity and religion.
Most of us expected a working conference -- one that moved beyond the naming of problems to the consideration of solutions This did not happen. Since we were all women, we expected that proposed solutions would involve a woman's interpretation of peace and development. This happened only partly. A strict structure emerged, with short time limits on presentations and a rigid speaker's list. Consequently, the workshops consisted of the reading of position papers; dialogue was possible only on an ad hoc basis outside the formal sessions. We were locked into assigning blame and expressing outrage.
This was surprising. Given the initiatives of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikail Gorbachev, support for the Eastern perspective seems more than justifiable. However, since neither capitalism nor socialism is a female-authored system, it was surprising to find, at a women's conference, stringent adherence to either of these systems. It stands to reason that either the best of both systems have to be synmesized or have to be transcended. The rigid structure did not allow this kind of dialogue to emerge.
A WATCHFUL EYE REGULARLY SCRUTINIZED THE POSTED NOTICES OF meetings, and Soviet non-delegates, with their interpreters, attended meetings that were directly East-West confrontational. An airn of the conference was to acquaint women with the best of socialist programs and society. The unsubtle message was that peace and development had a better chance of being achieved under socialism. In addressing the opening Plenary, Mikhail Gorbachev compared the positive efforts of the Soviet Union to the obstructionist position of the United States on disarmament. One day was set aside as Moscow Day. Groups of delegates toured factories, schools, daycare centres, recreation and sports centres, and apartments. The planning in these neighborhoods was both impressive and oppressive. It was impressive in that necessities seemed to be addressed in terms of living space, employment, child care, education, medicine and recreation. It was oppressive probably only from a Western perspective. Three small rooms in a high rise for three adults and a child -- the norm -- seems confining. This was justified by the claim that at least all Soviet people have housing. We heard from people outside the conference, however, that unemployment exists, as do housing shortages, long waiting lists for apartments and a significant number of homeless people.
School, day care and recreational facilities were exemplary:
There was no overcrowding, apparently more because of the lack of children than because of careful planning. In fact, the birthrate for the Soviet Union is approximately 1.7 and a dwindling population is an expressed concern. The birthrate for Moscow is even lower, for it is a city of adults. This may result in part from the double day of Moscow women. As well as working full time outside the home, the vast majority of Soviet women also are responsible for the management of the home and family.
In the Congress, ceremonies constantly reaffirmed women's natural role as peacemakers based on our function as mothers. This reached overkill proportions in the closing address by Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe and the Chairman of the Nonaligned countries. He stated that whereas women are "sensitive and human" because of their roles as mothers and nurturers, men are "insensitive and inhuman." Moreover, he added, because "men are more abusive, more aggressive and belligerent ...we need your hearts (women's) just as we need your wombs." Many delegates felt that the boundaries of sexual stereotyping had been transgressed by this speech.
IN RETROSPECT, WE realized that there had been no official call for women's brains as well as our arms and our wombs. Neither Gorbachev nor Mugabe, the two key speakers, both powerful men, made an official commitment to the active and equal decision-making participation of women. Yet the delegates constantly called for equal participation.
On the one hand, it was empowering to feel empathy with so many women from so many diverse cultures and yet, on the other hand, it was not enough simply to identity with one another on a biological and emotional level. Without a commitment by those in power to fill' and equal participation of women in decision making processes, the emphasis on our biologically molded peacemaking natures seemed gratuitous. It was even possible to view this focus on women's nurturing function with alarm, given the parallel movement of the New Right in the West, to entrench traditional values of motherhood and family, often at the expense of women's equality and participation.
The Congress was certainly an experience worth having. The West was rightly criticized for its foreign and economic policies, but with less justification, there was no room for appropriate criticism of the policies of the East. In other words, there was no forum for prescriptions for change to emerge, apart from those already being entertained by the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it's better than being dismissed as "naive boobies" for going, as we were by a newspaper here at home.
Ann Crosby belongs to Voice of Women and studies peace.