For more than two decades, a split has divided feminists of elite Western groups from those of developing countries.
The split can only be resolved, said Dr. Angela Gilliam, an anthropologist and member of the Evergreen State College faculty, when more privileged feminists learn to respect the issues of women living in other cultures.
Those issues have included the Asian sex trade for Thai women, apartheid for African women and labor issues for Bolivian women.
Gilliam was the keynote speaker at the Spokane Area Women’s Leadership Conference on Friday at Spokane Community College.
A classic example of this feminist split occurred at a 1975 international women’s conference in Mexico City.
There a Bolivian woman, Domitila Barrios de Chungara, a leader of a tin miners’ wives’ association, pressed for greater action on labor issues.
U.S. feminist Betty Friedan confronted the Bolivian woman, claiming the miner’s wife was overly influenced by men’s needs.
Barrios de Chungara later wrote a book called “Let Me Speak,” arguing for the importance of fighting on behalf of both men and women.
Since then, this fundamental conflict has recurred among feminists around the globe, Gilliam said.
In her travels to developing countries, Gilliam has discovered women who possess inspiring strength, creativity and political awareness.
“We feel very ignorant and humbled when we’re faced with these types of women,” Gilliam said.
In her work in Papua New Guinea, she found a wide gap between the stereotypes of South Pacific women - supposedly docile, exotic and sexy - and reality.
These bright and focused women found innovative ways to respect and recast their cultural traditions while changing their own lives.
For example, in that culture, families traditionally collect dowries by conducting a bride price ceremony. One woman earned money to pay the bride price to her family so she would be free to attend law school.
Another New Guinea woman, running for political office, realized she could not be elected without going through such a ceremony. She respected tradition, scheduled a bride price ceremony with her husband, and wound up winning more than one election.
Splits among feminists also occur within the United States, Gilliam said. Activist women from less powerful groups often are more convinced that they must include men in their battles.
Women are so diverse that Gilliam finds few common denominators. One, however, she notices across cultures: a reverence for motherhood.
“I haven’t been anyplace where being with my daughter hasn’t opened doors,” she said. “It’s a very special thing to be a mother anywhere.”
Gilliam is also at work on an autobiographical book called “Raising Onik’a: A Black Unwed Mother’s Love Song to Her Daughter.” Her daughter, now 27, is a law student, and she was raised in an atmosphere of “counter-brainwashing,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam bought mazes and other unisex toys, encouraged her daughter’s interest in math and banned all forms of discrimination from their household. They never watched westerns, for example, because those films portray such a distorted image of Native Americans.
“My biggest challenge was helping her to find self-esteem, to feel grounded … as someone who could travel the world safely as a black person,” Gilliam said.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Awards During the conference, Women of Achievement awards were presented to: Sharon Hershman, a Sacred Heart Medical Center nurse manager, for business leadership. Beverly Keating, an environmental activist and longtime volunteer, for community leadership. Pam Praeger, dean of instruction at the Institute for Extended Learning, for faculty leadership. Patricia Speer, an SCC accounting major and president of the Student Awareness League, for student leadership.