Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

World YWCA Leaders and the UN Decade for Women

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

World YWCA Leaders and the UN Decade for Women

Article excerpt

Abstract

This essay analyzes the contributions of three Young Women's Christian Association leaders who chaired the nongovernmental organization forum planning committees during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985). It assesses the effectiveness of their leadership and addresses questions of distribution and uses of power within women's international NGOs and in relationship to the global feminist community.

Keywords: global feminism, UN Decade for Women, Nongovernmental Organizations, NGO forums, World Young Women's Christian Association

Introduction

Long-established liberal women's voluntary organizations founded in the West in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were at the forefront of all varieties of twentieth-century social movements, promoting peace, human rights and social justice around the world and expanding the influence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the global governance system. Beginning in 1925 with the founding of the Joint Standing Committee of Women's International Organizations, (1) and continuing through the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985), these women's "international" NGOs that established national chapters throughout the world but were most commonly led by Western women until the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, collectively defined global feminist issues across the twentieth century. They successfully transformed the global governance agenda in regard to women at the League of Nations before World War II and at the United Nations afterward, determining organizational values, agenda of 'legitimate' concerns, scope of program activities, implementation of international agreements, and other collective actions. This essay focuses on the pivotal role played by women's international NGOs during the UN Decade for Women. It highlights a few women who worked from within the World Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and with other women's organizations to chair the planning committees for the three NGO forums held in conjunction with the UN Decade for Women Government Conferences. Mildred Persinger chaired the NGO Tribune that ran parallel to the 1975 International Women's Year Conference in Mexico City. After the Conference, Persinger also became President of the International Women's Tribune Centre from 1976-1982 that facilitated global feminist networking and housed the UN Decade for Women forum planning records. Elizabeth Palmer chaired NGO Forum 1980 at the Copenhagen Mid-Decade Conference and Dame Nita Barrow chaired NGO Forum 1985 at the Nairobi End-of-Decade Conference. (2) This essay analyzes the contributions of these three YWCA leaders in order to assess the effectiveness of their feminist leadership and to address critical questions about "power" within the women's international NGO community. Power is a fundamental preoccupation of feminist theory and women's movements, whether it is conceptualized as a 'neutral' resource that men have more of and women are concerned with gaining an equal measure of, or whether it is conceptualized negatively as a tool of domination used by a stronger group to wield coercive influence over a weaker group, or whether it is conceptualized positively, as 'empowerment' to achieve radical transformation from patriarchal to more humanistic value systems (Allen 1999). This paper focuses on several episodes during the UN Decade for Women that illuminate critical issues related to the distribution and uses of 'power' inside the NGO forum planning process. As these episodes illustrate, it is evident that the NGO forum chairs conceptualized power as a neutral resource or an empowering tool for women, and women outside the NGO planning committee structure believed that the planning committee used power coercively and had to be challenged. These episodes reveal the fault lines that divided the global feminist community during the UN Decade for Women, and they expose the long roots of power struggles that divide women from the Western First World, generally defined as Caucasian women from wealthy and industrialized Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, from women in the non-Western Two Thirds World, non-Caucasian women from less-wealthy or poor, semi-industrialized or developing countries. …

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