Every morning at 11:30, Betty Friedan arrives at the downtown campus of the University of Nairobi and takes her seat in the shade of a tall tree not far from the "peace tent," near a stone marker that reads: "Dialogue under a tree."
The women begin gathering soon after, 100 or more each day. They settle at her feet in a reverent semicircle, subjects to her Queen Victoria.
The grandmother of modern American feminism crosses her short legs beneath her dress, taking care to cover her knees; she removes large sunglasses to reveal brown, owlish eyes.
Her voice, raspy in the best of circumstances, is strained from a week of networking, as talking is known here at the women's forum, so that even her whispers sound like fine sandpaper in motion.
"You know," she says warmly, looking down her boxer's nose, starching her American consonants so that the Pakistani woman, the Argentine, the Saudi, will understand. "I said just give me a tree for shade for 30, 40 people, a place where we can talk. That's all I want."
Talk is in no short supply at the end of the week of the forum for nongovernment women's organizations that precedes the United Nations Women's Decade conference.
Ten thousand women gather at the university each day, talking and talking and traipsing dutifully to workshops with ponderous names -- workshops sometimes riveting, more often disorganized or dull or canceled. There is a lot of anger wafting around, about Palestinian rights, women in poverty, unequal pay, the lot of the unpaid housewife, you name it. Add to that the petty annoyances, the irritations that are rarely voiced but are visible just the same in the stiffened back, the grimace, the sideways glance.
It comes from the Americans, who get irritated at South Americans who can't seem to form a line; from South Americans weary of Yankees who think the Western Hemisphere stops at Texas; from the Africans, who stiffen at the way the Americans expect everything done yesterday and the way the Europeans don't. And from the Iranian women shrouded in black, who sweep across the anemic grass like a flock of crows, extolling the virtues of the well-known feminist Ayatollah Khomeini and encountering skepticism wherever they go.
"Betty, in my country a woman can be taken to jail if she is simply accused of adultery," says a woman from Pakistan. "She must stay there until she can prove she is innocent. A man gets bail right away."
"Betty, in my country we have no divorce," says a blond Argentine. "This means that 50 percent of the children entering kindergarten in my country are illegitimate."
"Betty, in my country if there is a case of evidence, a man needs only his word to prove it, but for a woman it takes two."
So it goes all morning under the tree, a thousand and one tales, a litany of outrage and indignity.
"We must have hope," Friedan tells them, stretching out her palms like the Dalai Lama. "There has been change, but it is slow. Three steps forward, two steps back.
"I asked for this tree," Friedan tells them, "because I wanted an informal setting, but my Kenyan friends tell me that that this is very African. In the villages the men sit around under the tree and philosophize while the women go to work in the field. Well, now we are doing the philosophizing." The women crow at this line and clap their hands.
The Kenyan men, standing at the edge of the group, employes of the government or the university, are poker faced.
The bistro at the French Cultural Centre is an oasis at midday, when every delegate who can speak French or would like to shows up to feed on asperges hollandaises and pa te' maison. The salad is crisp, the white bordeaux is cold and there is piano music playing.
Betty Friedan enters the restaurant with a reporter. There are no tables available, but two admirers spot her and give up their seats. There is a well-dressed middle-aged woman from Mexico seated at the table who stays behind.
When it becomes clear that she is not going to be included in the conversation, the Mexican woman interrupts to exhibit copies of the feminist magazine she edits. Friedan listens politely, then turns back to her own conversation, cutting the woman off in midsentence.
Perhaps an American would have minded, perhaps not, but the Mexican woman is offended. She eats silently now, picking at her food with excessive dignity. Friedan, who has been interrupted at least a half-dozen times during lunch ("Betty, do you remember me, I met you in Calgary?"), wagging a forkful of avocado and shrimp as she talks about the future of feminism, appears oblivious to the chill that has fallen over the other side of the table.
Then something awful happens, a complete breakdown in communication, a failure of the power of words, a collision of fears, an electric storm that scrambles the lines between First and Third, North and South, and all the rest of the world's tragic poles.
First, the Mexican woman offers, a bit timidly, that she is pessimistic about the conference. How can you improve the lot of Mexican women if you refuse to discuss the Third World debt crisis? The western nations are holding countries like Mexico hostage, she says, and yet the U.S. delegation to the conference will not discuss this.
Then she starts talking about Nicaragua.
"We want to be left alone," she says. "We want to solve our own problems. There is a saying in Mexico: We are too far from heaven and too close to the United States."
And last, she says, feminists are so few in Mexico, and they are, like herself, well educated. "We are not the ones who need this conference," she says and shakes her head sadly.
For Friedan this appears to set off alarm bells, memories of the naysayers fought 20 years ago when she wrote "The Feminine Mystique." This is just what she dreads from the women in Nairobi at the last meeting of their decade.
She and Bella Abzug and most other western feminists are determined not to let this conference go the way of the mid-decade Copenhagen conference in 1980, by all accounts a disastrous firefight over issues like Palestinian refugees, apartheid and the debt crisis. To Friedan and others, the women who insist on bringing up those issues are pawns of their male governments, governments in whose interest it is to "keep their women down," Friedan says.
The fatigue of the morning's work under the tree, the listening and mediating and conciliating and reassuring and trying to understand, to keep an open mind, to persuade, the fatigue of the last 20 years, shows around Friedan's eyes now, and she puts her fork down, leans forward and attacks.
"Why did you come if you think that way?" she cries indignantly at the Mexican woman. "You are not a feminist," she says emotionally, her voice rising. Nicaragua has no place at this conference, she says, and, finally, it is the educated women who must be at the conference. There was never a revolution, she says, that was not started by educated people.
By now the Mexican woman's English is starting to fail her and she asks, a bit desperately, to know whether her tablemates speak Spanish or French, which they do not. A drop of water rolls down her cheek, and at first you think it is perspiration, because there is sweat beaded on her brow, but then you notice that her eyes are red, and she is crying, or trying not to. Her lip wobbles and she reaches into her fine leather handbag for her sunglasses.
"I have to go to a meeting of Latin American women," she says with difficulty as she gets up to leave. "I am sorry that I cry, but I see . . ." She pauses, and her mouth begins to crumple again, but she regains her composure. "It is so hard for Americans to understand, how we feel, what we are saying . . ."
Then she is gone, and Betty Friedan explains why she is right and the woman is wrong.
There is a Dutch cartoon that someone has pasted up on a bulletin board not far from the peace tent. It is titled "Copenhagen" and it shows a group of women fighting and bellowing. The caption reads: "They are learning."