In 1975, at the height of the women's movement in the United States, the United Nations declared that the next decade would be devoted to upgrading the status of women around the world. Since then, conferees have gathered in Mexico City and Copenhagen in pursuit of those objectives.
The end of that decade will be marked this summer at a World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya, for which the United States has selected an official delegation headed by Maureen Reagan, the president's daughter.
While this meeting should be an excellent occasion to evaluate women's progress and to plan ways to hasten their achievement of equality with men, disturbing signs of dissension are appearing that threaten that goal.
One problem was a deadlock over procedure that emerged when delegates from 32 nations gathered in Vienna for a final conference preparatory session.
A delegate from the United States blamed the deadlock on the Soviets, who she said "politicized" the session "by wanting to talk about peace, disarmament and 'Star Wars' while the U.S. delegation wanted to talk about women's issues." The White House and State Department are now discussing U.S. strategy in response to those events.
The problem with Soviet politicization is real, but it would be a mistake for the Kenya conference to turn into simply an East-West struggle. Yet it is naive to expect the conferees to talk only about "women's issues" as if women did not care about issues related to development and peace.
Another problem has been raised by some activist minority women who feel that there are too few minorities in the official delegation. "It is my understanding that there are only four minorities among the 37-member delegation," Dolly Adams, president of The Links Inc., said at a recent workshop that organization sponsored for dozens of national black women's organizations. "That sends a clear message that the American administration does not value black women, does not think we have the talents, skills or experience to represent our country. We have no question about the competence of those selected. We simply feel there should be a higher proportion of black and other minority women going to a black African country."
Lynette Taylor, president of the Black Women's Agenda, agreed, saying: "There should be a strong and definite minority presence on the delegation. They the women of other nations need to know ours is a diverse and pluralistic culture . . . and that it is possible to address problems within a democratic framework."
Responding to these charges, Betty Dillon, coordinator of the U.S. Secretariat, charged with making U.S. preparations for the Nairobi conference, said, "I am sure we all wish we could have stronger representation of various groups, but in a delegation of this size, all one could do is establish some proportion among various groups . . . . "
It is significant that this conference is on the African continent, where in the words of Tanzania's President Julius Nyerere, "The women of Africa not only suffer from the poverty of Africa, they are also the greatest victims of exploitation . . . .
"These women are sensitive to the status of women elsewhere, and the United States has to recognize that. The inclusion of blacks and other minorities not only can make a delegation more representative, it can make America's involvement more credible and effective."
Dynamic women from around the world will be in Nairobi in July, and women's organizations are working to make this conference a historic event. The conference plans to adopt strategies to achieve equality of women and men by 2000.
In some ways, American women are farther along on the path to equality than women in other countries. Our progress gives us the obligation to be leaders in Kenya. A strong pluralistic U.S. delegation would be in a better position to deal with the conflicting political currents as well as with more traditional concerns.