Anne Cahn is the executive director of the Committee for National Security, a bipartisan educational group that is seeking ways to moderate the arms race. She was one of 15 American women, including several mothers and daughters, who visited the Soviet Union in August for a two-week wilderness trip with seven Soviet women. The idea was for the women from both countries to get to know each other and to further understanding of the realities of each others' lives.
The trip was organized by Cynthia Lazaroff, who runs the U.S.-Soviet Youth Exchange Project in San Francisco, and who had previously organized mountain climbing expeditions in the Soviet Union with Soviet and American teen-agers. Last year, Cahn saw a film of one of the expeditions. "It shows how these kids have to learn to trust each other mountain climbing. It was a very powerful film," says Cahn. "I told her it was a great idea, building trust on an individual basis, and that I thought it would be great to do something like that with women but I can't climb 18,000 feet. I thought about it a while and then suggested how about a mother-daughter trek?" The American women included several mothers and daughters and one grandmother and granddaughter. Two Soviet women brought their daughters. They spent 10 days hiking in the Tien Shan mountains near Alma-Ata, the Asian capital of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan.
The American women were self-selected. The Soviets were chosen by their official organizations and included two researchers at the Institute for the Study of USA and Canada, a journalist from Soviet Woman, the chief of the international division of the Women's Committee, and a woman from the Sport Committee. One woman was a friend of one of the American interpreters and she joined the group with her 13-month-old daughter. Cahn found her to be much more open than the others.
Sharp cultural difference appeared immediately. Three men were assigned to accompany the group. The Soviet women accepted this far more readily than the American women who had planned on an all-female trek. They were told that women could not go into the mountains alone.
During the days they hiked and spent hours sitting in circles discussing the kinds of questions that seem to cut across every national and cultural boundary on Earth, such as how can women combine motherhood and career.
Soviet women had entirely different ideas about these matters than the American women. They felt strongly that having children -- and doing so before the age of 27 -- was the patriotic duty of every Soviet woman. They also could not understand the emphasis of the American women's movement on entering nontraditional jobs. Soviet women have had plenty of experience with nontraditional jobs during and as a result of wars. "They couldn't understand why a woman would want to go into a coal mine," says Cahn. "They feel women should be protected, particularly women of child-bearing age."
They also expressed strong reservations about women trying to combine motherhood and career, even though most Soviet women work. "They have the long lines to get food," says Cahn, "and they don't have the conveniences we do. They have tiny refrigerators so they have to go shopping often."
She offered a theory about why the highly visible Raisa Gorbachev has become controversial in a country used to having its leaders' wives make their public debuts at their husbands' funerals. "In the '60s, we lived in a period of very rapid change. Things seemed to be moving beyond our control. I have the feeling that's what's happening in the Soviet Union now. Books, movies are available now that were banned before. Rock groups are playing there. Mrs. Gorbachev may be one more symptom of things being different then they were 10 years ago. To some people it's scary."
Cahn did not come away with any sense of lifelong friendships with the women she'd spent the two weeks with. "Friendship in the Soviet Union is a very deep thing. It's not given easily and not given quickly." And while there were great differences in the goals and attitudes of women from the two countries, they came away from the wilderness trip with the realization that there was no right or wrong in these matters. As Cahn later wrote: "We each had set our goals according to our historical experiences and present needs, and we each had been successful. When this point was made, we all recognized that this was an important concept to grasp. For the only time in the entire two weeks, we broke into spontaneous applause."