BY THE STANDARD of these events, the United Nations Women's Conference at Nairobi was a notable success. It seems to have generated a feeling among many delegates that there is something worthy of being called an international women's movement. A final document was produced and, for the first time in three such occasions, the United States found it politically inoffensive enough to sign. Maureen Reagan, the president's daughter and head of the official American delegation, came home pronouncing the conference "a first-class win for us and for women and for the U.N. system as a whole." She did much to make it so.
Delegates from some Arab countries and from the Soviet Union and its satellites came to Nairobi chiefly, it seems, to vilify Israel. They did their nasty best, but the news and the cheer of the conference surely was that many other delegates resented any political intrusion that was going to take away from attention to issues of direct concern to women. In this pattern, delegates reacted strongly when the United States -- to show "we can play the same games they can play," Maureen Reagan explained -- launched its own political intervention to condemn a "small group of outlaw states" for supporting terrorism.
It is perfectly true that many political issues bear on women's concerns, but it was more true, to the mostly female delegates in Nairobi anyway, that an excessive emphasis on divisive political issues would undermine the quest for a feminist consensus. The United States, with Israel, did have to threaten a walkout in order to get the conference to delete an ugly U.N.-type condemnation of Zionism, but one has the impression this is what many women wanted Washington to do.
The final report on "Forward-Looking Strategies" is premised on the idea that women are a political class and one dominated by men. The report is a very long wish-list of feminist goals -- a longer and more optimistic list than any single delegation might have written had it not been in the hothouse atmosphere of a U.N. conference with no responsibility for turning its recommendations into reality.
As they surely had to for reasons of state, the Americans took part in the work on this consensus document. Maureen Reagan was then attacked, unfairly, by some American feminists for countenancing certain demands that go beyond both American law and the Reagan administration's policy. Her response -- a bit too flip -- was to dismiss the document as "a piece of paper," as perhaps it is in the American context.
But the report will provide real encouragement and stimulus to many women, especially in more traditional societies. It's lonely out there on the frontier where many women are pursuing change. Nairobi gave them comfort and company.