Marilyn Waring: advocate of women's solidarity on a global level

Marilyn Waring, a member of Parliament in New Zealand, speaks passionately and eloquently for women throughout the world. As a participant in events such as the United Nations Decade for Women and meetings of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, she helps weave a feminist perspective into international politics.

But feminism was just a pleasant notio to Ms. Waring when she became involved in politics as a young student in 1975.

"I had never belonged to a feminist organization," says the only elected woman in New Zealand's ruling National Party. "'Sisterhood is powerful' is as far as I had gotten when I was elected to Parliament. I didn't know then what I know now."

What she now knows is that women, who make up half the world's population, are often missing from national and international discussions of topics that affect them -- such as war, agriculture, and economics.

"Where are they?" asks Ms. Waring, who is taking four months to study at Harvard University's Institute of Politics. "Work is measured in terms of gross national product, but women's work is not included in there. The world is dependent upon women at home and in agricultural production. But they are not considered."

Ms. Waring hopes for a growth in global feminism, which is far different from the life-style feminism of a boyfriend or husband cooking dinner or a woman gaining admittance to a formerly all-male law school. Global feminism recognizes that throughout the world, women are often not taken into account or heard from by people in power -- planners, policymakers, educators, businesses, or governments.

"Men run the governments, the multinationals, the churches, and the national governments," Ms. Waring says. But she perceives a growing awareness of the problems women face.

"Increasingly, people are including gender in the major analysis of oppression," she says, referring to poverty and powerlessness. "As a result, basic data prove that an assessment of global poverty is an assessment of the condition of women."

She says that there is both a male and a female perspective, pointing to the issue of war as an area where the differences emerge.

"Males have been discussing was and peace for centuries," she says. "But nowhere has there been discussion on the two major issues that face women as victims of war."

The first is rape, by both invaders and native armies.

"It happens in massive numbers," Ms. Waring says. The second issue is refugees, who are mostly women and children. It is usually discussed separately from war.

"I think it is highly insulting that refugees have been made a separate agenda item when their situation is invariably a result of national or international conflict."

Ms. Waring sees women encouraged by stories that filter through about women helping women. She lists examples of market cooperatives run by women in Africa , women fighting the effects of alcoholism in India, and a coalition to combat rape in Mexico.

"Everywhere you look there are stories of women working cooperatively," she says. "It shows there is strength on the micro-level. Now we need to find an international unifying political action born of women."

But she warns feminists not to ignore cultural differences among women.

"We can be sometimes too hasty in judging cultural practices that appear to be oppressive," she says. She remembers listening to an Aranian woman speaking at the United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Copenhagen. The woman described the virtues of wearing chadors, the traditional covering for Muslim women, as opposed to modern Western dress.

"It was one of the strongest statements I have heard on the exploitation of the female body through clothing design, magazines, cosmetics, and such. And she was quite right. It was a whole new thing to me."

As a politician, Ms. Waring does speak of concerns common to both sexes.

"There are issues such as the environment, the arms race, and nuclear reactors," she says. "But to an extent there is a difference even on these issues, since the decisionmakers are male."

As easily as she talks about international feminism, she can change gears and focus on the problems of her rural constituency in New Zealand. As a twice-elected member of Parliament, Ms. Warings listens carefully to them. Though her feminist views differ from those held by many of her constituents, she likes to get out and talk with them and try understand their problems. And she pleads the right to change her mind on issues.

"I have no patience with people who say that politics must be black or white, " she says.

At Harvard, she enjoys the opportunity to watch closely the enactment of American foreign policy -- including events in US involvement in El Salvador and the "extraordinary" switch from an emphasis on North-South relations to a "totally East-West preoccupation" under President Reagan.

She has also taken time to reflect on domestic politics in her own country. Though she thrives on the contacts that her brief stay in Cambridge has offered, she will be happy to head home.

"When you are on the plane home and all the facts and problems of the world are swimming in your head, you have a sense that life could be better if you could just dig in," she says. "And you think if it is possible anywhere, it's possible in New Zealand."

"There is sexism and racism, and a few people are much poorer than they need to be, but I believe we can change. The will is there to change."

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