AT 16, Nguyen Thi Dinh joined Vietnam's communist revolution, ready to fight the ``three dominations'' - landlords, the French (later the Americans), and people who suppress women. That was half a century ago, and even 12 years after the end of the war, she's still battling the last domination.
Mrs. Dinh knows how to fight. She was vice-commander of all communist-led guerrillas in South Vietnam during the war against the United States. Since 1980, she has led the Women's Union of a reunifed Vietnam as a graceful but outspoken champion of an unfinished task.
Last December, she suggested at a Communist Party congress that women should be trusted to purify party ranks of the corrupt and inept.
``Women are closer to human feelings and can judge people more fairly,'' said Dinh, a member of the Central Committee. ``But the [Communist Party] leadership still has to learn to listen to women. ``Now they don't.''
Raised by poor, Buddhist parents in the Mekong River Delta, Dinh says her life has been one of overcoming barriers for women.
``We used to say that women in Vietnamese society were slaves and the most oppressed. But we had to follow Ho Chi Minh's teaching that the country must be liberated first, then women can be liberated,'' said Dinh during an interview in her Hanoi office.
She met Ho Chi Minh in 1945, nine years after joining the party, when she went to Hanoi for training. She said Ho was ``like a father.''
``Many women had to escape their families to marry fellow revolutionaries,'' she said. In marriage itself, she adds, ``if the husband is not conscious of the revolution, it is difficult.''
In 1940, after her first husband died in a French prison, she was jailed for three years. Her experience, she says, earned her ``a good reputation, because I did not betray [the people] by confession under torture.''
For three decades, Dinh slowly moved up the communist ranks. ``Many times I looked death in the eyes,'' she recalls. During US military involvement, ``we counted our lives in hours and minutes,'' she says.
In 1960, she became party chief for her province, Ben Tri, organizing peasants and leading the party's first political ``uprising in the south.'' At the time, however, Ho felt such uprisings were premature.
``It was a very black time for us then,'' she said. ``The uprising didn't succeed, but it really started the military aspect of the war.''
Even among fellow guerrillas, many men were hostile to women. ``They thought women were weak and if captured would disclose secrets,'' she said. ``After a while, however, the men saw that women were better at many activities, such as talking to villagers. And as women, we took full advantage of the enemy's idea that women were weak.'' Women guerrillas, for instance, could win over many wives of South Vietnam's soldiers as a way to obtain rifles.
``In combat, women could not fight like men. Rather we had our own guerrilla tactics,'' she said.
In 1961, the first women's military unit was formed. Two years later, Dinh was promoted to vice-commander of the Hanoi-backed People's Liberation Armed Forces. She was later accused by some former colleagues of having been given the position as a mere symbol to attract women to the revolution. ``Other women were put up as fronts,'' Dinh said, ``but not me.''
Troops obeyed her orders, she said, because they knew of her previous work. In the political leadership, however, she sometimes detected discrimination.
In 1968, she helped lead the Tet offensive throughout South Vietnam, including an attack on the US Embassy. Generally considered a military failure, the Tet attacks nonetheless dealt a decisive blow to American political will to continue the war.
After the communist victory in 1975, Dinh felt sure that women would take over leadership roles. While progress has been considerable, ``women are liberated officially, but they are not fully free,'' she says.
William Turley, a scholar of Vietnam at the University of Southern Illinois, compares postwar Vietnam for women to the US after World War II. ``The GIs returned and wanted their jobs back from women who had entered the work force for first time. Some women left with deep bitterness.
``In Vietnam, most women felt totally exhausted from the war, and went home gladly. So Mme. Dinh may find it difficult to command many women in pushing the issues,'' he said.
The chief obstacle to women's advancement, Dinh says, has been a deteriorating economy. But she also points to ``vestiges of feudal thinking'' or Confucian beliefs that regard women as inferior.
``There is no open opposition in the leadership to having women rise up, but in their minds they deny women,'' she says. ``But our role in the revolution was so big that the leadership cannot deny us.''
No women have ever served on the powerful party Politburo. On the larger Central Committee, the presence of women has increased slightly from 5.3 to 7.5 percent from the 1982 party congress.
In other party as well as state jobs, however, women have generally lost ground. In the National Assembly, for instance, female representation is lower then the peak of 32 percent in 1975. Dinh believes a woman will reach the Politburo at the next congress.
New party leaders pay more attention to women, she says, and they have admitted that the party made a mistake in not appointing more women.
A new family and marriage law that took effect this year grants women equal property rights in settlement of a divorce (which hits over 50 percent of all marriages). The law further tries to prevent spouse-beating and to end an ancient practice of polygamy and arranged marriages (14.5 percent of all marriages are arranged). Because of the war, the percentage of women in the population is unusually high, and the new law allows unmarried women benefits for their children. Having children without marrying has become very popular in many rural crop plantations, where the entire work force is commonly made up of all women.
``Having a fatherless child in the past was strongly accused under our oriental ways,'' says Justice Minister Phan Hien, ``but now we must be more progressive.''