World's Housewives Unite And Find a Bond of Love

First-ever conference finds sisterhood over common concerns

'GIRLS, girls! Please take your seats. We've got business to conduct!" shouted Lita de Lazzari, president of the Argentine League of Housewives.

With no native costumes, conflicts, or soapboxes, last week's First World Congress of Housewives bore little resemblance to September's United Nations conference on women in Beijing.

But for the 600 attendees, there was enough exchange of ideas, advice, and, dare it be said, sisterhood, to make this gathering memorable.

While the informality and lack of hard-hitting debate may have left cynics deeming it a "Tupperware party for the thinking homemaker," the congress was more about learning, as women from 11 Latin American and European nations discussed the state of housewifery in their homelands.

Although separated by long distances, the housewives found common ground on a wide variety of issues.

Argentine Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo received hearty applause in his opening speech when he acknowledged that his wife, a full-time housewife, was "contributing just as much as I am." But that didn't stop the housewives here from holding firm in their demands that their work be financially compensated in some form.

"Politicians only remember us when they need our votes or when it's convenient," said Juana Maria Gonzalez Cavada, president of Spain's Confederation of Housewives, which is pressuring its government for retirement pensions and disability insurance. "We need the support of all housewives."

Just as economic issues highlighted similarities between the women here, family issues reflected dramatic differences. Magna Lujan de Schmitt, president of the Peruvian League of Housewives, captivated the audience when she discussed the housewives' role in keeping Peruvian families together during the reign of terror by the Shining Path guerrilla movement.

The housewives were also united on social issues, vehemently condemning violence against women. Rosario Lopez of the Dominican Republic received a standing ovation when she called for the castration of convicted rapists.

But the congress wasn't all business. Some of the most important interaction came during the recesses when the housewives chatted while feasting on complimentary snacks, ranging from fondue to ravioli, provided by a dozen local consumer-products companies. At times, however, the informality became a bit too much. Breaks lasted longer than many of the speeches, and a much-anticipated debate was scrapped altogether.

But whenever disorder threatened to raise its head, in stepped Mrs. de Lazzari. The "girls" listened to the woman who, after rising to prominence with boycotts against overpriced retailers and offensive advertisers, has become a folk hero. During her 15-year tenure as president, the Argentine League of Housewives has become a multimedia entity with a bimonthly magazine, a daily television program, and an Internet address.

For the five or so men attending the congress, it was a chance to better understand their wives' concerns. "I'm amazed at how little we've understood our wives. They want us to ask questions," said Carlos Borinelli, an engineer from Buenos Aires who accompanied his wife. "They want to protect the family; there's nothing against the husband. It's about harmony."

That harmony, though, began to wane by late Saturday. Disagreement broke out over the rough draft of the declaration. The final declaration was approved unanimously and instantly.

"There was a common language and a common code here," said Estela Maria Romana, from the province of Chaco in northern Argentina. "And in both of them there was a sign that identifies the housewife - love. It's all about love."

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