Women's WORLD, a global free speech network of feminist writers, was founded in 1994 to defend women writers under attack and to develop programs to enable them to have a stronger public voice.

Feminist Organizing Within International PEN

The process that led to Women's WORLD began in 1986, at the 48th Congress of International PEN in New York. To the horror of feminists who attended the Congress, only 16 out of 117 speakers were women. Norman Mailer, then President of PEN American Center, explained that this was because 1) the speakers at this Congress had to be writers of real distinction; 2) other women writers had been invited but didn't come; 3) the theme of the Congress was intellectual and, while plenty of women were writers, Susan Sontag was the only woman intellectual. Two hundred women responded in an impromptu protest meeting, called by Grace Paley and chaired by Meredith Tax, which took over the ballroom of the Essex House Hotel, drafted a petition, and demanded speakers at the plenary.

Following the Congress, women active in the protest then organized a Women's Committee within PEN American Center, with Paley and Tax as co-chairs. In subsequent years, the committee produced a number of excellent public events, saw many of its members elected to the board, and become acknowledged as a force for democracy and new ideas within PEN American Center.

In 1989, another Congress of International PEN took place in Canada. Margaret Atwood had pledged that speakers at this Congress would be evenly divided between women and men, and would represent Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as Europe and North America. Because the Canadian Congress was so broad-based, feminists thought it might be the ideal opportunity to form a women writers committee on the international level. A number of European PEN centers (England, France, Germany), and PEN's International Secretariat, were opposed to the idea, however, so the women decided to form an international network and continue to organize to gather more support. Meredith Tax was elected Chair of the network; organizing continued in many places over the next two years; and, at the 1991 International PEN Congress in Vienna, the majority of delegates approved the creation of a Women Writers' Committee. archive

Other International Gatherings of Women Writers

In addition to these developments in PEN, a number of other important international meetings were taking place that enabled feminist writers to make contact with one another. The context was the first UN Decade of Women, which began at the UN Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985. Many date the birth of global feminism, with its combined emphases on economics, health and human rights, to the Nairobi conference. The same decade saw a huge growth of feminist publishing worldwide, signalled by the First Feminist Book Fair, which took place in London in 1984; a second was held in Oslo in 1986, and a third in Montreal in 1988. These book fairs drew large numbers of women writers and publishers not only from Europe and North America, but from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Arabic-speaking world. Several of Women's WORLD's most active members first met at the Fifth Feminist Book Fair in Amsterdam in 1992. Other significant international meetings of women writers included an international conference of women writers in Jerusalem in 1987; two 1989 meetings of Russian, French, and American writers; the first Arab women's book fair in Cairo in 1995; and a number of regional meetings of Latin American women writers held in Mexico during this period.

The End of the Cold War and the Rise of Backlash Movements

Newton's Third Law of Motion tells us that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. This is true in culture as well as physics. The 1990s began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War, which led to the hegemony of neo-liberal, globalizing economic policies and the position of the United States as the sole remaining superpower. The birth of new media and the Internet were part of this same new trend. While globalized media have many drawbacks and ill effects, their development allowed women writers to begin to imagine-if only to imagine- the possibility of a diverse, mutable, international culture where all boundaries were permeable and where global feminists helped shape what people thought.

But all three of these developments-the end of the Cold War, the rise of modern media, and emergence of global feminism-were met by the same response: backlash. Among the first signals of this backlash were campaigns by Christian fundamentalists in the US against feminist and secularist literature for children, and the 1989 Iranian fatwa on the writer Salman Rushdie, calling not only for his death but for the death of anyone who translated or published him-a threat carried out with the murder of his Japanese translator and the attempted murders of his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher.

Feminist writers rapidly felt the impact of the backlash. Before the 1990s, human rights organizations could point to few examples of women writers persecuted for their beliefs. Suddenly the number of such writers began to rise rapidly, as did the seriousness of their cases. In 1993, Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian oral historian who interviewed Russian soldiers about the war in Afghanistan, was put on trial by the military. In 1993 and 1994, the "Five Croatian Witches" were charged by the Zagreb gutter press with insufficient nationalism and subjected to a "trial by public opinion," which eventually drove three of them into exile. In 1994 and 1995, Taslima Nasrin, whose book Shame exposed persecution of Bangladesh's Hindu minority, was indicted by the government for offending the views of religious Moslems and put under death threat by Islamist politicians; forced into hiding to avoid arrest, she ended up going into exile in Sweden, under the protection of International PEN.
Human Rights Program

Although the International PEN Women Writers' Committee was able to play an important role in all these cases, some of their ideas also met with opposition within the organization, where there was still considerable hostility to feminism. In addition, a lack of resources was preventing the Committee from developing; the International Secretary gave it no funds but would not allow its Chair to raise funds independently. There were also geographic issues: Committee members wanted to work in the Global South, but few PEN Centers in Africa, Asia or Latin America were active enough to serve as a base for such work.

Founding of Women's WORLD

These limitations, coupled with the backlash against women writers, convinced some members of the International PEN Women Writer's Committee that the times called for a more aggressive program on women's right to free expression than was possible within International PEN. In 1994, Paula Giddings, Ninotchka Rosca, and Meredith Tax incorporated the Women's World Organization for Rights, Literature, and Development, or Women' WORLD. A first board meeting took place in New York that fall, attended by Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Marjorie Agosin (Chile-USA), Lucy Friedman (USA), Paula Giddings (USA), Acha Lemsine (Algeria), Ritu Menon (India), Ninotchka Rosca (Philippines-USA), Mariella Sala (Peru), and Meredith Tax (USA). The group invited Grace Paley to be the first Chair of its Board of Directors; Meredith Tax became its President and CEO; Ama Ata Aidoo and Ritu Menon its Vice-Chairs, Lucy Friedman its Treasurer; and Ninotchka Rosca its Secretary.

Women's WORLD's first project was to develop an analysis of the ways gender and censorship intersected in the new world situation. In 1995, with the help of a seed money grant from the Ford Foundation, they published The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship, and Voice, and gave workshops on the subject at the UN's Beijing Conference on Women. The next step was to hold an international on gender-based censorship in 1996, bringing together 26 writer-activists from all over the world at the Rockefeller Foundation's Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. From this conference emerged a strategy of developing partnership programs with local women writers groups. Women's WORLD now has partnerships underway or in formation in fourteen countries. It has also continued its international program of defense and support work in individual cases of censorship.
Italy Program

Structurally, Women's WORLD has taken a different path than most global feminist and human rights organizations with offices in the US. Many of these have large US-based staffs, while Women's WORLD's staff, at its largest, has consisted of two full-time people and an intern or consultant. During its first years, the organization decided to keep its New York overhead costs low in order to use its resources to develop activist programs in other regions. In a period dominated by one superpower, this seemed the best way to ensure that the Women's WORLD network would become truly global in its culture and style of work, rather than being shaped by US organizational assumptions. Instead of building a large US office, Women's WORLD concentrated on working out an analysis that could serve as a basis of unity for the independent development of diverse, largely self-sufficient programs in many countries.

This approach has enabled Women's WORLD to make slim resources go a long way. Most of its local programs are virtually autonomous. The Gender and Censorship project in India has just concluded a three-year research and organizing project into the informal censorship of women, including workshops in ten different languages, with a concluding conference of two hundred people. With the exception of a small seed money grant, funds for this project were raised entirely in India. RELAT (Network of Latin American Women Writers) in Peru, which has focussed on building a network to increase the visibility of women writers, has been similarly ambitious and autonomous. Now that these programs are well established, and the network includes solid groups in Africa and Europe, Women's WORLD's New York office will begin to concentrate on program development within the United States.

Chronology

1986

A Women's Committee is founded in PEN American Center after the 49th Congress of International PEN in New York.

1989

An international network of women writers is set up at the International PEN Congress in Canada.

1991

The International PEN Women Writers Committee is formally voted in by the delegates to PEN's 53rd Congress, in Vienna.

1993-94

Svetlana Alexievich (Belarus); the "Five Croatian Witches" (Croatia); and Taslima Nasrin (Bangladesh) become major censorship cases.

1994

Women's WORLD is incorporated and holds its first board meeting.

1995

Women's WORLD sends a delegation to the UN Conference on Women in Beijing and publishes The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship and Voice, which names and defines gender-based censorship for the first time. In the next few years, translations will be published in Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Urdu, and eight Indian languages.

1996

Women's WORLD holds the first international conference on gender-based censorship, in Bellagio, Italy.

1997

A pilot program to build an African women writers' network begins in Kenya and planning begins for local partnership programs in other parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the United States.

1998

Partnership programs are launched with Asmita (India), Orlando (Italy), and the Welfare Rights Initiative (US), and the Kenya program is concluded. RELAT inaugurates a Latin American network of women writers with headquarters in Peru and an international conference of women writers is held in Argentina.

1999

Women's WORLD sends a delegation to the Zimbabwe Book Fair to develop work with women writers in Southern Africa and holds a European team meeting in Bellagio. New partnership programs begin in Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, Italy, and Russia; The Gender and Censorship Project in India begins an ambitious series of research and organizing workshops in ten Indian languages with meetings in Urdu, Telugu, Marathhi, Malayalam, and Hindi. RELAT organizes a Peruvian conference of women writers, and sets up a Spanish language website for the Latin American network linked with its sister group, REBRA, in Brazil.

2000

A conference on gender and censorship is held near Moscow, with women writers attending from Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus. The second Argentinean international conference of women writers is held in Rosario, where RELAT is announced as a Latin American network and new groups join. The gender and censorship program in India holds workshops in Gujarati, Kannada, and Bangla. The New York welfare rights project concludes with a reading and publication. A partnership program begins in Italy to do oral histories of Albanian women in Kosovo. Women's WORLD publishes The Power of the Word II: Women's Voices and the New European Order, in English and Russian; this collection grew out of the European team meeting in 1999. Responding to rapid growth, Women's WORLD begins intensive strategic planning and the Board of Directors holds a retreat to develop a new division of labor.

2001

The Gender and Censorship Project has its last two language workshops, in English and Tamil, and the project culminates in a colloquium of two hundred Indian women writers in Hyderabad. A meeting in Bologna initiates plans for an international conference on gender and censorship to be held in Greece in 2003. Russian women writers in the Tarusa area have a regional meeting. A regional office is set up by RELAT in Peru, and RELAT awards its prize for a first novel to a young Costa Rican writer. The New York office initiates a project to help feminist voices for peace from Israel and Palestine gets published in English.

2002

The Women's WORLD website goes up. The first collection of work by Russian women writers will be published in Moscow by a major publishing house, and Women's WORLD Russia will be founded as a desk in the Democratic Writers' Union. The Indian Gender and Censorship project will generate two collections and a research monograph in the coming year and Women's WORLD India will be incorporated. The Italian-Albanian oral history project will be published. RELAT will begin an oral history project in the Amazon region. The Women's WORLD network will collaborate in efforts to track the effects of Sept. 11 and the "war on terrorism" on women's freedom of expression.