II. The Pebble and the Lake
by Meredith Tax
I. The World Situation
Women's WORLD was founded in 1994 in response to changes in the
world situation caused by the end of the Cold War: globalization,
on the one hand, and the rise of backlash social movements, on the
By globalization, I mean a new form of capitalism
in which fundamental economic decisions are removed from elected
politicians and local financial leaders and placed in the hands
of an international financial ruling class accountable to no one.
Increasingly, the nation state is being superseded by multinational
corporations and international financial institutions like the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whose policies of "structural
adjustment" have imposed a dog-eat-dog, nineteenth-century
version of the free market upon countries in the Global South and
Eastern Europe. "Structural adjustment" has brought widespread
starvation and economic chaos to Africa, Asia, and Latin America,
while, in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe, it
has led to a resurgence of ethnic war, xenophobia, anti-Semitism,
and crime, a dramatic rise in the traffic in women, and the descent
into poverty and unemployment of millions of people.
Everywhere globalization is producing a widening
gulf between rich and poor, with women and children making up a
disproportionate percentage of the latter group. This is true not
only in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but also among the poor,
minority, and immigrant populations of North America and Europe.
At the same time, the new weakness of the nation state, easily perceived
by demagogues and aggrieved groups, has led to an increase in local
conflicts led by warlords trying to carve out their own nations
or ethnic enclaves. Driving peasants off the land and into cities
and borderlands where they cannot feed themselves, these wars have
created an unprecedented number of refugee women and children fleeing
extermination or starvation. These local wars are one result of
an epidemic of backlash social movements, atavistic movements that
yearn for the age of barbarism, invoking the mythic past of their
people, tribe, or religion. Atavistic social movements target their
next door neighbor, the hereditary enemy. They emphasize control
over women, whom they see as symbols of national or communal honor.
Virulent nationalism drives one kind of atavistic
movement; religious fundamentalism another. Fundamentalist movements
have taken advantage of the weakness of the nation state to sow
the seeds of theocracy in many places. Creeping theocracy can be
seen in Egypt, where the courts enforce a Shariat law substantially
different from the laws enacted by the legislature. It can be seen
in Israel, where fundamentalist settlers, believing they are destined
to control all the land that was Biblical Israel's at its point
of greatest expansion, have repeatedly derailed the peace process.
It can be seen in the United States, where a conservative Congress
brought government to a standstill for almost a year in its zeal
to enforce, not the law of the land, but a "higher law"
under which a President could be impeached for sexual misconduct.
Women today are caught between the two conflicting
forces of globalization and backlash social movements. The pressures
of globalization draw them out of villages into factories and export
processing zones, breaking down age-old patterns of female subordination
and isolation. Local patriarchs, losing economic and political power
to global forces, see this breakdown of the traditional family as
the most disturbing aspect of globalization, the place where they
must reassert control or lose everything. The women are caught in
an intolerable contradiction, pulled at once towards a commercialized
future and pushed back into a traditional past.
Women writersfeminist writersexpress
this contradiction in vivid, memorable language and, by articulating
the issues, make other women more aware. But, by doing so, they
become the targets of traditionalists, who see feminists as the
most vulnerable symbol of the modernity that is destroying their
power and their way of life.
II. The History of Women's WORLD
Women's WORLD formed in 1994 to protect women writers under attack
and to amplify their voices. The feminist network that became Women's
WORLD began to organize in the United States, where our confidence
that women were making progress was jarred in 1986, at an International
PEN Congress in New York. (International PEN is a world writers'
organization founded after World War I.) Norman Mailer, then President
of PEN American Center, had told the press this Congress would bring
together "the best writers in the world," and it became
a media event, occupying the front page of The New York Times every
day. This is not normal in the United States, where literature is
normally confined to the back pages of newspapers. But writers attending
the Congress found that "the best writers in the world"
appeared to be almost all white men from Europe and North America.
Out of nearly 120 speakers, only 13 were women. For American women
writers, this was disturbing partly because there had been a strong
feminist presence in our country for twenty years; we felt as though
we were being swept back into the 1950s. Two hundred of us held
a spontaneous lunchtime meeting in the hotel ballroom;; we developed
a petition to circulate among our fellow writers, gave a press conference,
and refused to leave the hall until we were granted speakers at
the closing assembly.
We went on to organize a Women's Committee
in PEN American Center. Grace Paley and I were its first co-chairs.
Though there was some opposition at first, our committee organized
such brilliant, well-attended literary events that within a year
or two we were considered a credit to PEN. A number of members of
the Women's Committee were elected to the board of PEN American
Center, and, in 1989, I was made a Vice President and sent to an
International PEN Congress in the Netherlands. The small number
of women delegates there indicated a need for some feminist organizing,
and a few of us came together around the idea of starting a Women
Writers' Committee in International PEN. International PEN was then
led by a small group of elderly European men whose views on the
subject were summed up by one French Vice President, "I love
women, they are my muse, but why a committee?" Still, by the
time of the 1991 International PEN Congress in Vienna, we had convinced
the majority of delegates that a Women Writers' Committee would
be a good thing. The birth of the Women Writers' Committee was the
first of many changes that have since come to International PEN,
including new leadership and a reformed constitution.
I served as founding Chair of the International
PEN Women Writers' Committee between 1991 and 1994, a period when
the number of feminist writers being persecuted seemed to be on
the rise, as did the seriousness of their cases. In 1993, Svetlana
Alexievich, a brilliant Belarussian oral historian who broke the
story in Russia of what the army was doing in Afghanistan, was put
on trial by the military. In 1993 and 1994, the "Five Croatian
Witches," charged by the Zagreb gutter press with insufficient
nationalism, were subjected to a "trial by public opinion,"
which eventually drove three 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. She went into hiding, and people in International PEN,
including the Women Writers' Committee, played a role in getting
her to safety in Sweden.
The rising influence of virulent nationalism
and political fundamentalism illustrated by these cases convinced
a group of us that a new organization was needed to pursue a more
aggressively feminist program on women's right to free expression
than was possible in PEN. At feminist book fairs and conferences,
we had made contact with writers and publishers from Africa, Asia,
and Latin America, who were not in PEN and wanted to work on issues
of gender-based censorship. In 1994, Paula Giddings, Ninotchka Rosca,
and I incorporated the Women's World Organization for Rights, Literature,
and Development. We held a founding meeting that fall. Those present
were Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Marjorie Agosin (Chile/USA), Lucy Friedman
(USA), Paula Giddings (USA), Aicha Lemsine (Algeria), Ritu Menon
(India), Ninotchka Rosca (Philippines), Mariella Sala (Peru), and
I; Grace Paley agreed to be the first Chair of our Board of Directors.
Our first project was to write down our analysis
of gender-based censorship and the changing world situation in a
pamphlet, "The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship, and
Voice," which we brought to the UN's Beijing Conference on
Women. We then began to try to imagine a program that would be both
local and international. Because our resources were very smallfor
much of our history I have been the only staff memberwe decided
to work on the basis of partnerships with local organizations. We
began to outline a strategy for this in 1996, at our first world
conference on gender-based censorship, held at the Rockefeller Foundation's
Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. We now have partnerships forming
or underway in Albania, Argentina, Ghana, India, Italy, Peru, Russia,
South Africa, Uganda, and the United States, as well as an international
program consisting of defense and support work in individual cases
of censorship, coordination of regional programs, and the development
of publications and a website. All these programs address the intersection
of gender and censorship, which we define more broadly than do most
human rights organizations.
III. Gender-based Censorship
We define censorship as any means by which ideas and works of art
that express views not in accord with the dominant ideology are
prevented from reaching their intended audience. Every society has
some degree of censorship, which it carries out by its normal means
of social organization and control. In a military dictatorship,
censorship is exercised by the military; in a communist country,
by the state; in a market-driven society, by market forces, though
the state may have to intercede if these do not suffice.
Gender-based censorship, as we see it, is
much broader and more pervasive than official, organized suppression.
It is embedded in a range of social mechanisms that mute women's
voices, deny validity to their experience, and exclude them from
political discourse. Its purpose is to obscure the real conditions
of women's lives and the injustice of patriarchal gender relations.
It strives to intimidate women writers, targeting women who don't
know their place in order to silence the rest. While some of those
who silence women writers are government officials or religious
fanatics, other forces of censorship are parents who think it doesn't
pay to invest in a girl's education, teachers who discourage girls
from having ambitions beyond motherhood, publishers who don't think
it worth their while to publish books by women, and critics who
are unable to take work by women seriously. Such pressures from
one's family or closest associates can lead to the most pervasive
form of censorship, self-censorship, that holding back inside when
one cannot face the consequences of speaking the truthconsequences
that can range from loss of love to causing pain to being thrown
in jail, pushed into exile, or killed.
Gender-based censorship can also be seen in
the economic and political priorities that mandate widespread female
illiteracy. The terrible illiteracy in which so many of our sisters
are kept is not simply an unintended consequence of poverty and
overwork; it is a social mechanism designed to perpetuate discrimination
and deny women a public voice. Attacks on female education are a
manifestation of the same agenda.
The rise of atavistic social movements means
that open gender-based censorship is becoming increasingly visible
in the world today. But that does not mean it is a phenomenon only
found in traditional societies. North America and Europe, too, have
their own ways of muting the voices of those who protest, methods
that combine traditionalism with the new power of globalization.
The United States provides an advanced example of this combination
IV. Gender and Censorship in the United
While women in the United States have overcome most obvious barriers
to publication of their books and recognition of their literary
achievements, ancient patterns persist: major literary prizes generally
go to men; there is still a tendency to treat literature by women
as being of a different, lower order; and women authors who violate
taboos still tend to be discussed in terms of their morals, if not,
indeed, their appearance. But these patterns of gender-discrimination
are relatively minor irritations compared to two factors affecting
all US writers: the concentration of the publishing industry in
a few hands, and the culture war against all the ideas of the sixties.
In the last fifteen years, US publishing has
been transformed from a relatively broad and diverse industry, marked
by many independent, medium-sized presses, to an industry dominated
by three multinational media corporations. Most publishing resources
are now concentrated in the hands of these corporations, which are
entirely ruled by commercial values and a culture of celebrity.
In this world, brand-name writers are marketed as commodities, and
pre-publication tie-ins between books and other media are increasingly
sought; literary or socially conscious authors lack commercial interest
or are considered passČ; while poets and radicals have become endangered
species outside the university. New, small presses are springing
up to fill the vacuum, but differences of scale and resources make
it difficult for them to compete with the hegemony of the corporate
An additional difficulty, for feminist writers
at least, is the culture war waged for the last twenty years by
right-wing ideologues with enormous access to money and to the media.
These conservative intellectuals are particularly worried about
changes in the position of women, minorities, and homosexuals; they
launch campaigns against any book with a progressive agenda in these
areas. In the resulting climate of political backlash, publishers
may prefer to publish "post-feminists," particularly since
these can often find their own funding from right-wing Institutes.
Conservative groups also attack feminist books for children and
try to remove sex education materials from the public school system.
One of my own books, Families, was removed from the first-grade
curriculum of the state of Virginia after a campaign by the Christian
Coalition; it was then dropped by its publisher. Right-wing groups
also attack women's studies, gay studies, affirmative action, and
sex education programs at the community college and university level.
The same conservative lobby has successfully
pressed for cuts in all federal spending on social services, particularly
welfare and education. This means that the poor are increasingly
denied the education necessary to gain access to publication, the
media, and a public voice. Such economic censorship feels so natural
that it is not even recognized as such; in the years of debate over
welfare, for instance, almost no one who actually receives welfare
has ever become a media spokesperson; women on welfare are routinely
represented by others, and this is so normal no one remarks upon
their lack of voice. Economic censorship, which functions by denying
access to adequate education, intersecting with a public information
system entirely controlled by commercial interests, has effectively
excluded the voices of large parts of the population: the poor,
minority groups of all kinds, and anyone whose ideas challenge the
reign of the almighty dollar. Since the majority of the poor are
women and children, one aspect of this exclusion is gender discrimination.
V. The World of Thought and Action
In her book Cassandra, Christa Wolf reminds us that Athena,
the goddess of abstract thought, was not born of woman but sprang
full grown from the forehead of her father Zeus. She asks, what
would "the history of thought" have been like if it had
come from some place other than the head of a male god? What would
it have been like if women had helped to shape it? Until very recently,
political thought in particular has been almost entirely the work
of a small group of privileged men, emerging from their life experience
and vision. Most of the human race has been excluded even from literacy,
let alone participation and voice. This should be remembered when
politicians invoke "our people's sacred traditions," or
"our ancestral culture."
Despite the fact that feminists have been
organizing for a couple of centuries, an extremely small number
of women have had the time and social space to develop their ideas
to the level of abstraction required by "the history of thought."
Few women's movements have even been able to sum up their experiences,
raise them to the level of strategic thinking, and transmit them
to the next generation. Over and over, feminist movements have arisen,
won some changes, and been swept aside by a tide of conservative
reaction, their achievements washed away like writing in the sand,
buried in inarticulate memory and obscure archives, to remain out
of print until another feminist upsurge starts the process over
again. If this has been true of the movements of educated women,
it has been a thousand times more true of the movements of grassroots,
working, and peasant women, who have kept few written records. Our
organizations did not last, and the lessons of our work were not
summed up and passed down, so each generation of feminists has had
to re-invent the wheel. People who are re-inventing the wheel seldom
reach the point of strategic thinking.
Globalization has increased women's burdens
by making subsistence more difficult. But it has also begun to create
the conditions for transcendence, conditions that may permit the
global women's movement to overcome its historic limitations and
to reach a new stage of development. For most of human history,
too few women were literate to preserve the experience of women's
popular movements. Recording, describing, analyzing demands a substantial
number of women who can read and write. Despite the still dismal
literacy statistics, and the cutbacks due to globalization, more
of the world's women can read and write than ever before. As our
writing and thinking accumulates, it reaches a strategic mass; finally,
there will simply too much stuff to wash away.
And if feminism is buried in one country,
it can be preserved in another, for we are now a global movement;
we can help one another survive. This was not true to the same degree
for past feminists; the suffrage movement and women's labor movements
of the early twentieth century tried to link up internationally,
but were hampered by lack of funds and very slow communications,
and overwhelmed by two world wars. Today, despite our fragmentation,
we are learning to wage global campaigns. Linked by modern communications
technology, we can begin to imagine having many bases in the same
We can even imagine strategizing together,
for we are learning long-term strategic ways of thinking to which
we have had little access in the past. Men, working in business,
accumulating estates, serving in military campaigns, even leading
sports teams, had occasion to think strategically, to make long-range
plans, to build organizations that could outlive them. But, until
very recently, women were barred from such activities; we could
not accumulate capital or order armies. Most of us worked in subsistence
agriculture and handicrafts, childcare and household management,
low-level mercantile activity, garment or food production for small
local markets. In our centuries of small-scale work, we developed
habits of thinking that emphasized cultural transmission, frugality,
the value of human life, the importance of human relations. The
end of a separate economic sphere for women, the penetration of
women into government, business, sports, and even the military,
has opened up new sources of experiential knowledge; we can combine
what we already know with macro, long term, strategic methods of
thinking previously monopolized by men. And by combining and interrogating
these methods of thought, we will transform them.
VI. Our Vision and the Global Women's Movement
The global women's movement today is larger, more international,
broader, better educated, and more able to think strategically than
ever before. It has the potential to learn how to defend women against
both globalization and the backlash movements that attack us. But
at the moment, this is only potential, because we lack what we need
mosta clear and compelling vision and strategic plan. In fact,
we have not one but many global women's movements:
- The international women's health movement,
whose victories are enshrined in the documents that emerged from
UN conferences in Cairo in 1994 and Beijing in 1995although
the gains of these documents represent have proven more difficult
to win in practice.
- The international movement for women's
human rights, which has forced mainstream human rights organization
to recognize that violence against womenincluding rape and
domestic violenceare human rights violations.
- The movement of women in economic development,
which has changed the lives of many poor women.
- The international movement for political
representation, which has focused on women's legal rights and
on getting more women into positions in government.
- The international environmental movement
and peace movement, both led by women activists in many regions,
with feminist caucuses within them.
While each of these movements has made enormous
gains, they go their separate ways, working on their own issues,
with no overall vision or strategy to unite them. There is not even
any global forum or publication where such strategic debates might
take place. And culture is a missing link in their discussions.
Although culture is the terrain on which most of our struggle with
traditionalists takes place, it is a curiously neglected aspect
of women's emancipation in terms of program. We talk of economic
development, health care, equality, human rights, the environment,
and peacebut women need more than bare survival, more than
political representation, more than clean water and the absence
of war. In 1912, during a textile workers' strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts,
immigrant women first raised the slogan, "We want bread and
roses too!" Nobody in the women's movement talks about roses
anymore. This is a mistake, for, in the words of Mariella Sala,
"sustainable development, political equality and peace must
be based on full human development. . . . art and culture are therefore
One purpose of Women's WORLD is to put rosesfree
expression and cultural developmenton the agenda of the global
women's movement. Women writers must make sure this happens for
we cannot do without it. In order to do so, women writers need four
- Land: We need our own spaces, all over
the world, "rooms of our own," both real and virtual;
safe places where we can come together to read, write, study,
and talk; where we can say things nobody has ever said before
because there was no place to say them.
- Money: We need money of our own with which
to build and save our work and our lives, money that is fluid
enough to move from one country to another if things get dangerous.
The situation in the world today is so unstable that any country
could change completely in just a few years. We must preserve
- Organization: We need local, regional,
and international networks in order to overcome our isolation,
strengthen our voices, and make it harder for our enemies to silence
us or suppress our work. We need to work in coalitions with other
women's organizations and other free speech organizations.
- Voice: We need our own media to make
our voices heard: presses, journals, radio and television networks,
and internet and distribution networks to ensure that our work
will reach its intended audience. We also need access to mainstream
media, so we are not marginalized.
VII. A Vision
Ten years ago, in 1989, when I started doing international work,
I had a vision. It came at a dark time in my life, when I was trying
to find a way to leave my second husband. I had no money, no home,
two children to take care of, and I was not doing much saleable
writing because I was so obsessed with building an international
network. One evening, sitting alone in my room, almost in despair,
I asked myself, "Why am I doing this? Am I out of my mind?"
And I had a vision.
I saw a lake in the middle of a dark forest
made up of fir trees, a kind of tree that grows in the northern
parts of my country. In a forest of fir trees, nothing else can
live. They sap and devitalize the soil, growing so close together
there isn't room for anything else. In a forest of firs, no light
gets through; the air is close and stuffy, and nothing moves.
In the middle of this forest, there was a
lake, clear, blue, and absolutely still. No fish, frogs, or birds
disturbed its surface. It was like a pane of glass. Then suddenly,
out of nowhere, a pebble dropped into the middle of the lake, and
ripples began to spread. Beyond all reason, the ripples spread further
and further, growing more powerful as they grew larger, until they
reached the shore, where the fir trees grew almost to the edge of
the water. But the ripples didn't stop at the water's edge, they
spread onto the land, and, as they spread, some of the trees began
It was like watching one of those slow-motion
films where you see a flower grow; everything seemed to be happening
very quickly, though I knew it must actually be taking a long time.
As the trees vanished, the sun shone in; winds blew; the air became
clean; the water seemed to sparkle. I heard the buzz of insects;
plants and wild flowers sprang up in the clearing; then other kinds
of trees: oak, maple, crab apple, chestnut, rowan, flowering sumac.
Rabbits and squirrels appeared, and robins and blue jays; a deer
came down to the water to drink; ducks and geese floated on the
lake; herons dipped their beaks; fish jumped. The place had come
And I said to myself, "What does this
mean?" As soon as I asked the question, I knew the answer.
The trees are the words of men. The ripples are the words of women.
And wethe conscious ones, the ones who want to change the
worldwe are the pebble.
Meredith Tax is an essayist, historian,
novelist, and feminist activist. She was a co-founder of Bread and
Roses and CARASA, and founding chair of the International PEN Women
Writers Committee. She is President of Women's WORLD.