III. Some Reflections on the Possibility
of Creating Women's WORLD in Western Europe
by Luisa Passerini
Most Western Europeans would approve
of the idea of creating an association such as Women's WORLD in
continents like Asia, Africa, and South America. But they would
likely react to the proposal of developing a strategy of struggle
against the censorship of women's voices in Western Europe with
surprise and the question: "What is the problem?"
In reply, let us say right from the beginning
that we need to develop a wider notion of gender censorship, which
will include the forms it takes in relatively prosperous and democratic
countries. Let us not forget that, while over the last three centuries,
Western European women have found the literary public sphere relatively
open as a forum for their expression, the political arena has been
largely closed to them, as have been the media that dominate it,
such as political newspapers. As for the academy, it is still open
to very few women; and while huge differences remain between countries,
in most situations we find women employed largely at the lower and
medium levels, with very few reaching the heights.
As a first step, let us consider briefly the
heritage of feminism in some of the countries of Western Europe.
(My direct knowledge is limited to Italy, France, Great Britain,
and to some extent Germany, Spain, and Greece. Therefore these considerations
are partial and will require elaboration as we go on.) The historic
importance of feminism in Western Europe and its achievements in
various fields are undeniable. Nevertheless, in order to better
understand the relationships between women from this region and
women of the rest of the world, we must look at its weak points.
Only with a clear perspective on these, it seems to me, will we
be able to use feminism's strengths to their full potential.
First, there is the question of relationships
between this political generation and younger women. The problem
is one of communication, where language becomes crucial. "We"
use a language that is largely self-referential and our interlocutors
have most often been inside our own generation. Because we have
made little effort to transmit our political heritage, our political
tradition exists only in a partial and often implicit way. While
a minority of women in their twenties and thirties are beginning
to show interest in the history of feminism and in feminists, by
and large we are still under the influence of the last two decades,
when younger women were diffident about the experiences of their
mothers and their teachers.
All this has taken place in an environment
characterized by the emergence of new images of women. The first
is relatively new to the European scene, if we think in terms of
mass culture: that is, women deeply involved in their professions.
The second image, women of the Right, is not new, but it has taken
on a newly aggressive character in recent times. In this context,
the heritage of feminism is not well known; it is often distorted
by the media and by public opinion, and it has seldom been the object
of scholarly study. All these factors lead to a silencing of women's
voices, particularly in the exchange between generations, due in
part to our own lack of foresight as well as to the absence of adequate
A second difficult area is that of the relationships
between the women of Eastern and Western Europe. Here again, communication
is a major problem, and many misunderstandings have arisen over
terms like "feminism," "consciousness-raising,"
and "abortion." Such inability to communicate is certainly
the result of the Cold War and the division of the continent for
more than seventy years, but it is also due to the tendency of Western
European feminists to consider their own experiences as universal
and to inadequate efforts to listen to others. I have the impression
that women from the USA have until now done more than we have in
the direction of establishing links with women in Eastern Europe.
It is most urgent that feminists in Western
Europe foster all sorts of exchanges with women from the Eastern
parts of the continent, with the aim of clarifying our outlooks
and to establish areas of agreement and disagreement. Facing these
disagreements will be a challenge, but we might, for instance, consider
organizing a seminar focusing on such contested terms as the three
spoken of above. Why do they each have such different resonances?
Can we hold onto these differences and still find common ground?
A reciprocal understanding of both the potential for and obstacles
to the expression of women's voices in different situations is crucial
to our purposes. Again, the reciprocal silencing that keeps Eastern
and Western European women from hearing each other has both structural
causes and internal reasons; the latter require some reflection
on our own attitudes and our own potential. The analysis of what
groups like the Women's Center in Bologna have done in this area
could be an inspiration and stimulus to others.
The third problematic area is the relationships
between local women and feminists and those who migrate here from
the "global South." Although cultural initiatives exist
in various countries (for example, Alma Mater and Alma Terra, in
Italy), it has been difficult to promote exchanges capable of maintaining
both equality and difference. (Some of the most important work is
being done in elementary schools with largely immigrant populations,
where most of the teachers are women, but this is a subject with
which I am not very familiar.) While many of the women who have
migrated to Western Europe from Africa, Asia, and Latin America
have found jobs that deal with the material aspects of life and
the body (domestic work, care of the old and the sick, prostitution),
their voices are scarcely heardit is their bodies that we
see in streets and homes. What must we do in order to best hear
what they have to say and write about their experiences of life
and work, their perceptions of us? How are we going to talk to them?
We have much to learn, for it is evident that the majority of Western
European feminists have yet to articulate an understanding of the
connections between gender and race, an understanding that is absolutely
urgent in our situation.
It is against this background that our own
strategies must be formulated. We need to grasp the relationship
between the forms of censorship of women's voices in areas marked
by poverty and lack of respect for democratic rights and areas like
ours, where the silencing of women's voices is more implicit. One
of them is self-inflicted silence, the lack of communication with
others. But we should not overlook the laws of the market, from
production to distribution and consumptionincluding the weight
of so-called public opinion and the ways in which it is manipulated
through book promotion networks of reviews and publicity.
In facing this task, we should not be blinded
by the illusion that the levels of democracy and prosperity reached
herewhile we value them for what they allow usare sufficient
for giving a voice to each woman. Women find many obstacles to their
expression, especially those whose voices are antagonistic to the
existing order. We must understand the nature of these obstacles
if we are to fight and overcome them. We may be particularly interested
in those areas relating to writing (including translation from one
language to another and transcription of oral forms of expression),
but we must consider writing in the context of women's free expression
in various fields, from the arts to the media.
All of this must be understood in a global
context, as analyzed in Women's WORLD pamphlet The Power of the
Word: Culture, Censorship, and Voice. The success of many women
writers, coinciding with the difficulties many other women around
the world today have in finding expression, must be understood in
terms of globalization. While women are being emancipated, at the
same time many forms of oppression have continued or been worsened
by wars and the various fundamentalisms. In the New World Order
that has developed over the last three decades, the word "women"
sometimes seems to hold too many contradictions to be useful. So
many women benefit in various ways from this system of global power;
so many do not. Let us work with the intent of understanding and
promoting the possible forms of solidarity between those women who
suffer from direct forms of oppression, and those who are more privileged
than others but refuse to take this condition for granted, recognizing
the still existing, if hidden, forms of oppression to which they
Luisa Passerini is an historian, memorist,
specialist in oral history, and feminist activist. She is a professor
at the University of Turin and is currently teaching at the European
University in Florence. She has written on the Italian resistance,
the generation of 1968, and the idea of Europe.