Excerpts of Speech to the Assembly of International PEN, Vienna, Austria
Meredith Tax, USA
November 14, 1991
Two and a half years ago, I attended my first PEN Congress as a delegate, at Maastricht, in the spring of 1989. We had had a Women's Committee in my center since the 1986 PEN Congress in New York, and I found that a number of women delegates were interested in seeing a Women's Committee formed in International PEN, in order to involve more women in the work of PEN at all levels, address problems that particularly affect women writers, and enable us to know one another's work.
We had originally planned to ask this Assembly to vote us in as a Committee at the Canadian Congress in the fall of 1989, but discovered that the idea filled a number of delegates with confusion and dismay. Consequently, we decided to become an informal international network of women writers, and rely upon time to convince you that we would be a force to strengthen PEN, not weaken it.
Time seems to have done the job. You have before you a resolution, submitted jointly by 28 centers, on forming a Women's Committee.... About seventy people attended the meetings on Monday and Wednesday at which we adopted this resolution and a set of principles, and elected a chair....The energy level at both meetings was high and a number of people volunteered to do work.
In the last two years, I have heard certain objections voiced to the formation of a women's committee in International PEN. Since I wish to persuade you that our cause is just by reason rather than the brute force of numbers, I will briefly discuss these objections.
The first is that there is no need for an international women's committee in PEN because women are already equal and should simply get on the boards of their centers and even become presidents, as they do every other term in English PEN. Since I am certain that English PEN will rise to recommend itself as a positive example, I will not do so for fear of being redundant. But alas, not every country is as enlightened as England....
Another objection is that a women's committee might interfere with the autonomy of some centers. It has been suggested that we might try to force certain centers to put women on their boards. How in the world would we do this? Will we have a standing army? If the Peace Committee cannot force some centers to make peace and if the Writers in Prison Committee can't force some centers to defend their own writers in prison, how can we force them to do the right thing for women? The worst we can do will probably be to ask in a friendly manner at each Congress, "Do you have any women on your board yet?" After a few years, perhaps such centers will appoint a woman or two in order to avoid embarrassment, and then they'll have someone to do all the work.
In our lifetime, we have witnessed the development of three great social movements. The first is the movement for democracy which has reached its most recent and extraordinary peak in Central and Eastern Europe. I am hoping this movement will get to my own country soon, as we too could use more democracy. This movement for democracy is very well represented in PEN.
The second is the great world movement of decolonization that has created new independent nations in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean. As Mr. Olinto and a number of African delegates and observers have remarked, this movement is less well represented in PEN than the first.
The third is the movement for women's liberation, which has been going on for a very long time, in my country alone for at least one hundred fifty years. This whole movement is the fault of teaching women to read. When people begin to read, they begin to think more clearly. When they begin to think more clearly, they begin to write their thoughts down, and from then on you have nothing but trouble. As I said two years ago, my grandmother didn't know how to read. This must be true of many of you as well. That's how recent this revolution is.
I hope the Assembly will vote to have this vast social groundswell reflected organizationally in International PEN, for to do so can only give our work renewed energy and life.
NOTE: The resolution making our network one of the four committees of International PEN passed the Assembly by a vote of 38 to 4 on November 9, 1991.