Power of the Word II> next story


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 structures.

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 heard—it 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 consumption—including 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 here—while we value them for what they allow us—are 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 are subject.

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.