issue 200 - October 1989
Illustration: Jackie Morris
Half the sky and a
great deal more
The 1970s and 1980s have been the decades of feminism.
Debbie Taylor follows the trail through her own life.
The white woman picked a branch of magenta bougainvillea flowers and put them in a glass on the table. She took out her paints to capture their exuberance, their hectic colour: essence of Africa, she thought.
There was a knock on the door. She had started dreading these. It would be another woman from Naledi looking for work as a maid, dressed in her best in the blaring midday heat: thick cardigan and skirt, heavy shoes. The woman would bow her head, maybe bob a slight curtsey, address her as 'madam'. 'Madam' : a bare foot young woman with a paintbrush in her hand, dressed in shorts and flimsy T-shirt, young enough to be her daughter.
No, she didn't want a maid. No, her servant's quarters were already occupied. No, she didn't want any other work done. 'Leave me alone!' she wanted to scream, longing for one day without a reminder of her wealth, her guilt.
She went back to the table and looked at the flowers. In those few minutes the colour had drained out of them and they had wilted in the glass like faded tissue-paper.
* * *
The first issue of the NI devoted to women came out in 1977, the year before my sojourn in Botswana. Spare Rib - the UK's first feminist magazine - had already been going for five years. By 1975 all the classics - like Greer's Female Eunuch and Friedan's Feminine Mystique - were best-selling paperbacks and the basic principles of feminism had become everyday parlance in the West. I read Millett's Sexual Politics by the light of an oil lamp, with mosquitos whining in my ears, and tried to make it make sense in Africa.
In the NI's first editorial by a woman, Maggie Black described the beauty of a 15-year-old Ethiopian girl she met on the road to Selekleka and mourned the transience of that beauty 'if policies don't change fast enough to avoid her back being bent, her hands calloused, her body broken, by the time she is 30'. The magazine's message then was the same as it is today: that 'women hold up half the sky and a great deal more besides' and that development will at best hobble along until women's disproportionate contribution to the work, wealth and well-being of their communities is both recognized and rewarded.
In an attempt to focus attention on what was seen then as the 'plight of women', the United Nations had decided that 1975 would be International Woman's Year. Following that initial spate of concern, the ten years between 1976 and 1985 were declared the 'Decade for Women'. If that young Ethiopian girl has survived the droughts, famines and wars of these intervening years - not to mention the torments and dangers of childbirth for a circumcized and infibulated woman, whose vagina must be re-sealed after each birth - she will be 26 today.
'What can I do for a child?' Dikeledi, the tough woman, who smoked and swaggered and whose voice was as hoarse as an old man's, turned tear-filled eyes on the white woman's face. 'They say some man has given me a disease. They say this disease has made me barren. They say there is no cure.'
The white woman knew she was expected to offer a solution, some medical advance that would undo the damage to her friend's body, to her life. But she knew there was nothing she could do. White South Africa had taken the black men. herded them into workers' barracks and townships, kept them supplied with beer and prostitutes, then sent them back home with their rand, their tuberculosis and their venereal disease. Those gold mines had stolen much more than gold from Africa.
* * *
I was born into the first generation of women who could actually choose - without risking death in an illegal abortion - when and whether we would have children. It seems hard to believe that we flower children of the 1960s and 1970s never doubted for a second that we would eventually find fulfilling jobs. All the radical soul-searching was born of basic economic security.
It was not all easy. Though the space was suddenly there for us, we still had to come forward and claim it. The first women doctors and lawyers, the women artists and writers, the politicians and trades unionists, the women who came out as lesbians; and before them the witches and the suffragettes: the paths we walk so freely are paths they laid down for us. These paths were made by the feet of generations of women - our mothers, their mothers, their grandmothers - walking.
And not only their feet. These brief oases of super-wealth were a direct result of exploitation of the developing world. And it was and is women's labour that underpins the economies of every developing country. Our liberation has been bought dearly.
* * *
They sat inside, drinking tea from enormous enamel mugs. Billowing smoke from the fire made the white woman's eyes water. She wiped them surreptitiously and repeated her question: 'Surely a woman is better off without a man?'
The black woman shook her head vehemently. Yes, her brother-in-law had beaten her and treated her cruelly. Yes, the men did drink and go with prostitutes. Yes, many husbands kept all the money from the maize crop even though their wives had done most of the work. But no. A woman is not better off alone. A woman and man should work together.
'And why have men become cruel and lazy?' the white woman asked, irritated at the other woman's refusal to condemn the opposite sex.
'It's because of money,' answered the other simply. 'Long ago we depended on each other. Today the men just want money. It makes them greedy and lazy. They don't care about their families. And they don't listen to the elders.'
* * *
After nearly eight years of working as an editor of the NI, I have facts embedded in my brain and figures coming out of my ears. I could quote you a mile of statistics. Facts about woman's access to contraception and the annual death toll of illegal abortion; about the number of children they want and the number they lose to malnutrition and disease; facts about rape, incest and infibulation.
I could reassure you with talk of progress and produce another pile of evidence to back me up: more family planning, more education, more employment, constitutional changes. I could tilt your opinion back the other way with other evidence: about the feminization of poverty, about women's loss of land, the ravages of the debt crisis - of any crisis - on the most vulnerable: on the women and their children.
I also could point out, again, the shameful irony that the most dramatic advances for women have been almost entirely confined to the industrial world; that the worst declines have been in poor countries among those very women whose work creates the wealth that buys us our freedom.
Where are the teachers and lawyers and journalists who pay their cleaners and child-minders even half what they earn themselves? Who is it that sets the going rate for our work?
* * *
The woman stared into her wineglass as her friend started speaking. The other woman's voice sounded hollow and dull, as though under water: 'He made me dress up in clothes like my mother's. When I got older he left me alone and started on my younger sisters.' Another woman reached for the speaker's hand and started stroking it. 'I can't bear it when my husband touches me,' the dead voice went on. 'I lie there pretending to be asleep then I feel this thing pressed against me. I hate it. I hate him. He says he can't help it, that he can't control himself if he's asleep. But that means I can't ever trust him, really.'
When she had finished there was silence as the other seven women thought of their lovers, their husbands, their brothers and fathers. Every man seemed implicated, by virtue of sheer anatomy. There was an almost audible hiss of sisterhood, a collective shrinking from the flesh of the enemy.
Eventually they led the one who had spoken into the middle of the room. They took her in their arms and lifted her gently so that she could feel their support along the length of her body. Then they went back to their separate homes, to their men, flying to balance the love and the hate in their hearts.
* * *
Nawal el Saadawi - Egyptian novelist, ex-Minister of Health, imprisoned by Sadat for her writing - stayed with me briefly in the autumn of 1985. She was one of five Third World feminist writers the NI had commissioned to visit countries in the rich world and comment on women's lives there.
She came to visit my consciousness-raising group in Oxford. She looked round at us and asked: 'Have any of you left your husbands because of this talking that you do? How has it changed your lives?' We felt shamefaced. This woman had been to jail because of her beliefs. Suddenly our long hours spent talking and laughing and crying together seemed trivial by comparison. But perhaps we were mistaken to feel guilty.
* * *
The white woman knelt with the black women in a circle in the moonlight. She was panting from running, dancing, chanting, crawling, beating the ground. Her palms and knees were bleeding from thorns in the sand. She started shivering as her sweat dried in the freezing winter air. She looked round at the others, spitting dust from their mouths, coughing, shaking with cold.
Nine old women walked round the circle carrying thin branches with the leaves stripped off. They were mothers, grandmothers, widows: the elders, the teachers of the young. They knew the words of all the songs, the plots of every story, the intricacies of every movement and rhythm. It was their job to instill respect into these 50 young initiates - respect and the essential knowledge of womanhood: bitter knowledge; sweet knowledge. They ordered the young women to remove their upper garments and then to bend forward until their foreheads touched the cold sand. Then one of them - the initiates never found out which one - walked slowly around the circle of naked backs, giving each a single stinging lash with her whip.
Formerly an NI co-editor, Debbie Taylor is now an independent writer.