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  • Making History Word by Word
  • Arvonne S. Fraser (bio)

When a woman from the Global South said in 1985 that in terms of women, the whole world is developing, I knew the UN Decade for Women (1976-85) had been a success. We had a new international women's movement. It was small, but effective. I felt exhilarated, satisfied, and challenged. There was much more to do. By 1985 I had spent more than a decade working to improve the status of women in the United States and abroad. Reflecting back after almost three decades, I realize my background, education, opportunities, and experiences all contributed to my work. What sustained me were the intellectual and personal challenges, the joy of learning, of making friends and finding colleagues, of taking advantage of opportunities to make change, and writing about it. I write because I believe women's contributions to history have been overlooked for far too long.

Born to struggling parents in a Minnesota farming community where almost everyone's foremothers were immigrants, I was raised on stories of ancestors and how our community was founded. I heard many languages spoken, saw poverty, and how hard women worked and what little credit they got. Our community and my parents venerated education and my father's deep interest in politics fascinated me.

Graduating from the University of Minnesota with a liberal arts degree, I was delighted to be secretary-receptionist in Hubert H. Humphrey's 1948 U.S. Senate campaign. Soon I was part of the young group in the newly merged Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, and married a colleague, Donald Fraser. In 1962 he was elected to Congress—with my help—and we moved our six children to Washington DC. Depressed at being cut off from my political and community activities at home, we scrimped to hire a maid/ sitter so I could work part-time as his unpaid administrative assistant. The new women's liberation movement intrigued me, but I felt it ignored the possibilities of improving the status of women through changing laws and policies.

My international activism began in 1974, when I was appointed by President Ford as a member of the U.S. delegation to the preparatory committee (Prep Com) for the first UN world women's conference, convened by the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The token Democrat on the delegation, by then I was also national president of the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL), an organization working to eliminate discrimination against women in education, employment, and the law. In 1973 I had played a minor part in the work for the adoption of the Percy Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, a law that recognized that "women in developing [End Page 193] countries play a significant role in economic production, family support and the overall development process," and called for integrating women in U.S. foreign aid programs, "thus improving their status and assisting the total development effort."1

Reading the background documents for this Prep Com, I discovered CSW concentrated on the same issues WEAL did, and that CSW members were, like myself, activists in women's organizations and in government and politics. Dismayed by the unfamiliar UN rules of procedure, Shirley Hendsch, the State Department's women's affairs officer, took me under her wing. She introduced me to Aziza Hussein of Egypt, a CSW member who later headed the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

Together we drafted a resolution on the importance of women's organizations in improving women's status, and obtained permission from our governments to introduce it. This effort, plus learning that Helvi Sipilä of Finland, a former CSW member and now Secretary-General of this women's conference, had made her reputation by undertaking a study of family planning, taught me the art of international politics and the power of words. "Family planning" is less inflammatory than "birth control"; "women who have responsibility for families" is less offensive to governments than "female-headed households" because many governments did not recognize women as legal heads of households; and "women's organizations" are less threatening to autocrats than "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs). This last lesson was...


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pp. 193-200
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