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  • Opening Doors for Feminism:UN World Conferences on Women
  • Charlotte Bunch (bio)

Introduction: When and Where I Entered

The four UN World Conferences on Women—Mexico City 1975, Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi 1985, and Beijing 1995—became avenues and opportunities for many feminists to discover each other and to learn and struggle together as we engaged in what has come to be called transnational feminist activism. The many governmental and non-governmental events surrounding these conferences led to gatherings regionally and globally that enhanced the growth both in numbers and in depth of analysis of women's activities and movements around the world during those years.

The United Nations certainly did not create feminism, and its conferences, women's units, declarations, or other activities are not substitutes for women's movements nor should they be expected to be so. However, the UN has provided an invaluable international focus on women's lives and rights, thus expanding the public space in which feminists could work. Women developed international contacts and political savvy, exchanged strategies, and engaged with governments; all of these activities strengthened the impact of their work on the ground.

These events profoundly affected my life and work as a feminist as they did many of my generation, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. I entered UN-sponsored women's space in 1975 as an anti-imperialist U.S. feminist from the women's liberation strand of the women's movement, with its roots in the 1960s U.S. civil rights and anti-war movements. I was eager to meet feminists from other countries; I saw the UN as an important place for connecting to women globally and wrote about plans for the first women's conference. As a member of the women's caucus of the Board of the National Gay (and Lesbian) Task Force, I helped organize "lesbian visibility" activities around the World Conference in Mexico City, but I did not attend the conference mostly because I thought too many "gringas" crossing the border would dominate the event. I followed the proceedings in the media and from my friends' reports, but wished I had gone and vowed never to miss another one of these conferences. [End Page 213]

Mexico City and the UN Decade for Women: Debates, Consciousness Raising, Openings

The International Women's Year (IWY) World Conference in Mexico City in 1975 was tumultuous and ground breaking in bringing global attention to a multitude of issues raised by the 8000-plus people who attended the conference and/or the NGO parallel tribune. It was a massive global consciousness-raising moment, even if a painful one, as women learned how women's issues were seen in other countries. For example, lesbians who had committed to being visible at the conference had a double-edged experience, as they saw themselves ridiculed by the press and accused of diverting the conference agenda by some. Yet their visibility also enabled issues regarding sexual orientation to be on the table and lesbians from many countries met each other as well as local gay women in Mexico for whose movement the meeting proved a pivotal event.1

The Mexico City conference and NGO Tribune brought many women, both as governmental delegates and as civil society, into the orbit of the UN for the first time; both events introduced activists to the potential of pursuing their interests through the UN, at a time when there were few international venues for women's rights. As the Barbadian feminist Peggy Antrobus notes: "It was within this context that women from around the world first encountered each other in a sustained and ever-deepening process....[that] was to nurture and expand this movement in a way that not even its strongest protagonists could have imagined."2 These UN initiatives not only catalyzed and provided resources for the growth of women's groups in the global South, they also had a major impact on thinking more globally for women in the global North. Let me give two examples: first, the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women was organized primarily by European women to put forward an independent feminist agenda as they feared governments would co-opt feminism at...


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