The Multinational Monitor



Sisterhood Is Global

An Interview with Robin Morgan

Robin Morgan is the editor-in chief of Ms. Magazine. An award-winning poet, novelist, journalist, political theorist and feminist activist, she has published 13 books, including the anthologies Sisterhood in Powerful and Sisterhood is Global. Her most recent works include the non-fiction The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism, Upstairs in the Garden: Selected and New Poems, 1968-1988 and The Mer-Child: A Legend for Children and Other Adults. She has been especially active in the international women's movement.

It's a shrinking planet, and it's a growing women's movement. What happens in one part of the world affects very much all the rest. Multinational Monitor: Why does each issue of Ms. include an international section?

Robin Morgan: How could it ever not? When I was contributing editor for 10 years to Ms. before I left when it began to "slide," I was now and then able to insert international coverage. But the space was limited; it was really token. Advertisers are not interested in international issues, because if their products aren't going to those markets, they couldn't give a damn. When I came back to the magazine, as editor-in-chief, I did so on three conditions: one, that it have no advertising; two, that it be completely editorially autonomous from Lang Communications, which formally owns it; and three, that I could take it in the direction of [covering] international [issues].

It's a shrinking planet, and it's a growing women's movement. What happens in one part of the world affects very much all the rest. Fallout from Chernobyl doesn't stop when it crosses a national boundary. Acid rain from the United States doesn't stop at the Canadian border. And neither does women's activism.

Although in the magazine industry everyone said, "Yawn, Americans aren't interested in international," to my great delight, the international section, according to the readers' mail, is their favorite feature.

We do short news bullets in-house, culled from media--both feminist and "mainstream"--around the world. But any in-depth coverage on women of other countries is done by women journalists of those countries, so as to preclude egregious errors or cultural insensitivities by outsiders, however well-meaning.

MM: What kind of commonalities do you see among women in different countries, especially in regard to their economic position?

Morgan: Wherever we are, women are in a Third World country, even in the so-called First World. We're low on technology, and we're intensive on labor. Wherever we are, we suffer from what I call "GNP invisibility." In other words, housewifery, child raising, subsistence farming--none of this is factored into the national accounts of any countries. When it comes time for services to go out from the budgetary centers to the people, since women are invisible as labor, we get short shrift on the services end. So the feminization of poverty is a world-wide phenomenon, not [one that occurs] just in the industrialized world.

Violence against women is epidemic everywhere--rape, battery, sexual harassment, homophobia and sexual abuse of particularly, but not exclusively, female children. So is the lack of reproductive freedom, and that includes of course the lack of freedom to give birth, if a woman chooses, in safe, sanitary, humane surroundings. Many of those basics cut across cultural and national boundaries.

When I say all issues are feminist issues, I really mean it. The environment is a women's issue everywhere. Toxic pollutants and nuclear waste take their first tolls in cancers of the female reproductive systems, in stillbirths and deformed births. Ninety percent of all refugee populations are women and children, so very clearly war and peace are women's issues. The world housing crisis is obviously a women's problem. In so many regions, the woman is confined to the home, and overcrowding also ups the rate of child sexual abuse, incest abuse, battery.

MM: What about the differences between women in different countries?

Morgan: What you find are different national and regional priorities of the various feminist movements. In the Pacific Island nations, for example, an end to nuclear testing by the French, now that the United States has stopped [testing there], and an end to nuclear and toxic dumping by the United States and Germany -- these are the priorities of the women's movement. The pollutants and the radiation levels have caused an epidemic of what Pacific women call jellyfish babies, malformed at birth, so it's very much a women's issue. And it was women who started the nuclear-free Pacific movement. In Northern Africa and parts of the Arabian peninsula, issues like genital mutilation are priorities of the indigenous women's movements. In Asia, bride selling and sex tours, in particular for the benefit of Japanese and European businessmen, are major feminist issues. AIDS more and more is a feminist issue, particularly in the Third World. Across Latin America, the debt is very much a feminist issue, because it is impacting most severely on small farmers and on peasant women.

Across the so-called industrialized world, it is patriarchal business as usual. We do not have parity in educational access, in economic access. We're still paid approximately half or less of what men are paid for performing the same jobs, not even to mention comparable worth. In most industrialized countries, a parking lot attendant gets paid more than a childcare worker, which shows that we treasure cars more than children.

So you can see we have a rather full agenda. And nowhere are we proportionately represented in policy making, decision making, governmental or other roles of real power.

MM: Is housework or domestic work recognized as a legitimate contribution to GNP or as "real" work anywhere in the world?

Morgan: No, virtually never. There's a brilliant book on the subject; the North American edition is called If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics. It was written by Marilyn Waring, who is a former member of parliament from New Zealand who immersed herself for years in studying the United Nations system of national accounts. It is that system which institutionalizes the invisibility of women's labor in all national accounting systems around the world, whatever the form of government, whatever the economic system. By its definition of work, it virtually locks out housework, child caring, subsistence farming, volunteer labor--all those things that women do. These are defined as non-productive, whereas [manufacturing] cigarettes, even though they cause cancer, is defined as productive.

MM: What effect would the recognition of women's labor have on people's attitudes?

Morgan: One of the things Waring takes on in the book is precisely that. It would be a total revolution. There would be a profound change in our value system if women's work were factored in, or for that matter, if the environment were factored in. Those are the two big ones that are left out. A standing forest that is 2,000 years old is [defined as] non- productive--it's only productive if you fell it, in terms of what you could get for the wood, for the lumber. The entire value system economically is a culture of death or of negativity. Revising our very concept of what productivity is would [create] a whole economic system the likes of which we've never seen before, certainly one far beyond corporate capitalism or communism or socialism.

MM: Is there a reason that women in all these different societies have the same sorts of problems?

Morgan: It's called patriarchy. It is lamentably true that in most societies power is held disproportionately by male human beings. It evidences itself in different ways depending on the region, the country, the culture. But that power accrual to male human beings is [generally] accompanied by contempt, covert or overt, for female human beings, a sense of entitlement or ownership.

I think it has gotten all of us, men and women, into a pretty awful situation, with the planet itself endangered. Patriarchy has not been demonstrably good for men in terms of longevity, serenity, wisdom, clean air, a non-violent society, etc. But at least men have the choice of the trade-off, and the trade-off that they made is [to wield] power. And this again is a cross-cultural reality. Some men have more power than other men, depending on class, race, nationality. But all men have more power than women do. I think that is why, in terms of the worldwide women's movement, you see this explosive creative energy happening cross-culturally from women. It has never been true that the slaves have been happy on any plantation--African-Americans in the U.S. South, or women anywhere.

MM: Do you root men's power all over the world in any one factor?

Morgan: There are many different theories that go around: hunting and gathering societies versus the first agrarian ones; body size; the fact that women can get pregnant; "womb envy" resentment. I am sure that, in overlapping ways, more than one of those theories is true. But none of these rationales holds up any more--if it is body size, that means less and less in a world of growing technology where manual strength is less important. [Yet] you find the bigotry cuts across no matter what. For example, among astronauts, physical strength is less important than physical endurance, but you still have more male astronauts than female astronauts, even though scientists will admit that women are stronger in terms of endurance and men are stronger in terms of physical strength. So when the job description goes completely contrary to the practice of male supremacy, it is ignored and male supremacy is upheld.

MM: How much contact do most women in the Third World have with multinational companies?

Morgan: There certainly is a rising tide of "cheap labor" for which women are first targets. And wherever you get so-called free trade zones, you get disaster for women. Again, in multinational corporations, we are first fired, we are marginal. Many of those women work with no benefits, they work in sweatshop conditions that look like they came straight out of the nineteenth century. They have no grievance procedures, no health protections, and they can be killed--literally--for trying to organize.

MM: How successful have multinational corporations been in providing safe and effective contraception to women throughout the world?

Morgan: Norplant is being pushed heavily now, and there is a whole scandal about Norplant which we covered in the May/June 1991 issue of Ms. The first test trials were done in Brazil, and not all of that evidence was introduced even to the FDA here in the United States. A lot of it was negative evidence.

In terms of pushing drugs, the multinationals are the real danger. I mean they are still pushing Depo-Provera, which is outlawed in the United States. You can buy it at street stands in India and in most parts of Asia without a prescription, without any instruction of how to take it.

What is very true is that women around the world, including those in the Third World, are desperate for some means of controlling their own fertility. This is not a First World issue or a U.S. issue. I have heard the desperation of Palestinian women in the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, of women in favelas in Rio, of women in the rice paddies in the Philippines-- they all desperately want some safe form of contraception which they can control.

The campaigns going on now about condoms are all well and good in terms of AIDS, but many women--most women of the world for that matter--cannot demand of a man that he wear a condom. If he doesn't want to, he just won't. And if she presses him, he may beat her up.

It's an amazement that science has not come up with some simple, safe means, but the pill and the diaphragm--if there are means to fit women and sanitary conditions for doing so, which in many countries there are not--are at least ways a woman, if necessary in secret from her husband, can control her own fertility.

MM: Especially within the environmental movement, there is growing concern with international population policy. What would a feminist family planning policy look like?

Morgan: I certainly am suspicious of programs that are set up by the North to, as they put it, "impact" on the South. It treats the South as if it were a target. And the women there are no fools. They sense that, and then there begins to be tremendous resistance either on a national liberation level or just individually against being pawns of the industrialized world--with reason, I think. More interesting to me are contraceptive programs not imposed from the outside, but rather those that are trying to be sensitive to what women in the region say their needs are.

These programs have to go hand-in-hand with a whole lot of other things. The genius of patriarchy is to compartmentalize everything, the genius of feminist thought is to make the connections. If you go with only a birth control program into an agrarian country where having children is perceived as either one's only method of wealth or where children are needed to work the land, it gets nowhere. You have to go in with economic options for women, you have to go in with literacy programs for women. "The knee bone is connected to the ankle bone here," as the old song goes.

When I hear of population programs going in and "targeting" the women or of seeing population "control" as something that is unconnected to women's rights in all areas, I get furious. These programs will only succeed when they empower women in the regions. The women want contraception because they know it will empower them, but they bloody well have the right to resent it when it comes in like a commandment from the North. A feminist family planning policy must listen to the women on the ground and what their requirements are.

MM: If multinational corporations exert such a powerful influence over the lives of women around the world, how can women organize to begin to control them?

Morgan: I wish it were as simple as any one thing. I profoundly wish it were that simple. I'm afraid it's not. I'm afraid it requires women organizing across the whole gamut, which in most situations takes a lot of courage. You look at a place like the Philippines and most of South Asia, for example, and you see that these women's options are so staggeringly narrow. They can starve to death on what is left of the pesticided family farm, which is extremely small anyway. Or they can go to the big cities and try to get a job in a factory, where their eyes can go very quickly, where there's no ventilation, no health care and no conceivable chance of advancement into middle management. Or they can work as prostitutes in the growing international sex trade or in R&R centers for the military, primarily but not exclusively the U.S. military, around the world. Or they can work as domestic servants. These are the choices. And none leave any option for a life.

Very often they cannot organize local unions because the laws of a particular country will not permit it. Incredible violence has been visited on those women who have tried it. I went into this at length in my last book, The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism. In Northern India, for example, long before the Bhopal disaster, there were organized, deliberate gang rapes against women who were trying to organize unions at the multinationals.

It is a frightening situation, and I think it has to be approached from the ground up. And that is happening, with the ongoing, courageous attempts to organize around the world.

I would also like to see the United Nations take on the entire structure of world corporate multinationalism, which I find quite terrifying. I've got a novel half-way done about it, in fact, and how it will eventually take over the world and do away with governments. I think unless something is done in the world community at the United Nations level, and at governmental levels, it will just continue to grow like the octopus that it is.

Whatever the issue, whether it is the environment or feminism per se or war issues or health issues, multinationals are in there, and they are not helping; in the environment they are disastrous. And they're very clever. They are using the best male--because they don't even care to look for the best female--brains and talents. I see multinational corporations as "the evil empire," more than any political system on the planet--and a more efficient one too.

Revising our very concept of what productivity is would create a whole economic system the likes of which we've never seen before.
There certainly is a rising tide of "cheap labor" for which of course women are first targets. And wherever you get so-called free trade zones, you get disaster for women.
Unless something is done in the world community at the United Nations level, and at government levels, [corporate multinationalism] will just continue to grow like the octopus that it is.

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