In teaching about policy sciences, I encountered several women whose privileged circumstances affected their roles in society. In two cases I gained a closer look at how their lives unfolded and crossed in an unexpected manner. There are bittersweet lessons here.
One woman was my teaching assistant, Rene from Guatemala, who reeked of affluence. As a child she visited the USA with her parents, mostly to shop for clothes. Her black hair which had never been cut was thick, long, and undulating. She curled it every day so it would, as she said, “frame my face and enhance my beauty.” This took some doing because at home she had a maid to comb her hair and help her get dressed.
She hardly ever thought about the inequality and exploitation of others that she took for granted. “That’s just the way things are,” she told me, “everybody gets fed.” Her lifestyle was “payed for” by the hundreds of campesinos who worked on her family’s hacienda. The fact that she had no career goals or aspirations was because she was a woman. As she put it: “Women don’t have to worry about that in Guatemala.” At the University she had no idea what she wanted to major in, nor did she have any specific vocation in mind though she was a gifted linguist and popular student.
The second woman was Violeta Barrios Torres de Chamorro, also born into privilege. I accepted an invitation from her son, a student at the University, to visit the family in Nicaragua during the Christmas holidays. Like Rene, but a generation earlier, Violeta was born into privilege, but with limitations. When daughters from Nicaragua’s “best families” were educated in the United States, they attended two-year “finishing” schools while the sons attended the best North American universities.
Violeta talked to me about the inequality and exploitation that was so close at hand in Nicaragua. To her credit, she was uncomfortable with it. And she had acted. Breaking with tradition, she sent her servant’s children to school, paying for their tuition and uniforms. She treated their daughters and sons the same. She wanted all of them to have a better life.
Ironically, this amazing woman’s own life had not been easy. Her husband, editor of Nicaragua’s most important newspaper, had been assassinated by somocistas in 1978. Her sons also choose careers in journalism. They were editors of the major Nicaraguan newspapers, one on the far left and the other, the extreme right. That didn’t get in Violeta’s way. She ignored the divergent political points of view and sat all her children down, together, for Christmas dinner. Given their differences, conversation was amazingly civil.
I never thought about my own link to gender inequality and exploitation. Discrimination against women made me very angry, so angry that I was unable to act. In addition I had no patience for meetings that went on for hours and hours. The subtlety of these discussions about strategy and tactics of the women’s movement escaped me. As for exploitation, I felt that I was innocent – I paid my cleaning lady double the going rate. I felt I owed nothing to anybody – I was a self-made woman who started working at age 16, put herself through university, and never depended on anyone else for financial support. But I was wrong. The difference between me, Rene, and Violeta is superficial. When I drill down deeper, it’s there.
The labels in the garments I wear tell some of the story – made in Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, China…… I visited Vietnam on a public health mission and saw first-hand how the women in the rural areas, living in homes without electricity or running water, worked from dawn to dusk sewing garments together on an old Singer treadle machine. They were paid by piece-work and they barely made enough to feed their families.
Over the decades I have not kept in touch with Violeta or Rene but have heard from others about their lives, which were interconnected a strange way. Rene met Violeta’s good-looking, charismatic son in my class at the university. After they graduated she returned with her dashing “Prince Charming” to Nicaragua and for several years she worked for the Sandinista leadership as a much trusted translator. But neither Violeta nor Rene’s family approved of their relationship. Her parents considered Violeta’s son to be a “terrorist.” In the end the couple separated. He married a young woman from one of the elite Nicaraguan families. Rene went on an extended trip to see Europe.
Bizarre events befell Rene while in Europe but she survived and she thrived. She was kidnapped by the secret security agency of another country, drugged, and interrogated for information about the personal lives of the Charmorro family. The Dean at my university told me of this and he said she should have been more careful, as she was an obvious target. Her family wanted no publicity and there was none. Her mother traveled to Europe, and had her discharged from a psychiatric hospital where she had been left without identification or even a passport. Rene went on to pursue a successful career in an international organization. She bounced back even though Prince Charming was not there to help her. And she refuted her own youthful assumption that woman didn’t have to worry about their careers.
Violeta thrived as well. She was elected president of Nicaragua on April 25, 1990. This news reminded me that when I asked for her address in the early 1980s, she wrote in large letters across the whole page in my address book: “Violeta Chamorro, Managua, Nicaragua.” I asked, “Don’t you need a street and a number?” She responded, “No, that is enough, it will get to me.” And she was right. Everyone in the country knew and loved the soon-to-be-elected President, Doña Violeta.
So what do we learn about women, gender inequality, and exploitation from Rene and Violeta? First, don’t count on Prince Charming! He is unlikely to be there for you. Second, we live in a world where today gender doesn’t protect us from the best or the worst that can happen. And we must prepare for a career because our gender does not excuse us from having to take care of ourselves. We live in a global circle of exploitation that leaves each of us at the same time vulnerable and in the position to exploit others. Third, becoming aware of these stories and what can happen to women is the first step to changing it.
Picture Credit: http://all-free-download.com/free-vector/download/free_vector_made_in_china_label_519265.html