TALLINN, ESTONIA — For a woman supporter of a tough fight against terrorists and their backers, what could be better than a chance to rub shoulders with female political leaders from member states of the “Vilnius Ten,” a few days after the region’s ruling politicians expressed unequivocal willingness to back a coalition to “confront the tyranny of Saddam Hussein?”
Lots, it turns out.
At a conference held earlier this month, this region’s widespread support for the U.S.-led campaign was rather frustratingly absent from a high-profile, government-funded NGO and politicians’ conference on “Women in Democracy” in the Baltic region. Among the attendant Balts, Poles, Russians, and West Europeans, leftish, syndicalist, and pacifist views imported from Scandinavian, German, and American NGOs abounded, while the post-Communist good sense that pervades average Baltic and Polish society was harder to find than a smoke-free airport lounge.
It seems that in one short decade, a green — pro-union — pacifist coalition of women’s groups from the West has successfully seeded grassroots in the East, and built up a Social Democrat political base. The coalition-building has its origins in Reykjavik, Iceland, where in 1999 the then-First Lady of the U.S., Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with Scandinavian politicians with whom she shared an ideological girdle size, held the first such government-funded conference to introduce the East to the international feminist sisterhood.
Two generously funded conferences later, the strange result of Clinton & co.’s efforts is a class of East European, politically active woman who is loath to side with the U.S. on anything, who actively resists blaming her society’s troubled past on Communists, and who, eschewing her countrywomen’s half-century of unhappy experience in a worker’s paradise, calls quotas, unionization, and socialist economics the solution to all her nation’s woes.
This type of delegate wasted no time in Tallinn making her agenda clear. A panel on globalization of the labor force saw the Lithuanian chair call first for East-Europe-wide unionization, and then for a resolution against the Iraq war. A Russian chairwoman at a panel on how to run NGOs refused to let U.S. delegates speak, saying there was no time to listen to Americans. And the conference plenaries heard hissing at George Bush along with appeals for quotas, unions, and greater welfare nets.
To be sure, these women represent a minority of Baltic, Polish, and Russian citizens, let alone political leaders. To wit, the patron of the Women and Democracy conference, First Lady of Estonia Ingrid Ruutel told conference goers that “Our ministers for economics, foreign affairs, social welfare and education are women. Yet the Estonian voters, including women, will not elect anyone because of their gender, but according to their other qualities. Imposing a required percentage in any sphere would seem to us a relic of the Soviet period.” Regional opinion polls agree with Ruutel, indicating the left-leaning views are not making much of a comeback.
Not that you’d have known it at the conference: Ruutel’s speech met tepid applause from the 600-strong crowd assembled in the hall that once hosted meetings of the Estonian Communist party.
Is there reason to be alarmed at the high degree of organization among leftist, anti-capitalist, anti-American feminists in Eastern Europe? Well, at a minimum, their success brings to the fore the question why these are the groups attracting Western European and U.S. government financing and support, while other building blocks of civil society — women’s business groups, associations of former woman dissidents and anti-communists, and faith-based groups — are left to fend for themselves.
The saving grace is that the fire in the belly of this whole international sisterhood doesn’t seem to be burning as heatedly as it once did. As it covers more ground, its flames have grown smaller.
Not a single antiwar measure made it to the final plenary of the conference. Opponents of globalization were left balancing their criticisms with a resolution asserting that globalization has brought jobs and economic growth. And a perennial favorite issue of the West European feminist left — legalization and taxation of prostitution for the benefit of the welfare state — was rather surprisingly overturned, with delegates supporting a resolution calling for prostitution to be outlawed.
This may have been due to some fancy blocking actions by nontraditional U.S. delegates — we were flies in the ointment, to put it mildly — and to surprisingly evolved thinking by a handful of the Scandinavian delegates. It may also have been the result of infighting: Reflecting the wider mood, one Scandinavian delegate complained that there was too much emphasis on the problems of the impoverished, emerging East, while she wanted the focus to remain on her own, Western European struggles. And there was no mistaking the emerging schism between the conference’s founding Americans and their sisters across the Atlantic. With all that conflict, that favorite delicacy of feminists — consensus — was hard to achieve.
With any luck, the sisterhood’s drang nach osten will continue its current trend of growing thinner as it grows wider. In time, perhaps this trend will allow groups that support equally competitive women’s priorities — support for families and faith, support for women as business owners and consumers, support for strong national security, and support for equality of opportunity rather than outcomes — to assert their rightful place in the popular debate.
The sheer comfort level of the Western Europeans may help this come about more easily than it would seem: At the conference plenaries where speakers droned on and on against patriarchy and globalization, half the delegates were absent from the conference hall. They would then reappear for the cocktail hour, their arms laden down with evidence of that other female priority…shopping bags.