Angela Davis was one of the 13,000 participants at Forum ’85 held in Nairobi, capital of Kenya, last July, to mark the end of the United Nations Women’s Decade. Angela is a member of Women for racial and Economic Equality, a multiracial women’s organisation in the USA and also chairperson of the National Alliance against Racial and Political Repression.
In the last Presidential elections, she stood as a Vice-President candidate for the Communist Party of the USA. She is Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University.
In the early 1970’s Angela was the FBI’s most wanted criminal- charged by the State of California with kidnapping, conspiracy and murder. After a world-wide “Free Angela” campaign, which was extensively taken up in Australia, and one of the most famous trials in recent times, she was found not guilty on all three charges.
Lee Gorman, an NGO delegate from Australia, spoke to her about her activities and impressions of Forum ’85.
LEE: The 100 workshops held daily at Forum ’85, let alone the numerous informal discussions reflect great diversity in the political attitudes, but overall there appears to be general agreement that Forum 85 will provide an important impetus to the international women’s movement. Could you give your overall feelings about this?
ANGELA: I couldn’t have missed this Forum. It is one of those events that reflect the level of the women’s movement throughout the world, and the Forum’s theme represents a qualitative step forward in the international movement.
It’s exciting to be in a place where women understand the relationship between racism and the struggle for economic equality and women’s equality. Many of the sisters here have always understood the connection; and I believe that the Forum may have the greatest impact on those U.S.A. delegates who have not always wanted to hear about race issues in the women’s movement.
L: There are over 2000 US women at the Forum which includes the largest number of Afro-American women to meet together outside of the United States. What is the significance for you and these other women to meet together on the African continent?
A: The meeting itself has had a particular impact on us and it’s good to hear us all talking about coming together in Nairobi. In a sense we had to come all the way to Africa to understand the absolute importance of coming together ourselves- something we weren’t able to do in the States, and this indicates a change in the Afro-American perspective. More of us are beginning to understand our struggle in the context of other groups who are oppressed. I remember a time when some Black leaders showed little interest in other groups such as Native Americans, much less working class Whites.
The experience of meeting with Kenyan people also has had a significant impact on us.
One young Kenyan woman I met is 8 years old and works in a coffee bean factory. She told me that she made 80 shillings a week and with that wage she had to support her mother and brother who lived in another village. So she could not afford transportation to work, which meant that every day she walked two and a half hours to work and two and a half hours back home after work. It reminded me that this is the way the majority of Kenyans live.
Although Black women are oppressed, we must recognise that so many of our sisters are much worse off than we are. We must learn from them and find out from organised groups of women in other countries the best way we can support their struggle.
L: Although Forum 85 has demonstrated the strength of the international women’s movement, as is to be expected, debate has raged on how we will achieve the liberation of all women. Could you give your definition of feminism and what you see as the major issues confronting the women’s movement?
A: I would argue that to be an activist in the fight for women’s equality, we have to recognise that women are oppressed as women. But we also are oppressed because of our racial and national backgrounds. We are also oppressed because of our class background.
There are those in the women’s movement who may say “forget about race and class – we are all sisters- let us join hands across races, across classes”. Well I think we should join hands across races, across classes, but our specific oppression must be recognised and acknowledged.
When someone says, for example, that imperialism is a male construction, that racism is something that has been constructed by men and all we have to do if forget about all these male constructions and we can all be sisters in this world together – well, that will not work.
Women who want to fight for women’s equality also have to fight against racism, fight for the emancipation of the working class, and have to extend solidarity to nations struggling for their national liberation, particularly those in Southern Africa, the Middle East and Central America.
Finally, we have to understand that if we are for women’s equality, it does not make a damn bit of difference how many victories we have won if nuclear omnicide consumes the world.
There is sometimes some confusion about which country is responsible for the madness we find ourselves in today. There are those who argue that the Soviet Union is equally responsible for the escalation of the nuclear arms race. But I am afraid those people have not really examined the historical record.
I would argue that we have to look at history. Who was the first to explode a nuclear bomb 40 years ago over Hiroshima and Nagasaki? If you look at the nuclear arms race every single step of the way it always has been the US government that has escalated it.
If anyone knows what war is all about it is the people of the Soviet Union. I did not begin to grasp what war meant until I visited that country. Everyone talking about the horrors of the Second World War as though it happened yesterday,
Whereas in our country the war against fascism is hardly ever mentioned. Reagan celebrated the 40th anniversary by going to Bitburg and laying a wreath on the graves of SS soldiers. So if we look at the fact that in the Soviet Union over 20 million people were killed in the war against fascism, I think we have to recognise that they do not want to see that kind of destruction ever again.
In comparison, the US Government which supports a repressive economic system based on profit and not upon the needs of the people accepts global omnicide as a valid strategy to protect a system which thrives upon the exploitation and oppression of human beings.
L: The Nairobi Women’s Coalition of which you are a member is circulating a petition amongst US women at the forum protesting about the policies of the US Government. Could you give us some background to the petition and how you plan to present it to the US delegation at the UN Women’s Conference?
A: The petition is based on a document entitles “Militarism and racism and its effects on women”, which was drawn up by a large number of women’s groups which form the Nairobi Women’s Coalition. This document details the serious deterioration in the position of women under the Reagan administration and puts forward concrete proposals to rectify this situation.
The response to the petition has been fantastic with over 1300 US women signing within the first few days of the Forum. This reflects the support for the petition which demands that the US Government “work towards international peace by halting all intervention and aggression, withdrawing all nuclear missiles, negotiating bilateral arms control agreements, including stopping the militarisation of outer space”, “reduce US military budgets to use the funds released for the overall development of society and the equality of women”, and “express solidarity with women in struggle, provide moral and material aid to women struggling for national independence, their democratic and economic rights.”
So far Maureen Reagan, who heads the US delegation to the Conference has refused to accept the petition. At her press conference she avoids answering journalists’ questions about her response to the fact that so many of the US women here have signed the petition- a fact which indicated that the US Government delegation does not represent the needs of these women. But we’ll make sure they accept the petition- the women from the Coalition will continue to lobby Reagan for the rest of the Forum.
FOOTNOTE: A member of the US delegation finally accepted the petition, after a week of lobbying by US women and a statement from a journalist with the New York Times to the effect that the Times would run a story about the delegation’s refusal to accept the petition.
(*The UN Women’s Conference was also held in Nairobi in July. Government delegations from 170 countries attended and the document on improving women’s status “Strategies towards the year 2000” was unanimously adopted.)