“Smart people have their heads bowed low, because there is so much wisdom in them” (KyungShyn Song Yoon)
The women in this chapter have inspired me by their courage, faith in humanity, and joy in helping others. Some are still living, but others have passed on, leaving those behind — family, friends, and colleagues — holding onto different parts of their memories. Each one contributes something unique to the women’s movement. It might be something of historic note, recorded in political chronicles or in the social history of women leaders. But more precious than these, they exemplify something unique about character and feminist values.
While many elected politicians jostle for fame and seek rewards, these women have carried out social and political struggles with humility and grace. Each one has had an impact that have improved people’s lives far beyond their imaginations, setting examples for young people — boys and girls alike. Some heroines, like PokShyn Song, my aunt, and OkSun Mun, the shaman, inspired others through their life stories. Although these women are no longer with us, I have tried to capture the essence of their legacy. Other women in this chapter still have tales to tell. I invite you to know them better.
As a public figure, Gertrude Mongella is best known as a minister, ambassador, and Secretary General of the Fourth World Conference on Women. Nevertheless, I always preferred the honorable rank her African sisters gave her: Mama Mongella. This title showed their respect and affection. Although she is quick to smile and give a reassuring embrace, she also carries a big stick when things need to get done. Like a traditional African queen mother, she knows how to use her authority to impose the law. Mama Mongella is no one to be trifled with.
After she left the UN, she travelled a dizzying course across the globe. Airplanes became her favored vacation spots. Up in the air, she took off her shoes, read a magazine, and forgot that she was on her way to another quick stop on her journey for world peace. There was time to prepare her speeches, which were known for their impromptu, off-the-cuff humor. Some of the tough words also got sugar coatings. Once a school teacher, she has never forgotten that if you want to make students remember the lesson, you have to get straight to the point through a well-rounded tale.
I have always been amused and impressed by her originality. Her slow, deliberate manner hides a quick mind that picked up every body language signal, from a friendly tone of voice or a mean glint in the eye. She sizes up new experiences and rolls the tough ones over in her mind like a boulder until they are reduced to pebbles under her feet. She constantly updates her political handbook
She believed that after a UN women’s conference ended, everyone should go home to do their homework. When I asked her about her priorities, she didn’t hesitate. Peace was at the top of the list. She told me that African governments agreed with her suggestions for social development, such as improving girls’ education and women’s health. However, the next time she visited those countries, they were often fighting. That is when she realized that unless the African continent is free from conflict, the Beijing Platform for Action can never be implemented.
“This peace question gets me angry,” she said. “I’m angry toward our leaders for spending money on arms. How can the international community send arms to Africa and ignore it? It is immoral to go to a poor man’s door and sell poison. We can work to stop the landmines and to prevent ships carrying arms from leaving harbor or anchoring. If we manage that, it will be a signal to the world that women are networking together.”
Although she doesn’t hesitate to lash out at African men, she does it like a wife angry at a husband for getting the family into trouble. “Men are largely to blame,” she said, “but women are partly responsible for talking too much to themselves. We women are becoming better, faster thinking in human rights and economic issues than men. We have had a lot of time to analyze these in our conferences. Some men haven’t had that chance, so we are creating the men of yesterday, whereas we are the women of tomorrow.” Her solution is to bring more men to women’s meetings and involve them more in negotiations about women’s rights.
Another issue close to her heart is women’s political empowerment. Again, she doesn’t let women off the hook. She doesn’t think women have taken advantage of the political clout they already have. “The vote is the only weapon a poor peasant or woman has. Take government representatives out of their seats, and if they know that you plan to do that, they are going to respect you. If you put in a conservative government, you can put that government out,” she said.
We must understand that women could gain a great deal just by exercising the right to vote. Women should also be more willing to take chances, to contend for political offices, and to run for the presidency. Mama Mongella certainly thinks these are worthy goals. That’s what I like most about her. She doesn’t just aims high. She never doubts that success is possible.
Plato longed for a philosopher-ruler who would use knowledge and wisdom to create an ideal society, but he would have been astounded that a Malaysian woman of Dutch lineage would aspire to be such a leader. Noeleen Heyzer, director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM, now UN Women), has high standards that would suit his ideal type, and she planned to make sure the UN had them too.
When I first met Heyzer, she was a postgraduate fellow at the Institute for Development Studies in Sussex, England. Between classes, we exchanged ideas about working motherhood, women’s welfare, and research. I asked daily about her twins, who were dropped off at the school daycare center. Even then, she would break into her trademark smile at the oddest moments, just like when she spoke about how difficult the pregnancy had been. I quickly guessed her secret to survival: When disaster strikes, find the silver linings and turn them into shining armor.
Here is her story. She was born in a remote Malay village during the British colonial era, and her mother died when she was only six. Her grandmother had to raise her in one of the poorest areas of Singapore. Most of her childhood neighbors were poverty-stricken and marginalized. She learned of other children’s misfortunes from her aunt, who ran a Catholic orphanage. It was a haven for children born just before the Year of the Tiger started. They were abandoned, because their families believed that such children would eat the parents. Heyzer said that living among such unfortunate people was a good experience, because she grew up exposed to different class and ethnic situations. Fortunately, she was also enrolled at an elite school for diplomats’ children. Although she attended several different Catholic schools, the teachers were mostly foreign men who were dedicated to creating a new generation of women leaders for an independent Singapore. In the 1960s, when Singapore gained its formal independence, she was in secondary school, getting more than her share of intellectual molding in philosophy, humanities, and political thought.
As challenging as her life had been, Heyzer did not feel that fate had given her a raw deal. That would betray a lack of faith in human destiny — something she would never admit. When asked about her experiences with French Jesuit priests, she said, “The one thing I learned in secondary school was that a leader doesn’t mean that you snatch power. Leadership at the end of the day is service. That also means you have the capacity to do extraordinary things well. You don’t grab power. It is given to you.” A star pupil, she probably found that when she proved she could get things done, others followed.
While a university student, Heyzer wanted to know more about how ordinary workers lived. After graduating, she took a job as a textile worker — an experience that changed how she looked at her own leadership role. She had been tutored to believe that great leaders did not dabble in women’s issues, but rather with the important ones like international relations and public policy. During her factory days, she did not question the validity of such notions. As the international secretary of the Democratic Socialist Club, she traveled abroad and mingled with the European intellectual elite, discussing the future of Asian geopolitics and economic development. However, the experience of working with factory girls moved her so much that she learned to see the world through their eyes and remodeled her own life accordingly to champion women’s causes.Her first high-paying job was in a bank, but that interest faded as quickly as the clink of a cash register. When she returned to graduate school at Cambridge, her desire to study propelled her into gender studies, economic development, and international relations. After several years working in the Social Development division of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific in Thailand, she joined UNIFEM. She found the office in the midst of crisis. With sheer determination, she took the opportunity to reorganize its programs. In typical, efficient fashion, she removed bureaucratic cliques, heroically redesigned the budget, and streamlined the organization.
Heyzer would like to see her efforts at the UN contribute to the elimination all forms of violence — physical, mental, economic and military — against women. She felt that violence against women was the major impediment to all future development. That theme resonated years later in the sustainable development goals and remains true to this day.
I met OkSun Mun on my first trip to Cheju Island. We could hardly communicate, because she spoke the Jeju language, and I was — as she put it — ”deaf and dumb” as far as Korean was concerned. Standing a little shorter than me, we literally saw eye to eye on how important it was to help poor rural women.
She was a former diver who became “possessed” by a spirit after her husband was killed by Japanese soldiers during the colonial occupation. She had been active in the anti-colonial movement, but she had a hard life when peace was restored. Over the years, her reputation grew so that in her 1960s, she became one of the grandest shamans. Jeju shamans are organized into a hierarchy with fortune-tellers at the bottom and “kun shimbang” shamans at the top. She was one of the latter. Mun adopted me as her spiritual daughter and invited me to follow her team of four shamans from one ceremony (called a “kut”) to another. Sometimes, my job was to play the cymbals.
She conducted many ceremonies to treat ailments that involved psychosomatic symptoms. One of the most memorable was a healing ceremony for a woman who couldn’t speak. This was a young daughter-in-law whose affliction was clearly mental as well as physical, because she would moan, “aiiiigu” to express her pain. Nothing was wrong with her lungs or throat. Yet, try as they might, her in-laws and husband could not get her to voice even the simplest complaint in words. She was essentially mute. The onset of her problem coincided with a fight she had with her mother-in-law who was now distressed and feeling guilty about having caused such trauma.
For the cure, Mun summoned all of the ancestors to the family’s home from both the wife and husband’s side. For nearly three days, food, drink, dancing, and ceremonies were presented to the ancient spirits to please them and bring them down to earth. Exorcisms were performed in gentle strokes of rice paper on the patient’s back, and the clang-clang of the brass cymbals helped attract the attention of neighbors as well as the family to her plight. Then, on the last day, the shaman coaxed the exhausted patient to respond in words to her spirits’ call. The work of the ancestors had been completed. More care and attention to a poor daughter-in-law also helped.
In another case involving a tuberculosis patient, I watched Mun use a different approach. A man had stopped taking his medicine and now too weak to work, had begun drinking. Neither doctors nor his wife could convince him to give up alcohol or resume taking his medications. He wanted to escape it all, and the shamans had to find a way to bring him back to reality. In one segment of the ceremony, Mun suddenly shook and began to speak in the voice of the TB patient’s dead father. Speaking through her, the ghost spoke of how the man’s sisters had died, because they didn’t receive as much food or clothing as the boys. The girls’ spirits were now hungry and unhappy.
According to Mun, that was one reason for the man’s illness. She then turned into the patient’s mother, speaking about how she suffered after her husband’s death. There was ritual weeping and wailing. I sped up the rhythm of my clanging to keep up with the drum. The moment was tense. Finallym Mun jumped up and down at a quicker pace. Dropping down on her hands and knees, she bowed to the altars where offerings had been placed. She prayed, “The sisters’ faces are rotten and their bones buried. Take this offering and be pleased.” Several months later, I learned that he was on the road to recovery.
I continued to follow this shaman and observed her extraordinary powers of intuition. Each patient’s spiritual diagnosis was different. In each case, she reviewed the tragedies of their lives along with their entire medical histories. She often sent them back to the doctors to take their medicine and encouraged them to go to the hospital. Her most important contribution to the lives of these poor people was quite simple. She did what few doctors or health services could do: she restored the patients’ will to live. With no way to improve their economic lives, she empowered them with ancestral spirits, created public support for their illness, and made a family’s responsibility compliant with the doctor’s orders. All that was possible, because she practiced her traditional healing arts in the homes and communities where the patients lived. She was one of them and understood their inner psychic, social, and economic burdens.
Shamanism, like all religions, is a religion of affliction. Illness and spirituality have been inseparable throughout history from biblical healings of the blind to the Christian scientists and faith healers of modern times. However, it is peculiar to find the practice of shamanist religions side-by-side with modern medicine in developing nations. Such was the case on Jeju Island in the 1970’s, and I was lucky to be its witness.
I never learned as much about healing as I did from this shaman. She was a warm and loving person who would serve anyone whether or not that person had the money to pay fees. There was a large spirit tree dedicated to the “agassi” (female) spirit in the middle of Jeju City. Her home was at that site, because she felt close to the gods there. She was one of the last great traditional healers who only had disdain for the way in which Korean shamanism has become a tourist spectacle. She understood shamanism’s principles as a religion with no temple, no bible, and no fixed priesthood. Today, its future is uncertain, because without the great practitioners like Mun, it may retreat into the dark alleys of fortunetellers. Hidden from view, or gone forever, its songs and rituals may survive only as children’s fairy tales.
My true heroes shun the limelight. Some leaders are willing to assume front positions but cleverly pass on credit for their achievements to everyone else. Dr. Patricia Licuanan is that kind of leader. In a crowded room, she stands out with her well-groomed Filipino style. She usually speaks with authority, as if in a lecture hall, but she never displays a condescending air.
Most of her Filipino colleagues knew her as the efficient former President of Miriam College and a professor of psychology with a reputation for extraordinary scholarly work. She earned her doctoral degree in social psychology from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree from Cornell University — both major achievements as she challenged the validity of Western theories during her student days. An expert on gender and economic policy, migrant women, adolescents and child-rearing practices, she also published outstanding work in conflict management and cross-cultural communications. Her research into psychology theory and extensive academic writings earned her the Psychological Association of the Philippines’ Most Outstanding Psychologist award in 1988. An active applied social scientist, she nevertheless gets her greatest satisfaction from watching students blossom and achieve. “I’m primarily an educator,” she explains.
However, anyone who has seen this professor at the UN knows that she is also an accomplished politician. As head of her government delegation and former chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women from 1993 to 1995, Licuanan acted as a facilitator and arbiter in two major UN political blocs: the Asia Group and Task Force for the Group of 77. During the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference, she chaired the Main Committee, where the toughest issues were sent for resolution. I watched her smoothly navigate a roomful of disgruntled, sometimes hostile, delegates, many of whom viewed her as an inexperienced newcomer to the intrigues of international diplomacy. At the same time, she also had to harness discussions with rowdy NGOs and resolve tensions between feminists and fundamentalists. Something about her manner was always authoritative. Her social psychology skills helped her untangle diplomatic knots and win support for controversial calls. Typically, she would crack a joke at the height of tensions or disarm the combatants with comments like “Hey guys, give me a break.” If you want to get the crowds’ attention in a huge UN hall, it doesn’t hurt to be a regal woman with a winning smile.
She is affectionately called tatti”and is one of a growing number of humanist-feminist leaders who are trying to improve human welfare by looking at the world through women’s eyes. Like Wangari Maathai of Kenya and Ela Bhatt of India, she has an enduring commitment to making sure that gender equality is never forgotten and helping make miracles happen.
She is inspired, in part, by the Licuanan family tradition. Her great-grandfathers, both ardent nationalists, were members of the Filipino constitutional congress at the birth of the nation. Licuanan’s grandmother was a university professor and one of the country’s first women short story writers in English. Her mother wrote a daily column for The Manila Chronicle. With such pace-setting role models, it never occurred to the young Licuanan to be a traditional homemaker. After graduating from the Maryknoll High School, she went to the remote island of Mindanao to live and work with peasants. “I was city born and bred and I never had much rural experience,” she told me. “I was an idealist and wanted to serve my country and the poor.”
When I first met her in 1977, she had taken a brief recess from her university career to work with UNICEF in Thailand. Her task was to help the organization define its first regional women’s program. She did this with her usual high energy and drive. Once she set the program into motion, she felt compelled to return to the country that she loved so well. She would never work as a UN civil servant again. Nevertheless, at every opportunity over the next two decades, she opened doors for women’s groups, NGOs, and her government to connect with regional and international projects.
After her UN days, Licuanan has continued to be a one-person support group for a myriad of organizations. As chair of the Filipino First project, she helped select 100 outstanding women leaders in the country’s history. She sat on the Board of the Magsaysay Foundation that grants the prestigious Magsaysay award for service to humanity. The Bishop-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development, a coalition of Filipino businesses and church laity working for economic development, could count on her for valuable advice. Other research and training centers, such as the Gaston Z. Ortigas Peace Institute, sought her consultation on key policy decisions. Her schedule of international committee meetings included the ASEAN Committee on Social Development and UNESCO.
Licuanan admitted to me that she was obsessed with making sure the Beijing Women’s Conference was not a waste of time. “I must confess that I still have my Beijing hangover,” she wrote. “But unlike with most hangovers, I am determined to nurse this one for as long as possible in myself, as well as in others, in order that the spirit of the Conference carry over into the difficult work of implementation.”
In an era of growing political cynicism and moral uncertainty, women like Patricia Licuanan stand out as role models for others. Her unflinching optimism is reflected in her belief that personal transformation is possible for everyone, even her enemies. I admire most the purity of her ambitions. She is an exceptional achiever, but if she never wins recognition, she will still persevere in a lifetime of service.
In 1900, my aunt was born in Pyongyang, Korea, ten years before Japanese colonial rule began. Her name was PokShyn Song, which meant “blessing of faith,” but her friends nicknamed her “the owl” for her big eyes and her love of staying up late. My grandfather, SangChum Song, did not care for flowery feminine names, so he gave all of his daughters names with abstract, serious meanings, like “unchanging faith,” “respectful“, and “straightforward morality.” The care he took in naming his children was only the beginning of his lavish attention to their upbringing.
My grandfather was a powerful landlord and owner of an international textile business, and his ambition was to use his wealth to modernize Korea. Like the social reformers of his time who set up independence societies and spoke out for women’s human rights, he was convinced that a colonial threat would become a reality if Korea did not catch up with the rest of the world and open its doors to international influence. He advocated for radical ideas, like the introduction of modern science and culture and especially the education of girls. He planned to send his children as “envoys” abroad to study foreign society and then bring them home to carry out reforms.
There was one problem. In traditional Korean culture, only boys were educated and had careers. Since he had one son and four daughters, he had to make some hard decisions. Instead of taking a second wife in order to have male offspring (common for aristocrats in his day), he raised his daughters as if they were sons. According to my mother, he bragged that he wouldn’t trade a single girl in exchange for a bunch of boys.
Driven by his dream, he was prepared to break all conventions. In an era when most upper-class daughters were secluded and quietly shuffled off into arranged marriages, he let his daughters play sports and be seen in public without the traditional skirted veil. Instead of leaving his inheritance to his eldest son, he divided the land, business, buildings, and other properties equally among his children. He made similarly unorthodox decisions about his daughters’ schooling. In Pyongyang, a handful of girls were allowed to attend Christian schools, but no one sent them to college. However, to prepare them for higher education, my grandfather sent his daughters to mission schools, such as the Seung-Ee High School, to learn foreign languages. Then he sent all but his eldest daughter to study abroad in Japan and the United States. Each of his children specialized in a subject that he thought would help Korea’s development in agriculture, medicine, and Western music. He decided that my aunt’s task would be to run the first Korean-owned modern medical hospital, which he built during her college days. He named it “PoHwa” or “The Treasure of Peace”, because he thought that the greatest gift of all was harmony between people.
However, he never found that treasure in his lifetime. The Japanese military takeover of Korea in 1910 confirmed his worst fears. The colonial policies turned quickly toward complete assimilation. Korean families had to take Japanese names, and Korean was declared a foreign language. Japan reorganized the public school system to favor Japanese colonists, took tight control over businesses and agriculture, and siphoned off the country’s resources to fill Japan’s coffers. As colonial rule became harsher, my grandfather became more and more resolved to resist it. However, the family paid a price.
My grandmother was the first member of the family to be arrested, presumably for helping to finance Korean independence through her Methodist “TongAh” women’s group. My grandfather’s political ideals for Korean independence affected my aunt as well. She proved to be even more militant than he was. Soon after she enrolled in the elite Tokyo Women’s College of Medicine, she befriended SyngMan Rhee, DoYeon Kim, DukSu Chang, and other leaders of the underground Korean students’ Independence Movement. Fluent in Japanese and able to travel freely between Tokyo and Seoul, she agreed to be a messenger, carrying information from Japan through Seoul for the provisional Korean government exiled in Manchuria. Women in the student movement were so rare that it took the Japanese secret police a number of months to discover her identity. They finally arrested her while she traveled on a train from Pusan to Seoul. She was 19 years old.
She was kept in solitary confinement for weeks in Seoul's ChungKamPu prison, then brought out of her cell for interrogation. Decades later, before tucking me into bed, she would tell me stories of her revolutionary days. Each tale was woven into a moral and political lesson. My aunt didn't really mean to frighten me, but I lived and felt every word. My childish imagination even exaggerated her tales until her life became part of my dreams. She said that in prison, she was brought out from the dark, half-blinded by the light, trembling. Then, she was hung upside-down by her feet and asked for names of her friends in the underground movement. When she refused to answer, the police filled her nose with water. She coughed up water, then blood. Her hands were black and blue from bamboo shreds pierced under the nails. My grandfather’s physician friend came to the rescue and told Japanese authorities she would die soon in their hands if she were not released. They put her body on a funeral cot, pushed her outside the prison doors, and turned their attention to the living.
Later, the Japanese police informed my aunt that she must leave the country or return to prison. She told my grandfather that she would flee to the United States but could never return to Korea. He was heartbroken. My aunt left for the United States, became a Barbour Scholar at the University of Michigan, and graduated in 1929 as the first Korean PhD in Public Health. Always an independent thinker, she wrote her dissertation about vitamin C therapy, a very controversial subject at the time. Even her sense of how women should behave showed her contempt for convention. By Korean standards, she did outrageously modern things, like cut her hair short and marry an Anglo-American.
Her political life was also done in her own way with a personal power network and grand dinners. After graduation, she turned her attention to Washington, acting as an informal ambassador for the Korean provisional government. She befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, members of the Supreme Court, and US Army generals in an effort to influence American policy in Korea.
On March 1, 1941, a group of about 40 Koreans met in Washington for a Korean Liberty Congress at the Lafayette Hotel. Their purpose was to lobby against the possible American bombing of Korea. I looked closely at the photo taken on that occasion and noticed something odd. Most of the women, who were wives of the delegates, were dressed in fashionable Western clothes. My aunt, who was standing next to the Korean president-to-be, SyngMan Rhee, was wearing a traditional Korean dress. In any context, she had to be different from other women. This was her feminist trademark.
She had the advantage of having inherited women’s equality as a family value. She didn’t have to be shy in the company of men or step back and let them take the lead. My grandfather gave her the rare gift of parental approval and freedom to make her own political choices. He also made sure that she had the educational status that gave her the clout in Korean culture to make Korean men listen. Much like Helen Kim and Esther Park, the women leaders in Korea’s first women’s movement, my aunt knew that the stakes were high. Her generation counted many firsts for the country: the first women novelists, the first women politicians, the first women medical doctors. Many were so dedicated to breaking new ground that they never married or had children.
My aunt taught me many lessons that apply today. One lesson is that good causes make powerful enemies. In politics, you must always watch your back for enemies preparing to strike. Be most alert when they seem to be at rest. My aunt also showed me that cowardice and betrayal of one’s conscience have no place in a movement for liberation. They are fates worse than imprisonment. Growing up with such values made my life so much easier to steer. More than ever, I realize that family stories are the best legacy I can give to future generations.
My aunt had a love for her country, a love much like the love of a child for her mother or a woman for her lover. She was afraid that some day, a powerful nation would again threaten Korea’s independence. Even though we lived in the United States, her young descendants were her only weapons to help safeguard Korea’s future. “You will always be a Korean,” she said. “Americans will judge Korea by what you say and do. That is why you must try to be the best and help your country.”
Separated from Korea by a vast ocean, she invented ways to keep the country close to her. Her nieces and nephews became its unofficial citizens and she, our queen mother. I have never known a woman who lived for her nation more than she did. When she died in California at the age of 94, she whispered her mother’s name and hummed a melody in her last breath. My mother, who was at her side, said that it was the Korean national anthem.
Gender justice needs it champions, and lawyers like Alda Facio are among the best. At any moment, she could cast a broad smile that is so appealing, it could win a case, even in the absence of a legal argument. Costa Rican judge, Alda Facio, once presided over the troubles of a broken civil society. Laborers with grievances and women seeking alimony stood before her, awaiting her calm and decisive judgment. She could have climbed the hierarchy to become a privileged member of the legal elite. Instead, she jumped down off the bench to stand with the women’s movement. She wanted her political perspectives to be in touch with reality from the bottom up.
In the 1990s, she had a dual role. As director of the Women, Gender and Justice Program at the Latin American UN Institute for Crime Prevention, she oversaw research and training activities. Her program designed a methodology to help women lawyers and judges interpret the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Then, her work became more directly political. Throughout the final treaty conference on the International Criminal Court (ICC), she coordinated the lobbying efforts of the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice in the ICC. Like a police officer on an emergency call, Facio responded to the situation at hand. She helped bring together consensus while adhering to a principle of wide consultation among the hundreds of women’s groups represented. There were many points on the caucus’s agenda that Facio held dear. The protection of witnesses and victims and ensuring gender awareness among judges and officers appointed to ICC positions were two of her most important points. She also hoped that a political precedent was being established. “It is a historic moment,” Facio said. “For the first time in the history of the UN, women’s groups were helping to shape an international institution of great magnitude from its beginnings.” A major accomplishment of the Caucus was the addition of rape as a war crime in the draft ICC document.
Facio’s evolution as a feminist activist was rooted in the history of her native Costa Rica. Her childhood home was abuzz with late-night meetings of the Democratic Socialist Party that her father helped to establish. The family conversations revolved around the future of an entire nation and how to create a nonviolent democracy.
Then came a rude awakening. As a college student in the 1960s in Montgomery, Alabama, she learned how it felt to come from the opposite side of the tracks. She was the only Latin American citizen on campus. On her first day at school, the dean of the college said, “We have a problem. Your passport says that you are Caucasian, and you’re not.” According to the school administration, being Latin American meant that she was colored. Taken aback by this novel experience with racial discrimination, Facio readily agreed to be recorded as a black student.
The consequences were serious. “The dean told the whole school I wasn’t white, so I had to eat by myself,“ she said. Then, an African-American male student was admitted. The administrators got more confused and told her that she could not eat with him, because she looked white. The two disregarded the rules, and then Ku Klux Klan members took matters into their own hands. They beat the young man up, broke his teeth, and landed him in the hospital. Facio’s father, then ambassador from Costa Rica to the United States, came to the rescue, and she resumed a normal student life in Rhode Island.
She told me she never forgot how it felt to be a victim of racism. Her legal studies gave her the tools to analyze and speak on behalf of the oppressed. Putting a difficult marriage behind her, she discovered her feminist consciousness and began to reshape law through women’s eyes. She founded one of Latin America’s first feminist magazines, Ventana (Window), and helped establish CIMA, a network of international non-governmental organizations working on human rights issues. She then designed programs to investigate the conditions of women in prisons and psychiatric hospitals and to train judges and police. Facio is an international defender for the rights of thousands of women she will never meet.
When Charlotte Bunch talks about feminist politics, we all listen. She isn’t a shouter; on the contrary, she speaks in a steady, careful tone, as if she is measuring the impact of each word. She particularly cares about how her opinions affect others. She presents a modest front with short cropped hair and gentle eyes. But no one underestimates her ability to charge ahead with an unstoppable determination when confronted with injustice.
According to Gloria Steinem, Bunch is a touchstone of the women’s movement. Steinem wrote, “Sooner or later — and on any hard questions of feminist theories of tactics comes — one is likely to hear: ‘But what does Charlotte think?’” Inducted into the American National Women’s Hall of Fame, Bunch is best known for her leadership in putting the concept of “women’s rights as human rights” onto the agenda of the 1993 Human Rights conference in Vienna. The founder and former executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, she has been an activist, author, and organizer in the women’s and civil rights movements for more than 40 years. She was the also founding director of the Public Resources Center, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and founder of the feminist publication, Quest. What I like most about her is that she never takes these titles as seriously as she does the ideas behind them.
There are two outstanding characteristics of Bunch’s approach to politics. First, she is a peacemaker who looks for common ground in the midst of diversity. She even agrees with the Holy See on issues of poverty. She attributes her peacemaker approach partly to her family origins. “I grew up in Artesia, a small conservative town in New Mexico,” she explained. Her parents were Methodist would-be missionaries whose ambitions to work in China were thwarted by the Second World War. “They changed course and decided to work among America’s rural poor,” Bunch says. “I didn’t grow up thinking [that] I was in the center of the universe.”
She believes that “good” feminism affirms differences by race, sexual orientation, abilities, cultures, and religion. In her view, American feminists have to be willing to meet women from other countries on a more equal footing. “Politically, I work as an American engaged most of my life in trying to change the US as well,” Bunch said. “During the Human Rights Conference in Vienna, we decided to present the problems of violence against women domestically in the US so that people wouldn’t think that violence is a product only of dictatorships and war.”
A second characteristic of Bunch’s politics is continual evolution — personal and political. She has trekked the rocky road from a naive campaigner for justice within the Christian student movement to socialist feminism, radical separatism, and international activism. Her early days looked very different from her today. In the 1960s, she worked mostly through the church, the YMCA, and the Methodist student’s organizations as the founding president of the University Christian movement. She soon became involved in the civil rights movement during which she confronted the blatant racism of the South and saw a world through a new prism that affected the rest of her life.
In 1966, she graduated with a degree in history and political science. Professor Ann Scott advised, “You really ought to settle down and stop your activism. Get your degree, then you can go back to activism.” When Bunch asked if she couldn’t do both, Professor Scott told her no. Bunch responded, “OK, I’m not going to graduate school.”
Not all of her life decisions were so certain. “I’ve had many crises of faith. When I became a feminist and when I came out as a lesbian, I felt that the church couldn’t handle it, and I couldn’t handle it not handling it. You have to continually re-evaluate the political perspective you work from, because the work keeps changing.” As she wrote in her book, Passionate Politics, she even experienced a mid-life crisis as a movement organizer, occasionally wishing that she had become a lawyer or a bookkeeper or something financially stable and accepted.
She hung on, and today, she is acclaimed as an historic leader in the women’s human rights movement. She admits to getting discouraged and angry, but she can’t see anything else she would rather be doing. “I have learned over the years to have an openness. Life is unpredictable, and you stay engaged, open to the idea that something different happens,” she said. Her priorities include highlighting issues of discrimination in education, legal, economic, and political rights. She is particularly concerned about violence against women, which she believes is the weapon by which patriarchy regenerates its authority.
When weary from campaigning, Bunch seems to find within herself an energy that sometimes pushes the limits of common sense. Her battle against breast cancer was a sober reminder to slow down. Nevertheless, Bunch is, above all, a pilgrim in search of the root causes of injustice. On her life journey, she seems to check under each stone for a wrong decision that doesn’t measure up to her own high standards of truth and humility.