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June 2017

"We Are Our Sister’s Keeper”: US Feminists at the 1975 International Women’s Year Conference
Professor Jocelyn Olcott, Duke University



This photo captures a heated exchange about halfway through the nongovernmental organizations (NGO) tribune that paralleled the first-ever UN women’s conference in Mexico City in the summer of 1975.  The photographer Bettye Lane, an acclaimed photojournalist who documented the US women’s liberation and gay liberation movements, had written on back of the print, “Jacqueline Ceballos speaking to disruptors,” perhaps unwittingly taking sides in a conflict that would define the conference for decades to come.

In mid-June 1975, thousands of people descended on Mexico City for a gathering that would prove to be a watershed not only for institution-building within the UN but also for the formation of transnational networks and NGOs focused on improving women’s status and opportunities (Olcott 2017).  The conference itself emerged from Cold War rivalries and reflected the dynamics within the UN General Assembly, where the non-aligned Group of 77 (G-77) member states had recently taken control.  The proposal to name 1975 as International Women’s Year (IWY) came from the Eastern bloc-aligned NGO, the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), which would be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of its founding and would hold its quinquennial congress that October.  When women in the New York-based NGOs caught wind of the fact that the principal IWY event would take place in East Berlin — “behind the Iron Curtain,” as they saw it — the US State Department suddenly mustered enthusiasm for IWY and actively advocated for an international conference to take place in Bogotá, Colombia (Allan, Galey, and Persinger 1995).  Amid a political transition in Colombia, the conference was relocated to Mexico City, where an enthusiastic President Luis Echeverría openly jockeyed to succeed Kurt Waldheim as UN Secretary-General.

The Mexico City events actually involved two major gatherings — the official conference of instructed delegations from member states that met in the Ministry of Foreign Relations and the NGO tribune that met five kilometers to the south — as well as a constellation of ancillary meetings, including a seminar on women and development and a journalists’ “encounter” that spotlighted the work of Third World journalists.  It was one of the very first UN theme conferences to include a full-scale parallel NGO forum, a testament to the growing importance of civil society around the world and at the UN in particular during the 1970s.  The confrontation that Bettye Lane captures here reflects not only diverse views represented but also diverse expectations about what an NGO forum might accomplish.

The government conference quickly got behind schedule as lengthy speeches attested to the importance of improving women’s lot, often using women’s rights as a proxy in the battles that roiled the General Assembly in the mid-1970s.  The Australian delegation leader Elizabeth Reid analogized sexism with racism, describing the former as a type of “colonization by mute consent” (Reid 1977, 153).  G-77 delegates — heady from their success in suspending the GA credentials of South Africa’s apartheid government — pressed to include Zionism alongside factors such as racism and alien domination as the principal impediments to women’s emancipation.  In the end, “sexism” would be dismissed as a “nasty North American neologism,” while Zionism would, for the first time in an official UN document, be equated with apartheid and other forms of racial discrimination (Olcott 2017, 197).

The NGO tribune became even more raucous, in part by design.  The tribune organizers, Mildred Persinger and Marcia-Ximena Bravo, had labored tirelessly to assemble as diverse a lineup as they could manage, and they left plenty of space in the tribune program for open-ended debate and discussion.  However, when a group led by the US feminist Betty Friedan violated clearly articulated regulations by attempting to represent the NGO tribune to the government conference, the effort triggered an uproar.  The Bolivian labor union militant Domitila Barrios de Chungara emerged as the standard-bearer of a group protesting the feminists’ claims to speak for all women. 

The Mexico City conference is often distilled into the synecdoche of an apocryphal confrontation between Friedan and Barrios de Chungara — an episode that never took place but that reflects the anticipated conflicts between liberal, First World, and white on the one side and Marxist, Third World, and non-white on the other.  We can see Barrios de Chungara looking on in the left foreground of the photo above, as the finger-wagging Ceballos chastises a young protester.  Ceballos grew up in Louisiana in the southern United States but had married a Colombian man and spoke fluent Spanish, the language she likely deployed for this particular tongue-lashing.  In 1967, estranged from her husband, Ceballos would return to New York City, where she quickly became involved with Friedan’s organization, the National Organization for Women (NOW).  By 1971, she had risen to the presidency of the New York City chapter.

NOW took a strong interest in the IWY conference, securing Category III consultative status for itself and hatching plans to increase their influence. “There will be, in Mexico City at the same time, a conference of NGO organizations,” NOW president Karen DeCrow explained to the organization’s national board several months before the gatherings.  “During this period of time many women will be in Mexico City from all over the world.  Also, many men.  Not too many feminists.  It is essential that the feminists of the world get together to discuss (not foreign affairs) but ways in which we can cooperate to assure legal rights for women, the right to choose abortion, child care, equal opportunities in education and training, getting feminists into politics and government, and so forth” (Olcott 2017, 117-18).  The conference newspaper, Xilonen, would report that roughly a hundred NOW members showed up in Mexico City to ensure that the government adhered to feminist principles and to provide role models for their Third World sisters (Xilonen, 20 June 1975: 3).  As Friedan herself had explained to the New York Times when interviewed about the IWY conference, “We are our sister’s keeper” (New York Times, 4 June 1975: 45).

US feminists — and NOW leaders in particular — arrogated to themselves the authority not only to define the boundaries of feminism but also to represent the entire NGO tribune to the official governmental conference.  Unsurprisingly, many other tribune participants took a different view.  When Mexican Attorney General Pedro Ojeda Paullada was elected conference president — following standard UN protocols that the head of the host country’s delegation preside over thematic conferences and in response to UN leaders’ concern that the conference not become a women-only enclave — US feminist protested and threatened demonstrations while many other participants at both the NGO tribune and the government conference applauded Ojeda Paullada’s election as a sign that men took the conference seriously (Olcott 2017, 121-23).

By the time Jacqueline Ceballos was arguing with young activists at the NGO tribune, confrontations exploded. Participants learned that Friedan’s Feminist Caucus, having renamed itself United Women of the Tribune, had sent a delegation to the government conference with a set of proposed amendments for the IWY World Plan of Action, violating both the spirit and the rules of the tribune.  The fact that few copies of the amendments had been made available, and those only in English, compounded resentments, and the subsequent publication of a Spanish translation only heightened suspicions about US manipulation, since it carried a seal indicating that it had been printed “courtesy of the American embassy” (McKenna 1976, xi). 

Two groups of tribune participants challenged the feminists’ representation and emphasis on demands for equality.  In her widely read testimonio, Let Me Speak!, Domitila Barrios de Chungara recounted the incongruity between feminists’ demands and her life.  “All right, let’s talk about the two of us. But if you’ll let me, I’ll begin,” she recalled explaining to a fellow tribune-goer.  “Señora, I’ve known you for about a week. Every morning you show up in a different outfit and on the other hand, I don’t. Every day you show up all made up and combed like someone who had time to spend in an elegant beauty parlor and who can spend money on that, and yet I don’t. I see that each afternoon you have a chauffeur in a car waiting at the door of this place to take you home, and yet I don’t. And in order to show up here like you do, I’m sure you live in a really elegant home, in an elegant neighborhood, no? And yet we miners’ wives only have a small house on loan to us, and when our husbands die or get sick or are fired from the company, we have ninety days to leave the house and then we’re in the street. Now, señora, tell me: is your situation at all similar to mine? Is my situation at all similar to yours? So, what equality are we going to speak of between the two of us?” (Barrios de Chungara and Viezzer 1978, 202-203).

These arguments ultimately had no impact on the gathering of member states.  Neither the conference nor the tribune authorized Friedan’s group to represent the NGOs.  By that point, at any rate, over 800 amendments to the IWY World Plan of Action had been proposed.  As the committees raced through the proposed amendments, they were hardly in a mood to entertain controversial amendments from the tribune.

While feminists such as Jacqueline Ceballos saw themselves as chastising the heretics, those on the receiving end of these rebukes were galvanized to foster their own networks.  Two of the most important women’s networks within the global south — the Encuentros Feministas Latinoamericanos y del Caribe and DAWN (Development Alternatives for Women for a New Era) — grew out of these combative encounters and have linked their activities to those of the UN and its agencies. As DAWN founder Devaki Jain later recalled “the people would say, ‘These Third World women—these Third World women, they’ll come and disrupt this conference. These Third World Women, they are so political.’ It was that kind of ‘these Third World women’ like you talk of ‘these disturbing punks’” (Jain 2002). Although participants at the time vented frustrations about the persistent conflicts and vexed communications, these moments — captured so poignantly here in Bettye Lane’s image — left the most enduring legacies of IWY.


Allan, Virginia R., Margaret E. Galey, and Mildred E. Persinger. 1995. "World Conference of International Women's Year." In Women, Politics, and the United Nations, edited by Anne Winslow. Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press.

Barrios de Chungara, Domitila, and Moema Viezzer. 1978. Let Me Speak!:  Testimony of Domitila, a woman of the Bolivian mines. Translated by Victoria Ortiz, The Leo Huberman People's Library. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Jain, Devaki. 2002. The Complete Oral History Transcripts from "UN Voices". edited by Thomas Weiss. New York: The United Nations Intellectual History Project.

McKenna, Joan. 1976. Women in Action. s.l.: Al-Ber Costa Chapter of the United Nations Association.

Olcott, Jocelyn. 2017. International Women's Year: The Greatest Consciousness-Raising Event in History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reid, Elizabeth Anne. 1977. "Women and the New International Economic Order." In Equality of Opportunity within and among Nations, edited by Khadija Haq, 137-154. New York: Praeger.