This article is part of our series Global Feminisms. You can read an introduction to the series here

“There is no simple way to describe the NGO Forum,” wrote the US feminist journalist Jo Freeman, upon her return from the United Nations (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. With 30,000 participants from nearly two hundred countries, this forum for global feminist activists that accompanied the official UN conference was far larger than previous gatherings a in Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985. The 12-day event filled with panels, plenaries, and workshops resembled a “county fair with theme tents, an exhibition hall, booths and tables.” “Throw in a dab of flea market. Add a computer room . . . Sprinkle with bulletin boards and poster walls, many spontaneous ad hoc demonstrations and lots of dancing and singing.” These events offered unparalleled opportunities activists to learn from and forge relationships with one another. And for many of the 8,000 US feminist who traveled to the forum, the experience was transformative. The ideas they learned and the relationships they formed in China reshaped their activism for years to come.

The forum showcased how global and diverse the women’s movement had become. Participants came from every part of the world and communicated in multiple languages. Even the 8,000 activists representing the US were themselves far more diverse than the ones who had traveled to previous international events. The cost of international travel meant that attendance skewed towards those who put energy towards raising money or won grants. African American women had the largest presence of all minority groups—between 1,000 and 2,000. The Asian Americans, Latinas, and Native Americans numbered in the many hundreds.

For many US activists, immersion in this global feminist think tank changed their worlds. “The women globally offered us lessons and strategies that we simply did not know in the United States,” recalled the Black women’s health advocate Loretta Ross. The plenary sessions addressed topics such as the international rise of conservatism and fundamentalism, globalization and the economy, and peace and human security. And most of the experts on stage were Asian, African, or Latin American.

Most humbling for many US activists was the crash course they received in feminist perspectives on globalization and neoliberalism. Most knew that the US had lost thousands of manufacturing jobs to factories overseas and many had decried the mounting cutbacks to their nation’s social welfare programs. But they did not fully understand how these developments were bound up in seismic economic and political shifts happening worldwide. In makeshift tents and large lecture halls, activists from Latin America, Asia, and Africa schooled the US feminists. Many US activists were particularly chastened to learn of their own government’s role in promoting the structural adjustment policies that feminists from the global South blamed for women’s impoverishment. “I had no idea that the United States was actually enacting welfare reform all over the world. . . . I was just blown away,” recalled the Asian American homeless advocate and welfare rights organizer Eveline Shen. “It really helped politicize me in a way that . . . opened the doors to things that now I know but I just had no idea, because I was so focused on what was going on in this country.”

It was not only the ideas that astounded the Americans; it was that they were being conveyed to them by some of the world’s most marginalized women. “We’d be sitting there in workshops with . . .  women from small countries in Africa who are breaking down structural adjustment programs, SAPs, and what it directly means for them as peasant women,” said the environmental organizer Pamela Chiang. Seeing how people in other places mobilized with few resources under extremely repressive conditions gave many US activists renewed hope for their future. They had come to China knowing very little or nothing about structural adjustment programs and institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They left convinced that these institutions and policies should and could be confronted at home and abroad.

Many of the lessons learned were more individual yet no less profound. Beijing “had a huge impact on me personally,” explained Laila Al-Marayti, vice chair of the Muslim Women’s League, who credited the conference for her “own growth and understanding of how I see myself within the larger Muslim women’s movement.” Ingrid Washinawatok, co-chair of the Indigenous Women’s Network, described how the conference helped her delegation “step out of their views of their own oppression to go, hear, share, and feel the oppression of other women. This was important because if you stay too localized and only within your own people, it atrophies you, makes you resentful, and leads to inaction.” For the St. Louis community activist LaDoris Payne, Beijing was also a “critical point” in her development. Participating in the conference made her “feel that I was part of something new that was happening with women around the world.” The gay rights advocate Urvashi Vaid described becoming “more global” after the conference. “Beijing left me feeling . . . I’ve got to do much more and learn much more in this human rights space.”

A panel at the NGO Forum featuring queer women from different regions of the world, including the US activist Urvashi Vaid (in the center) and the South African Beverly Palesa Ditsie (to Vaid’s left). Photograph by Rachel Rosenbloom. Permission of the author.

Some conference participants used their experiences in China as springboards from which to launch new organizations. For members of the disability rights organization Mobility International USA, their experiences networking and advocating for women with disabilities at the forum convinced them to launch an annual International Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD), bringing together 34 disabled women leaders from around the world for a two-week intensive training program around skills development and fundraising. The institute was followed by an international disabled women’s conference, which brought over 600 activists to Washington, DC.

Many of the Asian Americans who attended the conference identified commonalities with one another that they had not articulated at home. They held several meetings at the forum where they met each other for the first time and shared information about their activism. The experience of being an Asian American in China turned out to be incredibly bonding, helping US activists with roots in a range of Asian countries to identify similarities in their experiences they had not previously articulated. When they returned to the US, they founded the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the first multi-issue organization of Asian and Pacific Islander women in the country. “It was ridiculous that it took us all coming thousands of miles to Beijing to get together as a national gathering of Asian American women,” remarked lawyer and labor activist Lora Jo Foo. But it did.

Lora Jo Foo (standing) presenting at one of the workshops for Asian American women held at the NGO Forum. These meetings led to the founding of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the first multi-issue organization of Asian and Pacific Islander American women in the United States. Courtesy of Lora Jo Foo. Reproduced with permission of the author.

One of the most influential interracial US-based efforts that gained energy from the conference was the U.S. Women of Color Coalition for Reproductive Health Rights (WOCCRHR). Funded by the Ford Foundation, this coalition of Latinas, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans first came together to participate in the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994. They had such a galvanizing experience that they embraced Ford’s invitation to continue their coalition-building in Beijing. A crucial outcome of this work resulted from their exposure to feminists from other countries who were using human rights-based arguments to advocate for reproductive health and sexual freedom. This framework had appealed to prior generations of US activists, but women of color reproductive rights advocates used it in unique ways to further their analyses of health inequalities. Latina health activist Luz Martinez Alvarez recalled learning from her international counterparts that “all our principles around healthcare were around human rights.” In the years following the UN conferences, several members of the coalition helped form the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Project, a multiracial reproductive justice organization that today plays a leading role in the US women’s health movement. SisterSong’s approach looks beyond birth control and abortion to also address such issues as pregnancy, cervical cancer, and HIV/AIDS. Taking “inspiration and tools from the international human rights movement,” this woman of color organization promotes a “comprehensive human rights-based approach . . . to health care.”

Loretta Ross speaking from the podium at the first SisterSong conference in 2003. Setting up the stage as a well-decorated altar honoring the ancestors and representing all four racial-ethnic groups became a SisterSong tradition, as did decorating the rooms in which panels took place. They modeled this practice on the National Black Women’s Health Project’s 1983 conference. Courtesy of SisterSong. Reproduced with permission of the author.

The various ways US feminists’ experiences at the 1995 NGO Forum shaped their organizing at home suggests the importance of a global perspective even when studying grassroots activism. By learning from people organizing in other countries and sharing resonant experiences abroad, US feminists developed insights and personal relationships that propelled their organizing at home. Networks formed, friendships deepened, and intellectual breakthroughs happened in China with remarkable speed. Activists’ exposure to and learning from people from other countries shaped the future trajectory of the US feminism for years to come.

Lisa Levenstein is Director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and Professor of History at UNC Greensboro. She is the author of They Didn’t See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties (Basic, 2020) and A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia (UNC Press, 2009). A frequent contributor to public media, she is also co-host of the Collegeland podcast.

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