Money and Power - discussing sexual choices
by Susan, San Francisco
Ellen, a Black woman from West Africa, tipped a beer to her lips as we sat together and laughed. She was telling me about her father who had two wives and I was asking her the intimate details of that situation. All around us, Caribbean music rocked, and other women and a few men were dancing.
We had come to the final night of a series of meetings held by the International Wages for Housework Campaign (IWFHC) in London (Spring 2001). After two weeks of spending every waking moment with 50 women from all over the world, both Ellen’s and my heads were reeling.
We had gathered primarily to discuss the second annual Global Women’s Strike, which we had all taken part in our respective countries on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Within the context of discussing the Strike, we had delved into poverty, the Third World Debt, rape, sexuality, violence and many other issues that affect women’s lives. In the past two weeks, we’d had our minds blown by all we had learned and experienced.
Suddenly Ellen turned to me and pointed at my girlfriend. “Is that your partner?” She asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“You share the same bed?”
Ellen clamped her hand over her mouth, trying to hold back laughter. Finally she blurted out, “How do you play sex?”
Ellen surprised me, for only a few days earlier during an open discussion on lesbianism, she had spoken seriously on the subject. She had openly accepted gay women, saying that although when she first went to international women’s conferences, she had been shocked to meet lesbians, she understood why a woman would choose another woman for a partner.
I guess, in the festive mood of this party, after a few beers, she wanted to know the more private details of lesbianism.
I talked to Ellen about lesbian sex, including dildos, butch-femme and anything else I could think of. As I spoke, I kept thinking about some of the things she’d told us earlier at the conference. She’d said that where she came from, if a woman got together with another woman, she might be arrested, rejected by her family or considered insane. During the discussion, other Third World women agreed. Because in many countries, most women need a husband in order to survive, the issue of lesbianism was crucially an economic question, and not an option most women could consider.
This wasn’t the first time in these two weeks that my view of the world as an American lesbian was challenged. First of all, I was reminded that as an “out” lesbian, in comparison to other women in the world, I was an isolated minority, an anthropological anomaly. And a basic reason for this is that lesbianism has an enormous economic component.
I had been hanging around the IWFHC for two years, but was just beginning to grasp some of its principles. One of the Campaign’s main objectives has been to connect women’s economic reality to their lack of power in society. A lot of their campaigning has involved counting and evaluating women’s underwaged and unwaged work. On a global scale, the economic imbalance between men and women is phenomenal. In fact, according to the International Labor Organization, women do two-thirds of the world’s work for 5% of its income. In places like Africa or other Third World countries, this includes growing most of the food, carrying water, breast feeding, child care, care of the sick and ad infinitum.
During my two weeks in London, I also met with International Wages Due Lesbians (IWDL), which is one of several autonomous organizations in the
Campaign. IWDL was started in 1975, when a group of lesbian women wanted to campaign for wages for housework, but still keep their autonomy as lesbians.
The name “Wages Due Lesbians” implies that lesbians do a lot work in society that is undervalued and underpaid. This includes the work of coming out, of having our kids bullied at school, of being caretakers of aging parents, etc. IWDL has been involved in child custody and police brutality cases, and has challenged laws such as section 28 in England, which literally calls gay families “pretended families.” They’ve also raised domestic partner issues, including spousal benefits, immigration rights, and the need for asylum for lesbian and gay people who face persecution because they’re gay. We discussed the responsibility we have of being visible within the IWFHC, so that we help ensure that not only middle and upper class lesbians from first world countries are visible as lesbians. We’re challenging the fact that in many western countries the gay movement has been “bought” and that what was once a political struggle has become a commercial “life-style” enterprise.
We also talked about how the demand for pay equity is crucial for lesbian women. Too frequently, even though traditionally female jobs, such as clerical work or nursing are highly stressful and require considerable skill in dealing with multiple tasks and with people, they are not paid as much as the traditional male jobs within the same industries.
It felt appropriate to top off these two weeks with my jovial discussion with Ellen.
“We can talk,” she assured me, as we got into the details of sex. “We all know each other now. We are friends.”
And the things I was telling her were no less shocking than the things she had told me. Like, when a man and woman divorce in her village, the man gets everything, including the children. And if a woman is raped or beaten, she has to bribe a police officer simply to make a complaint.
What I came to realize is that there is a direct connection between why women in her village could not openly love other women, and all the other problems they were facing. Money is power and these problems for Ugandan women were economic.
“Are there any women in your village who do not marry?” I asked Ellen.
“If a woman does not have a husband, she is usually a prostitute,” she told me.
“Who are her clients?”
Here, the IWFHC demand for a redistribution of military budgets made perfect sense. IWFHC wants to get money from the military to pay for women’s unwaged work, pointing out that while $800 billion a year is spent on military budgets worldwide, $80 billion could provide the essentials of life - water, basic health, nutrition, education and a minimum income. It wasn’t surprising that in Ellen’s village, the soldiers had money to spend on prostitutes.
After my girlfriend and I arrived back in San Francisco, we were waiting for the airport shuttle van. The dispatcher, a big, masculine looking woman in trousers and a necktie told us with loud confidence, “we’ll get you ladies out of here and on your way in fifteen minutes.”
As we waited, the dispatcher spoke on her cell phone in the same loud, confident voice.
“She’s a dyke,” my girlfriend commented. “We’re back in San Francisco.”
Here, in this limited sphere of a shuttle van service, a butch lesbian was in charge. It wasn’t much, and lesbian women still have a long way to go, even in the Bay Area. Still, in the United States, many women have money, and that means power and independence. I was glad to be home, but I was more aware than ever how tenuous my freedom as a lesbian woman is and on a global scale, on what an isolated island I live.