An International Gathering of Women, 1965

Last Sunday was International Women’s Day. In checking up on the history of the event, I discovered that its first observation was in 1909 in New York – organized by the Socialist Party of America. Socialists and Communists continued the commemorations for many years with strikes and sometimes days off for women. It wasn’t until 1977 that the adoption of March 8 as the United Nations Day for women’s rights and world peace made the day a popular event beyond its communist and socialist roots.

No matter. Whether there was an official day or not, for many decades women have worked to acknowledge their common cause around the world and to join together to bridge gaps in understanding. Fifty years ago, one such effort was the Asian-American Women Journalists’ Conference, held in Honolulu held May 24-28, 1965.

The conference was organized by Theta Sigma Phi, the national organization of women journalists, in conjunction with the U.S. State Department. Marj Paxson, one of the women I write about, was the president of Theta Sig at the time and so served as the coordinator for the conference. Her papers in the Women and Journalism Archive at the University of Missouri provide a fascinating glimpse into the before, during, and after phases of this meeting of women journalists from across the globe. Here are a few things I learned as I perused the correspondence and clippings:

Conference planning was a pain in 1965.

I’ve planned a few conferences in my time as an academic. I don’t like doing it. I’m lousy at delegating – but excel at worrying – so I’m in a constant state of anxiety about what will get done, who will do it, and whether it will all turn out okay. So kudos to Marj and the rest of her planning committee for pulling off this gathering of women from 9 Asian and Pacific Rim Countries and various regions of the U.S. in the days of mail, telegram, mimeograph, and Filofax.

Hawaii was cheap in 1965.

The conference rate for a single room at the Halekulani hotel was $12.00/night. An online inflation calculator tells me that’s about $90.00 in 2015 dollars. A quick Internet search for the Halekulani Hotel (“the most acclaimed of all 5-star Hawaii hotels”) shows a basic room rate today of $525/night. So if I find myself a way-back machine, I think I might be heading to Hawaii.

These women talked about critical issues.

During the conference, U.S. speakers were paired with Asia-Pacific Island speakers in coordinated presentations. A few of these considered topics typically associated with women – family life, education, youth. But other pairings considered reporting on government affairs, politics, and international understanding. The program lists one presentation set regarding attitudes toward public welfare: Marguerite Johnston of the U.S. spoke on Project Head Start (which was about to launch) and Michele Trigaci of Hong Kong spoke on refugee resettlement issues. This conference was not a get together to talk about recipes and fashion.

White Feminist Savior Complex was in full swing.

Of course, White Feminist Savior Complex is in pretty full swing now, so I shouldn’t be surprised that it was prevalent in 1965. A letter Marj wrote home in the midst of the conference was particularly glaring. The delegate from India is described as “the most articulate of the group, as you might expect” because she was educated in London. The Filipino delegate (described as “only 24,” “tiny,” and “a little girl,”) surprised others with her “conviction that Asians should help themselves.” And in explaining the set-up at the hotel, Marj said:

Each of the Asians is living at the hotel with an American, hopefully of her own journalistic interests and sort of close in age. The Americans have shown the greatest mothering instincts you ever saw. At the opening cocktail party Sunday afternoon some of them were even holding hands. This must be an Asian custom, or maybe it was just a natural gesture because the Asians felt lonely and a little afraid.

But sometimes the savior was put in her place.

In a piece filed for Life magazine, delegate Dora Jane Hamblin wrote about her lasting images from the conference. Dorothy Braxton “rendering an imaginative hula powered only by guava juice,” the experience of Fumi, the delegate from Japan, visiting Pearl Harbor, “Marjorie Paxson leaning back in her chair and firmly, cheerily dragging the discussion back on some kind of track after one of its wild detours.” But my favorite description in this piece is of “the day Mrs. Kim of Korea, whose dress was the envy of all, tried three times to get across to all of us that the famous student riots in Seoul were not organized by Communists”:

Some of us thought we were having trouble with the language, but Mrs. Kim knew better. She was having trouble with an American conviction that all political problems must somehow pertain to Communists. Then, having answered the same question three times she said quietly and firmly, “The student riots have nothing to do with Communists,” and turned toward her nearest American colleague to add gently, “Don’t worry.”

Touché, Mrs. Kim.

* * * * * * * * * *

Twenty years ago, Hillary Clinton made history as first lady by declaring in Beijing that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” That speech, whose anniversary was celebrated this week at the United Nations, is seen as a turning point in the recognition of the need for increased attention to women’s issues across the globe. But thirty years before that, there was a group of women gathered in Hawaii making these same arguments. And, of course, they weren’t the first, either.

When we celebrate International Women’s Day in the midst of Women’s History month, we acknowledge that we are on a long and imperfect journey. We’ll encounter institutional and misogynist roadblocks. We’ll make a lot of missteps on our own. But we’ll keep on trudging. It’s the only way to move forward.

Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri  – this archive of primary source material is invaluable.

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