Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Feminist Cruise: Part Three
Shipboard Classes

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Our cruise across the Caribbean included two full days at sea, one heading toward Central America and the other as we were returning to Florida. We had three sets of workshops during those days, each permitting cruisers to choose between two or three options. On most other days we would have one or two workshop sessions.

I attended a couple of workshops that dealt with the subject of immigration, of which the most memorable was hosted by a professor from the University of Texas at El Paso. Her topic was on the "feminicidios" (femicides) or "las muertas de Juárez" (the dead women of Juarez). The professor talked about how American companies were building factories in Mexican border cities, like Juarez, as a result of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) - where they could take advantage of low wages and no worker protections. Immigrants from across Mexico and Central America came north to work in these factories, and many of those workers were young women. Juarez was witnessing a large number of these women being raped (often by groups of men) and murdered, and the authorities weren't actively engaged in investigating the murders or even admitting that there was a problem. The lesson was that economic necessity can bring people into dangerous situations, and that neither the Mexican government nor the American employers could not be relied upon to guarantee safety to the poor.

I listened to Delores Huerta talk from the floor about immigrant struggles, and her experiences in helping to found the United Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez. Ms. Huerta is truly an American legend. She is older now (with eleven grown children) but still very active and very vocal. She also talked about the plight of female prisoners in America, many of whom are serving longer sentences than men convicted of the same crimes. I was able to have a private conversation with Delores about an elderly lady that I know who is confined to a wheelchair and living in a California prison. She is totally harmless, but prisons in America aren't about public safety, they are about vengeance.

Another memorable workshop involved the showing of a new film on the history of the women's suffrage movement in the United States. I don't remember the name of the film, but Alice Paul was the central focus, and it was very engrossing. One older lady at the showing had an expensive coffee table book on the suffrage movement, and she passed her book around asking each of us to sign it.

Eleanor Smeal, Kim Gandy (President of the National Organization of Women), and others had a panel discussion one evening on current political issues. Ms. Smeal spoke about the inherent power of controlling committees in Congress. At that time the Democrats had a one-vote majority in the U.S. Senate, only because independent Joe Lieberman was caucusing with the Democrats. I heard a guest on the Chris Matthews Show say that he predicted that Lieberman would join the Republican Party soon and thus relieve the Democrats of all of their Committee Chairmanships. It took awhile to get the floor, but when I finally was able to ask about that prediction, Ms. Smeal made her own prediction - that it wouldn't happen. And it hasn't!

Eleanor Smeal spoke in a unique manner. She would begin every statement speaking slowly and deliberately, but would then begin to ramp it up before she completed her thought - almost always with an edge of anger in her voice. One was left to suspect that intensity had been a necessary component of her highly successful life.

The evening meals on the ship were also designed to be educational experiences. Through a scheduling design that nothing short of amazing, we were all moved around each evening so that we were sitting with different cruisers. The celebrities were also shuffled so that each passenger got to be at a table with each celebrity during the course of the week. One night we had been provided with wine in order to do some toasting. I'm not much of a wine fan, so I just sipped at mine during the toast, and had almost a full glass left after the activity. Kim Gandy, the NOW President was sitting next to me that evening and noticed my leftover wine. "Are you going to drink that?" I told her that I was not, and she reached over, picked it up, and downed it! When you are elbow-to-elbow with someone, they can suddenly become very real!

Another evening as we were waiting on our meal, each person at the table introduced themselves to their fellow diners. The lady preceding me was about my age, and she was travelling with her daughter-in-law-to-be. She discussed her husband who had just retired as a CEO of a large company. She discussed her son, who had just graduated from an Ivy League College, and was going into the Army as an officer. She said that while she and her husband both supported the War in Iraq initially, now that her son would be serving there, her opinion had changed. She blamed her husband for pushing their son into serving a stint as an officer in the Army. When she finally finished her "poor me" diatribe, it was my turn to talk. After informing the group that I was a social worker with the United States Army, she sputtered out, "You're kidding!" I caught a bit of a grin from the bride-to-be!

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