Gains Made by Women of Colour in National Women’s Organizations

By Nazlin Nathu

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The Tenth Biennial Conference of the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) was held in Vancouver February 19-21, 1993. The theme of the Conference— Healing the Past, Forming the Future— was charted over a year ago when organizers found themselves faced with a host of issues that cried out for further comment, and with the nagging feeling that criticism of the women's movement as elitist and race-bound had not been addressed. Chandra Bhudi, Coordinator of Community Action on Violence and a speaker at the Conference's opening session, noted that women of colour have often felt invisible amidst the 'sea of white faces' that has formed the executive and membership of NAWL. Ms. Bhudi maintained that the result of this has been an absorption by women of colour of 'white' reference points and a consequent distancing of their ethnicity—and this in a world where 75% of the population is non-white.

In an effort to address these concerns, a two-part workshop focusing on the dynamics within and amongst women of colour groups was, for the first time, part of the Conference agenda. Titled Women of Colour Strategies, the panel discussion was led by a cross-section of women, including Toronto community organizers, Punam Khosla and Eun-Sook Lee, Women Against Violence Against Women activist, Zara Suleman and Black History Month organizer, Carolyn Jerome. The focus of the panel was to identify other women of colour communities, and to utilize shared strengths as well as to learn from common experiences. Both workshops were closed caucuses for women of colour only, in order to encourage this sector of women to engage freely in dialogue and 'form a future' amongst themselves. Although there was also a restriction imposed on the publication of any of the discussions, a number of resolutions were arrived at and were presented to the NAWL executive at the annual general meeting held on the last day of the Conference. The main resolution submitted was a request that NAWL make it a priority to fund a permanent advisory committee on women of colour in order to:

  1.  encourage the participation of women of colour in NAWL;
  2.  consult and strategise with NAWL on all initiatives with a view to the impact of these initiatives on women of colour;
  3.  support women of colour in their struggle to obtain representation at all levels of the legal profession—as students, lawyers and judges;
  4.  review the credentials from a legal and social perspective of persons who speak at and for NAWL; and
  5.  ensure that NAWL's panels are inclusive, and reflect the broad concerns of women of colour.

In passing this resolution, it is clear that NAWL's executive is preparing to give women of colour a larger role in the direction of the organization.

In giving women of colour a stronger voice, NAWL is following in the footsteps of Canada's largest feminist organization, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). In the 1970s, NAC was almost exclusively a white, middle-class network of professional women and academics. Today, after a robust campaign of affirmative action under the leadership of Judy Rebick, over a quarter of NAC's executive members are from visible minorities, and the organization has a woman of colour caucus with a direct role in setting the agenda for meetings.

The growing influence of women of colour within NAC is symbolized by Ms. Rebick's successor, Sunera Thobani, a Tanzanian-born woman of colour. Ms. Thobani has stated that she wants to see more and more women of colour within NAC's membership and executive, and that she is committed to continuing Ms. Rebick's efforts to make the organization more diverse. Ms. Thobani has said, "It is unfair to allow a few women to monopolize the gains made by the women's movement collectively, and to thereby slam a door in the face of the women behind them."

From the directions taken by both NAWL and NAC, it appears that the face of the feminist movement is changing. Traditional outsiders—immigrant women, visible minorities—have become a dominant force and are shifting the balance of power within the movement. The result of this shift is that women's groups are beginning to more accurately include and reflect the diversity of women and women's experiences.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Nazlin Nathu is a lawyer and a writer living in Vancouver.
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