Women’s World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development—Women’s WORLD—is a small organization with an enormous goal. “In far too many countries, women who try to have a public voice are met with hatred, contempt, suppression, exile or death. Whether the agency of suppression is the state, the publishing industry, religious authority, or the family, all forms of silencing and exclusion must be seen as censorship,” declares their May 1996 mission statement. Women’s WORLD chair Meredith Tax, a long-time feminist activist and author of four books, knows first-hand about both censorship and sexism. A 1994 campaign orchestrated by the Christian Coalition targeted Tax’s book, Families, for allegedly undermining “traditional” values. She also has repeatedly encountered hostility and dismissal from male writers. She recalls the 1986 conference of PEN, the international writers’ organization, which was held in New York and chaired by Norman Mailer: “This was supposedly a gathering of the best writers in the world, but when I got there I noticed how few women were on the panels, something like 17 out of 140.
“So Grace Paley and I organized a protest. . . . Out of this we formed a women’s committee. We organized events, got a number of women on the boards, and changed the climate of PEN considerably.”
A few years later, PEN sent Tax to an international congress in Holland, where, once again, very few women were visible. Again she formed a women’s committee—this time, for PEN international. “Unfortunately,” she says, “it became impossible to function because the committee constantly had to fight for the right to exist. If you have to fight to be, you can’t do anything else. And we wanted to accomplish things.”
Indeed, by 1993 those involved in PEN’S women’s committees had heard about several cases of gender-based censorship. One involved Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi writer threatened with death by an Islamic group that considered her work malicious and blasphemous. Nasrin captured international headlines with the help of PEN’S international women’s committee and its organizational successor, Women’s WORLD, and eventually relocated to a safer environment.
“As the strength of fundamentalism increases—not just Islamic fundamentalism, but all fundamentalist trends— these kinds of calls will increase,” Tax says. “Fundamentalists will join against us. Whenever women get too loud, religious and government leaders react and try to subordinate us. Writers are obvious targets.
Women’s WORLD is also concerned about the treatment of women’s issues in publishing and education. “When people who write critically about gender arrangements cannot find publishers, this is censorship,” says the group’s mission statement. “When girls are not taught to read and write, this is censorship.”
“A lot of people talk about functional literacy, but that’s not what we’re interested in,” adds Tax. “Do we want women to learn to read and write merely so they can follow instructions in packages of birth control pills? Of course not. We want the same kinds of literature men have. We want books about girls and we want to strengthen the publishing industry. Our philosophy is simple. If you don’t have a voice, you can’t do or defend anything.”
As to her own role as a leader and advocate, Tax is passionate and eloquent. “I see myself as owing my life to the women’s movement. It gave my life meaning it could not have had otherwise. Jewish women, like me, have been very important in this movement. The contradiction between love of the mind in Jewish tradition and the actual position of women in Jewish society is very sharp. But there is enough support in the Jewish tradition for ideas of change and social justice to give one a place to stand and try to change the tradition itself. It’s then logical to want to do that for the rest of society.”