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Open Letter

I am going to burn in hell for this, I know. I know that. You guys are my number one favorite charity. You should hear what I say about charities I don't like. In fact, I'm going to donate a flock of chicks right now, before I write any further.

There. Chicks accomplished. Now, here's my beef (though ironically I've never been flush enough to donate an entire cow): It's that e-mail you sent me just before International Women's Day.

The e-mail invited me to read Heifer's statement on Gender Equity. But then you added this: "You'll truly know more about gender equity in Heifer's work and why it's not a feminist perspective or a Western imposed approach."

Whoa there. Why not just tell me to take my chicks and shove 'em? Or perhaps your e-mail director accidentally clicked "send" before sorting out Western women who don't belong to Focus on the Family. I e-mailed you right back, but you never answered. So I'll try again here.

Let's take that gratuitous swat at feminism first. It's especially strange because nothing could be more feminist than the following excerpts from your gender equity statement, by Martha Hirpa, Heifer International's Director of Gender Equity:

"Gender inequity is social injustice."

"Culture and tradition often encourage the unequal distribution of resources between women and men, starting from childhood. In many developing countries, boys have better access than girls to school and health services and more opportunities to build assets and own property."

"This discrimination based on gender creates persistent inequality between women and men in all aspects of life . . . "

Hmmmm. According to Merriam-Webster, feminism is "the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes." Obviously, Heifer's policies are feminist, but for some reason you feel the need to deny it. Unfortunately, your denial denigrates the very philosophy you're trying to promote.

Naturally, feminism is opposed in countries where the religious, cultural and legal systems still subordinate and discriminate against women - which happens to include many of the countries where you operate. It's also not news that throughout history women in patriarchal societies, even those that have been relatively educated and/or wealthy, have helped perpetuate those systems. As Gerda Lerner wrote in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, "They have done so because their consciousness of their own situation could not develop in a manner commensurate with their advancement in other aspects of their lives." In other words, even the women might not be keen at first on equality.

So I'm sure you don't tout the "F" word directly in developing countries where women remain oppressed. I don't blame you. But your e-mail was directed to English-speaking donors - by definition, people in developed Western countries, if not the United States exclusively.

I suppose you deny being feminist even to an American audience because "feminist" has become a dirty word among large segments of our population, too. As a child, I heard reactionaries like Phyllis Schlafly putting down "feminists." You can still hear it from Schlafly's modern day soul sisters. I just never thought I'd hear it from Heifer.

Schlafly and her progeny have been so successful that it was news last week when Hillary Clinton admitted being a feminist after she was endorsed by the National Organization for Women. The Chicago Tribune headlined its story "Clinton: Yes, I'm a Feminist," as if it were a shocking development. Clinton also quoted the actual definition of "feminist," no doubt attempting to decrease the fall-out from her dangerous revelation.

How has the belief that women are equal to men, and should be treated as such, become such a political and charity fundraising liability? I can almost hear Phyllis now (I can certainly see her insane beehive with the two little curls on either side of her face): Because of those radicals!

Yet no social group or movement exists that doesn't include extremists. Extremists are often useful, helping to push agendas and make moderates look more reasonable. It's like bargaining at a flea market. If the seller starts out offering the ancient idea that women are inferior and suited for nothing more than reproduction, but the buyer insists men are the enemy and all sex is rape, perhaps they can eventually agree that women are entitled to full social and legal equality. Someday, anyway - maybe next century. The haggling has been going on an awfully long time.

Anyway, it seems to me feminism is unique only because its opponents have been able to make the entire movement synonymous with its most radical extremists.

The civil rights movement, for example, has been every bit as divided as feminism in its goals and tactics. Yet I don't recall ever hearing an African-American say, "Oh sure, I support equal rights for blacks - but I'm not one of those civil rights activists!"

Or take pro-life and Islamic terrorists. Both belong to larger groups made up mainly of reasonable and respectable people. Both types of terrorists commit crimes, including murder, in the name of their respective causes. Yet pro-lifers continue to call themselves pro-life; Muslims call themselves Muslims.

And just what have the most radical feminists done that's awful enough to condemn their very name, anyway? Written some annoying books? Burned some bras about thirty years ago? Nobody got killed for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, that's for sure.

Feminism has been successfully vilified, I think, because women's rights are still not considered completely legitimate at the most basic level of societal consciousness. The only other liberal movement faring as badly in its public relations is animal rights. PETA has made "animal rights activist" sound nearly as bad as "feminist" to many people's ears. It doesn't say much for how far women have managed to rise above animals.

And this is the society you, Heifer, have to ask for money. I don't envy you the task.

I assume that's why your gender equity statement also explains so meticulously why you have to work against sex discrimination to eliminate poverty. Experience, your statement says, "has taught us that development efforts that do not address the inequality between women and men are partial ones and so are neither effective nor sustainable."

Very logical . . . but why do we need an excuse to help oppressed women? What if you could pull a nation out of poverty without giving girls access to education, allowing women to work outside the home, and giving them legal rights? Would that be alright with Heifer? Oh, of course not. I know that. I'm just saying.

And that bit about Heifer's gender equity not being "Western-imposed" - I guess that comes from the debate among development professionals and other multiculturalists about whether promoting women's equality unfairly changes local cultures. Somehow I don't think that debate would be possible if it were about any other oppressed group. Except animals, of course.

Either oppression is wrong, or it isn't. If, instead, it is alright to oppress certain groups of people as long as it's been going on for a really, really long time, why oppose slavery, child labor or sex trafficking? Or even child sex slaves? What could be more venerable?

The whole "Western-imposed" argument is kind of ironic, too, considering how the West tolerates brutal oppression of women in Islamic countries. We only overthrew the Taliban because they were foolish enough to harbor Osama bin Laden, remember. And we're the country that liberated Kuwait - but only the male half of it. Would we have liberated only the white half of South Africa during apartheid?

The idea that women's rights are a Western value is itself, to my mind, an insult to non-Westerners. But if respecting women's rights is "Western," I confess I fail to see why the West should be ashamed to promote its position. As Sam Harris puts it in The End of Faith, "It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development."

In her recent autobiography Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali also addresses the question of Western values: "[W]e in the West would be wrong to prolong the pain" in societies which oppress women "by elevating cultures full of bigotry and hatred toward women to the stature of respectable alternative ways of life."

Look, you're specifically devoted to promoting women's inclusion and empowerment wherever Heifer works to alleviate poverty. I think we all understand that process has to be done carefully and diplomatically in places where women have been subjugated for centuries. So keep the "F" word and the "W" word to yourself, if you must. But please don't put them down.

The saying "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything" comes to mind. I hope I have been sufficiently nice in my complaint. At least don't send back my chicks.


Cate Plys


Got a beef? Open Letter accepts letters. Send to And catch up here with previous Open Letter classics, such as "Dear People Who Normally Park in the 5300 to 5500 Blocks of S. Shore Drive" and "Dear Person Who Let Their Dog Defecate Near The Southeast Corner Of 58th And Kimbark."


Posted on April 3, 2007

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