For the last 32 years, Frieda Werden has been hosting and producing WINGS: Women’s International News Gathering Service, a program by and about women. WDRT spoke with Frieda about her show, current happenings in women’s movements and community radio.
WDRT – Your program often exposes different aspects of patriarchy. Could you explain patriarchy as you understand it, and what you would envision for an alternative?
FW – There are many explanations of patriarchy. Non-patriarchal societies are finally starting to be widely recognized as having pre-dated patriarchal ones, for example by further validation of the work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas.
One theory is that males who were expelled from their communities for being violent then captured and enslaved females, and that once those societies developed the technologies of horsemanship and metal weapons, their values were widely disseminated through conquest of non-patriarchal resource-rich communities. (Adding to the plausibility of this theory is a statement in one of the WINGS shows by an Inuit woman that in traditional times, men in their communities who were rapists or child molesters or extremely violent were killed by authorization of the community, but that the white society arrested the men who carried out these sentences so the violent men now go free to prey on the community.)
A fairly new field known as Modern Matriarchal Studies has grown up around the work of German scholar Heide Goettner-Abendroth. Abendroth and others in this movement work to counteract the common notion that matriarchy is just like patriarchy, except with mothers ruling. They say that the arch- in patriarchy is from a root meaning rule, and that patriarchal societies are structured around hierarchy and force. However, they say that the arch- in matriarchy is from another root meaning “from the beginning.” In other words, matriarchal society starts with the premise that giving birth and raising children are not solo activities and that community naturally evolved around meeting such fundamental needs of our altricial species and the continuing mutual care of one another’s offspring.
Aside from the archaeological, mythological, zoological, and just plain logical bases for presuming that such societies existed, there are still remnants of matriarchal (sometimes conflated with the terms matri-local or matrilinear) societies around today, and there are also historical records of some. In North America, a well-known example is that of the Haudenosaunee (part of the Iroquois confederation), who had a profound influence on the origins of the feminist movement in North America. (A WINGS interview with Sally Roesch Wagner goes into this in some detail.)
These societies tend to be organized around maternal domiciles and to provide for community needs through cooperation and sharing. The men tend to reside with their mothers and sisters and brothers, to co-parent their younger sibs and nieces and nephews, and to have visiting marriages. These societies tend to recognize a relationship with cycles of nature and to emphasize sustainability, rather than accumulation. The patriarchal antagonism toward such societies is exemplified in historic times in Canada by the act outlawing the First Nations practice of potlatches, in which those who have accumulated are honoured for the act of giving all they have gathered away to the other members of the community.
The relationship between capitalism and patriarchy is fairly obvious. Aside from the looming collapse of the patriarchal capitalist system and the cash flows and resource base it relies on, I doubt there is any quick fix to patriarchy. However, there are many people working on elements of remedies, from the Rights of Mother Earth movement that was ensconced into law in Bolivia, to the resurgence of indigenous peoples and the codification of indigenous law, to the cooperative movement, the back to the land/permaculture/organic farming movements, eco-villages, for example in Colombia and Trinidad, which are often woman-led elements of the global women’s movement, the rising of the youth, and just plain common sense and fellow-feeling.
As my longtime friend Genevieve Vaughan writes, the nature of human infancy and mothering/parenting mean that gift-giving-and-receiving is our most basic mode, not only materially but also in language. She sees patriarchy as a result of a deliberate process of masculation in which the patriarchal men coach sons to divorce their identity from that of the gift-giver/mother/parent, and then subject said sons to dominance and inculcate them into a hierarchy modeled on dominance and being dominated, and competition and accumulation.
She also points out that there is an ongoing gift economy that is being ignored – and that if there were not, human beings would not survive – however, it is hard to see the extent to which people give unilaterally because the rubric of capitalist patriarchy frames everything in terms of exchange (a flawed exchange indeed, however, because if it were an equal exchange then there would be no such thing as profit. What Marx would have called “surplus value,” she terms as “constrained or forced gifts.”)
WDRT – What is your take on the state of the women’s movement right now? It feels to many that something new or different is happening, do you agree? How are recent developments informing your program?
FW – There are a lot of new developments, but they are not so much utterly new as building on/developing out of elements that have been present in the global women’s movement not only as long as I have observed it, but well before. However, there are realizations that come new to each generation – I recall how surprised I was to find out that our Women’s Liberation of the ’60s and ’70s had been preceded by major women’s movements in the past.
Incidentally, I have heard university students in recent times say that they were taught in women’s studies that Second Wave was anti-sex – an absurd claim, to anyone who lived through it. What I learned in school about the women’s movement that preceded me was that it was silly women parading around in bloomers!
Now that I’ve been more educated, largely through producing WINGS all these years, I see the Me Too movement as related to the many decades – even centuries – of work by feminists around the globe to de-normalize violence against women and bring it to public attention, to get declarations that women’s rights are human rights, that women have the right to be educated and to work for money, that women deserve equal pay for equal work, that women should not be discriminated against on account of sex, that women have the right to our own bodies – they are not to be owned by others, that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and a violation of women’s rights, that women can be in leadership, that women have a major role to play in keeping and making peace, that women should be believed when they tell their stories of abuse …
I am hopeful most days, especially seeing the next generation surging forward. And yes, WINGS is keeping in touch with recent developments, through contributing producers of various generations. But we also try to keep recent developments in touch with their roots. (I often think of my old teacher Richard Howard scoffing at what he called “our incomparable modernity,” meaning as I understood it that every generation thinks they invented things that never existed before.) We haven’t had any shows yet specifically on the #MeToo movement, but are keeping an eye/ear out for programs that have a different slant on it than what is appearing in the mainstream media. We incorporate material from local and national community radio programs in the WINGS series, so let producers on your station know.
WDRT – WINGS features such a variety of voices from around the planet, speaking about so many important issues. Do you have any speakers or topics that have particularly moved you, that stick out over time? Why?
FW – There are lots of them. Some of them are re-run in the series from time to time. Often it’s just a darned good speech by someone who is a powerful speaker, thinker, and explainer – like Vandana Shiva on agriculture and technology, or Marilyn Waring on women and the economy, or Angela Davis on racism and sexism, or Winona LaDuke on re-building indigenous societies … But sometimes they are complicated issues explained through multiple voices – these can be a lot of work to produce, but I always try to make them very clear to follow, even for American listeners who tend to know little about other countries.
I was very thrilled by the program we released recently on Kenyan women’s political rights, because the women there are working on a very complex process – they managed to get a constitutional change in 2010 saying no elected body shall be comprised of more than 2/3 of either sex – in itself the result of decades of organizing and being ready at the right moment to negotiate – but now they are engaged in the torturous struggle on the ground against patriarchy and entrenched power to actually claim their rights, and they are moving forward through hard work, little by little. Kenya was the site of the UN’s 3rd World Congress on Women in 1985 – just before we produced the first edition of WINGS – and it made a profound impression on the women of that country that has impelled them fiercely towards progress.
Another program that will be released in the next few weeks is a 2-part series about SEWA – the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India. We had a short piece about them way back in the ’90s, and a couple of years ago when we got a new producer in India I asked her if she would produce a program about them – and now, she has sent it. What they have accomplished up to now is absolutely phenomenal, organizing women in the informal economic sector for mutual support and making vast improvements in their capabilities, their self-esteem, and their lives. They currently have about a million members!
I really like it when we can pick back up on a story that we covered before and see progress!! We have one in the works updating the story of Muslim divorce laws in India. India has different family codes for every major religion, and there was a loophole in the Muslim one that allowed a husband to just say “I divorce you” three times to his wife, and toss her out. Previous attempts to change that law have been stymied by politics. Finally, the high court has ruled that this is not constitutional, and a change has been introduced into Parliament … we shall see!
Another two-part series I occasionally re-release because there is so much in it is from the World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet, held in Miami, Florida in December 1991. The show’s structure is based on the Women’s Agenda 21 that was worked out by a collaborative process of all those in attendance from around the world, to be used then to lobby at the first big Earth Summit that Al Gore convened in Rio in 1992. I intercut clips from the Tribunal held at the Congress with readings from the final declaration. This was the time that the environment came out as a major feminist issue, and I’ve been very partial to programs about women and environment since.
Pretty much, I love all the shows. You can’t spend 15 to 40 or even 50+ hours working on a program unless you have fallen in love with it.
WDRT – What’s in store for the future of WINGS, and what do you hope listeners get out of the program?
FW – I am working with women from various countries on a succession plan for WINGS, so that as I age I can gradually withdraw and it may continue on after me. In addition, I am starting to raise funds to digitize and post online our complete collection – not only the roughly 1500 programs we’ve released over the past 32 years, but hundreds of hours of raw tape recorded at important events like the 4th UN World Congress on Women in Beijing, the US National Women’s Studies Association conferences, the women’s events at the UN World Conference on Human Rights, Bella Abzug’s funeral, a conference on the Gift Economy and one on Matriarchal Studies, and lots of other stuff.
Before I started WINGS, even before I worked at NPR, I worked on the Texas Women’s History Project started by (later-governor) Ann Richards, and came to realize how much of women’s history has disappeared from the record. But what we could determine was that the women’s history was very different from the typical history in which men’s wars and conflicts dominate. Without women in Texas, there would have been no public schools, no symphonies, no libraries, the Alamo would have been razed, lynching would not have been stopped, children would have starved or commonly been worked to death… nobody would have had quilts to keep warm, or clean clothes, even!
Around the time WINGS started, I composed two mottos: “Raising Women’s Voices Through Radio Worldwide,” and “Today’s news is tomorrow’s history: Keep women’s actions on the record!” So, what I hope listeners will get from these programs is that women are making history every day, we are still rarely heard compared to the scope of our activities and our influence, and we are changing the nature of our societies and the world,
And one other thing I want to add – it is still the case today that mainstream media coverage of women is always homing in on conflict among women – “generational divide” – allegations of racism – differences of opinion on sex or sexuality or identity or whatever. They are continually asserting that the women’s movement is dead, or bad, or on its last legs… And they expend a lot of time framing women as victims, rather than actors in their own right.
At WINGS, we try to never have a show focus only on “ain’t it awful.” We are looking for the ways that women make things happen and resist to make change, not just fall victim. You might have noticed a program we put out a few months ago, called “Enslaved in Kuwait.” We made sure it was not just a story about bad things that happened to women, but that it focused on the successes of the two women from Cameroon in escaping from enslavement and getting back home, and including what they thought should be some solutions.
I want our listeners to recognize that our common interests are still being pursued, that we do have a continuous movement that is making progress – at least trying to, valiantly – despite all obstacles. I want them to hope.
WDRT – You’ve dedicated your life to community media. Why do you think it is important? What makes it special?
FW – I love that community media gives people training and opportunity to have their voices on the airwaves, that it can bring people from diverse backgrounds together in community with common purpose, that it is authentic and about sharing things we love, not profit. That it has room for creativity and experiments. I really encourage community radio to reach out especially to women, who tend to be busier and less self-confident at the beginning than the fellows, and often like to work with a co-producer or a group. Often stations have benefited from having a women’s coordinator to ensure continuity of women’s programming.
Another thing about community radio, I found out, is that unlike public radio, it allows for the expression of passion and enthusiasm. When WINGS started, our pilot was funded by a Director’s discretionary grant from the NPR Satellite Program Development Fund (now long defunct). For years, I tried marketing WINGS at Public Radio Conferences, but met so much resistance – a show only about women, that was too radical. A show that used excerpts from speeches – too strident, too passionate.
As I say in that 2006 interview, Marshall McLuhan described radio as a “hot” medium and TV as “medium cool,” but it is my experience that with the better signal quality from FM, NPR turned its radio into a cool medium – News and Classical Music / News and Jazz. When I tried to file a black history month story once, the editor told me “we don’t use excerpts from public addresses.” When I played a piece I’d produced from a Radiation and Breast Cancer Conference, at an American Public Radio critique session, one of the respondents said “I feel like they’re shouting at me.”
The sound of passionate engagement just doesn’t fit their model. Luckily, in 1986, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters gave me and WINGS co-founder Katherine Davenport a small stipend to travel from San Francisco to Vancouver, Canada, for the first really big AMARC (World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters) conference, and we got turned on to the community radio movement, met a lot of other women broadcasters, and found shared enthusiasms.
Tune in to ‘WINGS: Women’s International News Gathering Service,’ every Wednesday at 5PM on WDRT.