from Womankind (1972) An account of a US women's trip to Paris to meet women from the NLF, our supposed "enemy" in the SE Asia war. Editor's note: This is an account by a Chicago anti-war activist of a trip to Paris to meet the PRG women (our so-called "enemy") during the Southeast Asia war.)
We were fifteen Americans in this delegation to Paris; we were called the “Little Fish Brigade” to point up our primary involvement as local anti—war organizers as opposed to the previous brigades of so—called “Big Fish”, the organizers of the national mass demonstrations. We came from San Diego, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, and brought with us all the fragmentation and confusion of the American Peace Movement. It was a struggle for us (Zippies and Yippies, Maoists and Activists ) to drop personal agendas for once and work together. Our best efforts, though, went toward the women’s meeting.
We met first as American women, prior to our scheduled evening with the women of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, to discuss what our topics of inquiry would be. They were questions of history and culture, of women’s roles in Vietnam and how they have changed since the 1930’s, questions of how that change has occurred and how it is seen by Vietnamese — both men and women.
From the time the Vietnamese women entered the meeting room in the PRG headquarters, there was a strong feeling of solidarity with us as women, the sort of feeling that doesn’t translate easily into words. There-was also an incredible feeling of warmth, and laughter came easily. We settled quickly the details of procedure - who would translate, what our areas of interest were. Mme Van, one of the women present, had done a taped interview on the subject of women a few months before with other Americans. She was eager for the chance to do a new and improved tape. Her eagerness was infectious.
We began with questions about the status of women - before Ho’s revolution, before the 1930’s. Their series of answers was like reading an old Pearl Buck novel. It was a similar story to that of China: “If a woman had five daughters but no son, she was not considered to have a family. But if she had only one son, and no other children, she was thought to have a family.” It was there that the liberation movement began, amidst all the old heavily stacked values, values that said only the man—child and only men were of value, that women were of no worth whatsoever.
Some of the earliest guidelines that Ho Chi Minh issued from Hanoi threw the old values into question. One of the first was a reform in inheritance laws. For centuries a woman’s right to inherit property from a deceased relative came at the end of the list of male relatives, regardless of rank or closeness of ties. After all of the 5th and 6th cousins, the brothers-in—law to the fourth generation removed, after Uncle Pham’s niece’s son, would the wife of the deceased finally enter the picture, IF there was anything left to be inherited.
But this type of legal change, including more sweeping changes that came with land reform, laid a groundwork for a new image in the Vietnamese woman’s mind; It laid a groundwork for a revolution in women’s values, for a liberation movement that was set to free not just territory from the hands of French colonials, neo-colonial Americans and corrupt Saigonese elites, but to free also and above all, the people, the peasants, the intellectuals, the men, and the women.
Women in Vietnam were not slow to join the liberation struggle. At first the resistance, especially in the homes, was enormous. For Vietnamese women, especially young women, were occupied night and day with all sorts of servile roles and expectations. They were to be cleaning all day, shining whatever there was to shine. The process was that as a woman began to work with the forces struggling for liberation, she began to cut down, just a little at first, on the number of hours that she put into housework. She still managed to do everything, just not quite as fastidiously. Over a period of time, she began to explain to the parents, or her family, that it was only important that things be clean, not that they be sparkling.
As women came into the struggle, they assumed special roles, focusing on education at first, but soon encompassing military roles in some of the special women’s divisions, and more risky and clandestine roles - transporting important materials, communicating with the puppet troops, spreading the message of the people’s war. Now, as has been the case in numerous liberation struggles, including the Farm Workers’ programs in the western United States, women play a key and massive part in the struggle in Vietnam.
We talked some about the reaction of Vietnamese men to the changes as they occurred. At first there was some resistance to the women who became active, we were told. But change became more widespread through the work of the National Liberation Front (the forces fighting the U.S. military in South Vietnam, called the Viet Cong in U.S. newspapers). In the education of each male cadre, the NLF offers a compulsory course on women. The men must study famous Vietnamese women of their country’s history. They must learn, of course, about the position of women in the Eastern world, and they must, most importantly, care for all of their needs as members of the cadre. For the first time, they must learn to sew, to prepare food and to cook, to exist without their life—long “slaves”.
Mme Nguyen Ngoc Dung told us of her brother-in-law. Not unlike many Vietnamese men, he had always insisted that everything be prepared and in order. At meal time, this meant of course, complete service, down to the point that his wife had to remove the bones from his fish before he would eat it. A few years ago, he joined the liberation struggle and spent a year with the NLF cadre school. He came back, she said, a changed man. Not only did he not demand things and service, but he actually helped his wife, sought out things to do, and needless to say, he removed his own fishbones.
At this time, Le Mai, the only man present, departed from his role as stand-by interpreter to back up the story. In a joking way, he spoke of how he himself had been changed. Mme Van and he shared a laugh that came somewhere from past secrets told. As I watched Le Mai smile, it formed a sharp contrast to the joking of Americans about women s liberation, the cartoons, the smirkinq, the resentful laughter. Nothing in Le Mai’s smile hinted of resentment or envy, or fear; he conveyed a clear attitude of “It amazes me in an almost humorous way to see how I have changed in my attitudes toward women.” It was a smile of deep gratitude that said something like “I am richer for this.”
Much else was shared, all in a similar simplicity. Some of it made me realize other important aspects of the movement in Vietnam; they stressed the achievements of their mathematicians, their scientists, their musicians. “The voice of song will rise above the sound of the bombs,” and their victory will hardly be called military. The liberation movement in Vietnam, today and since the 30’s, has been, as nearly as we can tell, a full and complete movement, advancing the culture and the people at the same time that it takes severe B-52 bombing, encouraging societal reforms as it strives to grow rice in regions threatened by bomb-damaged dikes. An important part of that revolution, or that liberation struggle, has been the women’s struggle, but even more than that has been the importance of women in the total struggle.
Eileen Kreutz was a member of Chicago’s Anti—War Work Group. The Anti-War Work Group did educational work about the Indochinese War - the bombing of North Vietnam’s dikes, the nature of U.S. anti—civilian policies, the Nixon’s administration’s war policies.