Decades Later, a Look Back at a Famous Women’s Conference
When she was young, Dali Tan remembers her father talking about how a Catholic priest saved his life when he was gravely ill as a child in rural China. The story of the mysterious priest fascinated Tan. Over the years she found out that he was an American, and the realization sparked her interest in discovering a foreign country and set her on the academic path to becoming a cultural bridge between two vastly different places.
Tan studied comparative literature (American and her native Chinese) in college in China, and continued her studies abroad in the United States. She received an International Fellowship from AAUW in 1991, while working on her doctorate at the University of Maryland.
After her fellowship year, Tan stayed in touch with AAUW and kept up with news and events. When the opportunity came just a few years later to gather in-depth research on why girls were dropping out of school in China, she jumped at the chance. She set out to conduct the study alongside her sister, who was a peer in the field. The findings became a report, Keeping Chinese Girls in School: Effective Strategies from Hubei Province. Soon after her research was published, Tan returned to her native China to present her findings — along with AAUW — at the 1995 U.N. world conference held in Beijing in September of 1995. She went in the company of AAUW Educational Foundation Programs Vice President Mary Perry.
Tan was a sponge, soaking up the shared experiences and empowerment that were so strongly present amongst the participants — women from all over the globe. She still remembers one woman’s reference to the famous line often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Women are like tea bags; you never know how strong we are until you put us in hot water!” Tan explained how hearing that for the first time left a serious impression, and helped her appreciate her connection to AAUW. “Women have to overcome more difficulties because of discrimination and obstacles, and I feel like AAUW is really important because you organize women together in a powerful way.”
Power through organization was certainly a theme of the conference. The turnout was impressive: Combining the 5,000 representatives from 2,100 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); 5,000 representatives from various news outlets; and other individual participants and members of delegations makes a total of nearly 30,000 people who attended the NGO forum where Dali presented. In total, 189 governments participated in the event.
As with any major event, however, not everything went off without a hitch. Tan told us about one particular instance where sharing and solidarity were especially important:
They tried to build new buildings for the conference for NGOs, but the facilities were not big enough. So there were unfinished buildings, and there were a lot of tents for presentations. But then there was wind, so some blew away. We were given a tent for our presentation, but because of the rain and the wind, our tent was not there! Then another group heard our story, and their tent was still there, so they gave some of their time to us! We were so touched, that they would share that time and that space.
Despite the initial shock of having no space to present, Tan was able not only to successfully deliver her talk, but also handed out around 2,000 copies of her research (printed in both English and Chinese) to conference participants.
After returning from Beijing, Tan completed her doctorate and began teaching. Over the years she has taught comparative literature and Chinese and facilitated cultural exchange programs between the United States and China. She continues to embrace her role as a cultural bridge, opening students’ eyes to a country and a language completely different from their own, while also pointing out their similarities. Her experience in Beijing buoyed her confidence and her belief in seeing women’s equity issues as a shared struggle, and she goes forward assured that those thousands of others who were in Beijing that day in 1995 are also still fighting, each in their own way, for understanding and equality.
Dali Tan’s 1991–92 International Fellowship was sponsored by the Adelaide Stegman Endowment and the Junia Brown Endowment.
AAUW has given fellowships to more than 3,000 women in 134 countries and why we regularly speak out on behalf of women and girls at the United Nations and in critical global coalitions.
Read about the Beijing Conference from attendee and former AAUW president Mary Purcell.
“We cannot achieve a world of dignity for all until we end gender inequality in all its forms.” — U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at the 58th Commission on the Status of Women