Mexico Cil/ Remembered
"The press has been magnificently manipulated by the women and men whose stated goal
is to stop this conference. If some people claim the sky is blue and others claim it is green, surely
the press, rather than just reporting the difference of opinion, has an obligation at some point to
find out what color the sky really is. "-Gloria Steinem.
Two thousand journalists in search of a story are converging on Houston this weekend.
What will be their perspective? Will we see responsible coverage of substantive issues or will the
emphasis be on sensationalism and dissent?
Peggy Simpson covered the 1975 IWY Conference in Mexico City for a news service. The
following is excerpted from an account of that experience which she gave at a discussion of "the
women's movement through the eyes of the media" at the Women in Public Life Conference
held in November 1975 at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas.
I knew I had the support of the New
York editors who sent me to Mexico City
to cover IWY. But I always had to watch
to be sure that my stories were actually
going to get on the news wire and out of
town-and that the bosses would support
me, if it came to an argument.
When I arrived, I found that several
of the male staffers had interviewed IWY
celebrities as they arrived at the airport,
asking their views on "women's lib" and
whether they liked other women. Among
others, they had interviewed Mrs. Anwar
Sadat of Egypt and Mrs. Ferdinand Marcos
of the Philippines. The stories were classic
put-downs of the women's movement. I
don't know if they would have been different if I had done the questioning—but
at any rate, the stories were already out
and it seemed to me they set a tone of
conflict for the conference.
The next event was the opening of
the IWY conference itself. It was hard to
get across that this was not a meeting
solely on women's issues—that this was
one of many United Nations conferences
dealing also with complicated economic
issues such as how to divide up the wealth
of the world. If anyone thought the Third
World concerns would be glossed over in
the women's conference, they were wrong.
I had written a scene-setter for the opening
of the conference, trying to mesh the economic issues with the fact that IWY was
the first meeting of world governments to
specifically address the problems of women and their insulation from shaping the
future of society.
I found the one available phone at
the huge sports stadium where the opening
ceremony was held, gave the bureau details
of the "color" and of the Mexican president's forceful welcoming address to update my advance story, and went on to
other events. The day was a long one, with
a formal dinner following the daytime ceremonies, and it was midnight when I got
back to the bureau.
I discovered then that New York, for
some unknown reason, had thrown away
my carefully prepared, serious story about
the opening of IWY and substituted instead
a frilly story about the arrival of the Soviet
IWY delegate, the cosmonaut. The story
had been picked up from a Mexico City
paper and funneled to New York, where it
became the main story. It was sent out
under my byline, with a line or two inserted about how the IWY conference had
also been opened formally.
I called New York to talk to the
people who had assigned me and said, "I'm
not going to stay if this is the way my
stories are going to be handled—if they are
going to get this demeaning treatment—if
you are going to throw away the serious
stories and use only silly ones." They said
they didn't know what had happened.
They found out and made it plain to the
foreign desk editors that this was a serious
story and they wanted it covered as such.
They didn't mean, of course, that I
shouldn't write about everything that was
important, including "color" and confrontations. Many stories did involve clashes
between Third World women and those
MEXICO CITY, June 28—WOMEN CLASH AT CONFERENCE—Adriana Puiggros, center, of the
Argentine delegation, and an unidentified woman from Latin America. Both have a grip on the
microphone during a confrontation at the Medical Center Friday over the leadership of the International Women's Year Conference in Mexico City.
(Text taken directly from AP Wirephoto, June 28, 1975.)
from developed countries who were mixing it up at the unofficial women's meeting, the Tribune. These may have been
healthy in making us all aware we really
knew little of women's problems around
the world. At least I knew too little.
I think the confrontations between
U.S. feminists also could be called healthy
in one sense—if you had ever thought this
was a movement that could be led by one
person, you knew then it just wasn't so.
And anybody who tried got a public comeuppance.
It was difficult for me to concentrate
on putting together stories on the significant issues, such as how to get AID money
to women as well as to men in the underdeveloped countries. It was hard to get
time to sift through the conflict and see
the behind-the-scenes compromises being
shaped by vastly different women with
vastly different economic views, trying to
bring harmony to the IWY Tribune. Most
attempts at in-depth stories were interrupted by requests for "spot" stories,
sometimes in response to competitors' articles covering yet another confrontation.
I was starting to write up an interview about the reality of women's roles in
Cuba and the Soviet Union, in contrast to
the rhetoric—about how their entrees to
top jobs didn't keep them out of the kitchen at home because their husbands
weren't willing to help. I was given five
minutes' notice by the bureau to go change
into a formal dress and hop over to a hotel
to interview Burt Reynolds—to see what he
thought about "women's lib." He and
Liza Minnelli were making a movie in
Mexico and the Mexican press and photographers were invited to a reception for
I'm not saying it didn't make a good
story, finally pinning down Burt Reynolds
on whether he liked women who are independent or those who are clinging vines
(he likes them to be able to think for themselves)—but it took a helluva chunk out of
my already squeezed schedule. The story
about role-sharing in Communist countries
was set aside and finally given short shrift
three or four days later.
Meanwhile, the more than 6,000
women at the Tribune had been agitating
to recommend actions for the official U.N.
conference to take-an unprecedented request. The U.N. official in charge, Helvi
Sipila, had to turn them down, but in deference to the high feelings among the women who paid their own way to Mexico and
then felt shut out, she made a rare trip
across town to the Tribune meeting and
gave a unity-and-appreciation speech.
Sipila and most of the thousands of
people in the audience had left the auditorium when a half dozen Mexican and Argentine women began grappling for control
of the microphone to speak about some
friction they had with the Mexican government. As it turned out, my news service
photographer, a Mexican national, was still
in the auditorium, gathering up his cameras
after the Sipila appearance. He took a striking photo of the Latino women fighting
over the mike. And it was sent out over the
newsphoto wires, across the world, with a
vague caption something to the effect of
"women fight at the IWY conference."
Nine hours later, I first learned of the
dramatic photo when the bureau paged me
at my first and only restaurant meal out—
at 10 p.m. that night. They wanted a story
to describe the fight taking place at the
women's conference, as portrayed in the
photo. I was absolutely aghast. I spent the
next three hours waking people up, trying
to verify that there was no story. There
The photo was the most widely used
one of the 21-day conference-and to
many people it reinforced all the stereotypes about how women can't get along
and will end up pulling hair if you put six
together in the same room.
Overall, I came away not only exhausted, but feeling slightly cheated at
not having met more people and at not
having had time to do more substantive
I felt that the overall emphasis on
conflict was partly because reporters,
writers and editors were ignorant about the
issues, about the real barriers that have
kept women here and in all corners of the
world out of the mainstream. I felt somewhat discouraged but hoping that at the
followup IWY conference five years later
all of us would be more informed and
would be less dependent on conflict for
DAILY BREAKTHROUGH NOVEMBER 18, 1977 PAGET