Women’s Ways to Connect
Across Cultural Borders
Past and Present



Women’s life experiences have offered unique opportunities for intercultural exchanges both historically and today. This essay notes some of the ways women have connected with each other, and intersperses classroom activities and further reading suggestions into the text.

Most of the activities feature the female point of view, or come from ideas used by women’s organizations. They are intended to:

  • challenge stereotypes about the “exotic other.”

  • explore immigrant and national issues of identity.

  • demonstrate ways to connect around common interests in the classroom and beyond.

1) Consider daily domestic life interactions between women. In many cultures women of diverse backgrounds work side by side as they perform their domestic responsibilities. Most often, it is women who gather to collect water at public wells or streams, or rub elbows as they negotiate for the family’s needs in market places. Women’s traditional work as healers, midwives, herbalists, or sellers of small food and household items, also ensures almost daily interactions among a wide variety of women. In households which produced much of what was used, women always worked together producing textiles, preparing food, and rearing children.

This was particularly true in confined women-only household spaces. There, large numbers of women lived side by side. They might come from differing ethnicities, for example the wealthy households in the Ottoman empire where women were purposely brought from non-Ottoman regions (such as the Caucasus) as brides and as slaves. Or, the intercultural mix of women who lived in semi-seclusion in the Indian zananas as servants, or one of multiple wives.

Enslaved women often formed a vital part of many wealthy households in the ancient worlds. Scholars have speculated that captive women more than men became part of household labor. Although on the lowest social rung of the household, the female captive brought her past history and culture with her, often expressed through her folk tales, religious beliefs, songs, food preferences, artistic creations, and child rearing practices. In these ways, legions of unknown women influenced the culture of their conquering enemies. And, they found ways to adapt and assimilate into their new culture.

2) Consider the institution of patrilocality. About seventy percent of the world's cultures practice

patrilocality, meaning that adult sons reside with their parents, and that wives go to live with their husbands' families upon marriage. New genetic research has revealed that, based on DNA, on average men have not migrated as far as women. Some scholars speculate that this might be one result of patrilocality. For at least the past few thousand years, and possibly much longer, women, not men, have been the ones to leave their natal homes for foreign lands, and in so doing have kept the human gene pool well blended. By marrying outside their family, village, or clan, womens’ skills in intercultural interactions must also have been honed.

“Bride with dowry driven to husband’s home”
(from toilet box, Athens, c. 47-460 BC.)

This was the case for daughters of noble families who often were raised with the expectation of fitting into their husband’s family. High status brides, with hefty dowries, carried with them the additional potential of being used as tribute, or as tokens in peace negotiations. In Old English poetry such women sent out in marriages were referred to as “peace weavers.”

One example is China where the term “diplomat brides” came from the practice of sending Chinese princesses to cement alliances with enemies which threatened the empire’s borders. Over the course of the Tang dynasty, for example, over twenty known princesses were dispatched beyond China’s borders, ensuring that peace and hopefully trade would result from the union of the two enemy countries. In effect, these royal brides became part of the tribute and diplomatic missions. Female members of the royal family were also sometimes married to other nationalities within Chinese borders to ease tensions in the wake of conquest. In these ways, palace women played a significant role in constructing a multiethnic society and in spreading the ideas and technological skills of the Han Chinese civilization.

Use the story of Princess Wencheng, sent to Tibet circa 700 A.D., to link to lessons on the Silk Road. Legend has it that she brought the art of silk making with her, developed the Tibetan alphabet and writing, brought Han artisans to pass on their skills in metallurgy, farming, weaving, construction, and the manufacture of paper and ink. The story was one of many to illustrate ways Chinese culture, perceived as cosmopolitan and sophisticated, had spread its influence to the more “barbarian” people inhabiting the west.


See our story on  “Diplomat Brides

3) Consider women travelers and observers in the period of European imperialism and colonization. Intrepid ladies from the western world, some of whom considered themselves “explorers,” traveled under the protection of the color of their skin and power of their country of origin. Ironically, they often were granted more authority abroad than at home.

Writing letters and sometimes reports to be published back home, their accounts differed in significant ways from those written by men. Men more often wrote official reports, or tales of their heroic adventures. Women, having access to women, were more apt to describe domestic scenes, and seemed more sensitive to the concerns of women and children. They wrote intimate accounts, revealing their personal responses to different landscapes and cultures. And, as they gathered new perspectives about the women they were encountering, influenced the views of some back home.

Find short biographies of differing views of women travelers at:
Women as 19th/early 20th Century Travelers

Two travelers, Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkey in 1717, and Flora Tristan, almost a century later in the 1830s in Lima, Peru, offered refreshing new opinions about women who covered themselves in public, a practice most Europeans considered strange and exotic. They challenged the stereotype of veiled women as oppressed by claiming instead that being covered gave women a certain freedom and “more liberty than we have,”( Montagu), and allowed them to “go outside where ever she wants” (Tristan). Montagu went further, describing positive views on additional practices of Turkish women, which she compared to the unfair reports about them by the “extreme stupidity” of other writers.

(Find excerpts from Lady Montagu and Flora Tristan and discussion questions at):
Women and Veiling: Two Admiring Views

4) Consider identity issues of immigrant or migrant women. Women and girls whose ethnic background is new to a community can find that family and cultural restrictions make it harder than men to cross cultural boundaries. Women have more pressure to maintain many aspects of their culture and pass it on to their children. Girls must learn be wary of men from the dominant culture. These expectations can create problems of identity for young women who are forced to set themselves apart from the larger group. Identity is an even larger issue for children of mixed parentage. “Who am I? Where do I fit in?” “Must I take sides?”

The entrance of large numbers of newcomers into a country or community creates identity issues for the larger community as well. The dominant group is challenged to consider ways to embrace or at least accept the concept of social diversity. While perhaps secure in their own identity and sense of place, the presence of newcomers forces them to ask: “What is an (for example) American?” Or, “Who is, (for example) the ideal American?”

Find an awareness activity to help discuss national identity issues and what a common national identity might be.

 •  The Ideal......”“Who is......? Identity Awareness Activity

Explore ways Theoung Mim, a Cambodian artist living in America, and the Brazilian artist, Eliane Christina Testa, illustrate their views of ethnic diversity and identity.

 •  Mim’s portrait with activity.

 •  Testa’s painting Ethic Mirrors

Use the poem “Child of the Americas” by Aurora Levins Morales, to raise awareness of identity issues of those with mixed heritage.

 •  Child of the Americas

 5)  Consider ways women organize across national boundaries. The great sisterhood of organizations today illuminates the strength of women’s intercultural dialog across national and ethnic boundaries. Important models from history set the precedence for the success of contemporary organizing. For more than a century, women have banded together to address issues such as reproduction, suffrage, equality, discrimination and violence.

The First International Congress of Women’s Rights was held in Paris in 1878. The first resolution they came up with proclaimed the idea that women anywhere in the world have rights to equal treatment and opportunities.

“The Congress resolves that, in every country where woman is made inferior, the entire body of civil legislation is revised in the direction of the most absolute and complete equality between the two sexes...”

Women’s international womens’ rights meetings continued throughout the twentieth century. Some were spurred by sponsorship from the United Nations, which held four women’s world conferences, resulting in governments making pledges and signing treaties to raise the status of women in their countries. Greater input and drive, however, has come from the proliferation of grassroots organizations. Initiatives no longer come from just the top down, but reflect the stated needs of women from the ground up.

At the U.N. Fourth Womens World Conference

Youth Tent

Poster from Brazil

The push for suffrage:  Women have been most effective organizing around specific areas of concern. The international aspect of the suffrage movement is often overlooked, but the support women around the world gave to national drives was crucial. For example, New Zealand women, being the first to win suffrage in 1893, were in much demand to travel to support efforts elsewhere. And, the tactics American women learned from the militant branch of England’s movement gave their cause the publicity it sought.

Contingent of New Zealanders Supporting
British Suffragists in a Parade London, 1910

Kimura Komako in New York City
studying methods of American women
suffragists. 1917-1918

Read the essay: “Women Suffrage: A World Wide Movement

Peace as an early women’s issue.  The recognition that women and men experience conflict and violence differently was early recognized given that women are:

 •  the least listened to when it comes to making decisions about going to war.

 •  shoulder greater responsibility keeping their families together while their fathers, brothers, and sons are off fighting.

 •  are vulnerable as victims of rape, and as refugees.

As mothers, womens’ anti-war statements have been particularly effective, creating a common ground around which to engage women from diverse backgrounds. In 1854, when Frederika Bremer of Sweden formed the first trans-national peace group, the European Women’s Peace League, she said, “separately we are weak and can achieve only a little, but if we extend our hands around the whole world, we should be able to take the earth in our hands like a little child.”

- Elsa Yacob Temnewo

(When she was sixteen, artist Elsa Yacob Temnewo joined the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front which was at war with Ethiopia. She has three children and teaches art to elementary school teachers.)

The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), is the oldest women’s peace organization in the world. It was founded in April 1915 in the Hague, the Netherlands, by some 1300 women from Europe and North America, from countries at war against each other and neutral ones. Representing a diversity of cultures and languages, they came together to protest the killing and destruction of the war, and to study, make known, and eliminate its causes.

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom meeting
ca. 1915-1920

For samples of ways women have expressed their opposition to war:

 • find songs, arts and crafts, demonstrations, and anti-war quotes and poems at “Women’s Ways of Peace

 • use the activity “Quotable Women for Peace

International Women's Day, (IWD) 8 March:  This day which in some countries is set aside to celebrate the international collective power of women past, present and future, . has an historic and international component as well. It was Clara Zetkin, leader in the German international Socialist women’s movement, who at a global socialist party congress in 1910 proposed March 8th be proclaimed International Women's Day. Her intent was to honor the American 1857 march of garment workers in New York City demanding improved working conditions, and also the second on March 8, 1908. In both cases, the worker’s marches were broken up by police.

Zetkin’s proposed event took hold in some places. The first IWD was held on March 19, 1911 in Germany, Austria, Denmark and some other European countries.

Clara Zetkin in conversation with Dr. Theo Neubauer

Australian Poster

 6)  Consider women’s reconciliation efforts in conflict areas. Women’s essential role in the long road to reconciliation in conflict areas is widely recognized. Women are in unique positions to effect reconciliation because they:

 •  have been found to have good listening, communication, and practical problem solving skills

 •  have extensive experience in caring for people above abstract principles.

 •  are perceived as outsiders in the conflict, and thus less threatening.

 •  are often the first to take the risks necessary to move towards reconciliation.

Samples of the types of reconciliation efforts include:

 •  The "Sixth Clan" established by Somali women. This Sixth Clan functioned outside the warring factions, and participated in the peace and reconciliation conference in the summer of 2000. It has provided a framework for Somali women to establish a coalition group based on their common interests as women and mothers, rather than on narrow clan interests.

 •  Women in Bosnia, who in 2004 worked side by side with others to make money by knitting and weaving. They agreed that improving business was the right way to facilitate reconciliation. "We will never forget what happened, but business is business. If it provides us with a decent income I don't care who am I working with," said Magbula, a Muslim.

 •  Guatemalan women, who played a key role both in the Assembly for Civil Society and at the peace table to work for an end to the country's 36-year civil war. This cross-party and cross-sectoral coalition of women helped the nascent indigenous women’s movement gain entry to the peace process, giving a voice and visibility to the needs of Guatemala’s indigenous population.

 •  Georgian women’s organization, IDP Women’s Association of Georgia, which brought Georgian, Abkhazian and Ossentian children together in summer camps.

 •  Women in Rwanda who have had to answer the question, “after genocide, what can women do?” Women have participated in income generating activities, helping build model villages where Hutu and Tutsi live together, and were willing to take the country’s many orphans into their homes regardless of ethnicity. According to Mufti Swale Habimana, “The country’s leader provided light in the darkness and women leaders led their sisters to where light was shining.”

 •  Liberia where Christian and Muslim women, putting aside their religious differences, decided to fight the murderers with peace. Dressed in white, the women gathered in a field in the nation’s capital, Monrovia, and prayed, sang, and danced, demanding a meeting with the president. Wearing white T-shirts proclaiming their mission throughout the country, they were ultimately instrumental in getting the warring sides to agree, forcing the president/dictator Charles Taylor out and welcoming the United Nations pacification forces in. Finally, women helped to promote the candidacy and election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president of Liberia.

“We, the women of Liberia, are the mothers of the land. We feel the joys and sorrows of this land in a special way because we are women. Not only do we represent one half of the population, but we also feel a special sense of responsibility for our children, our husbands and our brothers who make up the other half of the population. We take care of the society. We soothe the pains. We are the healers and peacemakers. We call on all women of Liberia at home and abroad to unite and join our efforts in aiding the peace process in Liberia clear its final hurdle.”
 - 1994 Manifesto

 7)  Consider women’s innovative approaches to unite diverse groups.

Some groups have achieved success by initiating projects which at their core require the participation of women across national and ethnic boundaries.

Some examples:

 •  In 2002, in France, a cooking club, the Batisseuses de Paix (Peace Builders), was created in order to attempt to defuse the growing tension between the Muslim and Jewish communities. The women periodically get together to make, and eat, pastries, and sponsor cultural evenings at each others institutions. The clubs founder, Annie-Paule Derczansky, says, "What I realized was that women could still construct something together when it came to artistic and cultural things. It was on that basis that I told myself that I had to disconnect women in France from their differences over the Middle East and connect them with things that brought the two sides together."

 •  In Cyprus, an exhibit featuring photos taken by young women from Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Morocco and Spain, under the theme “Violence against Women in the Mediterranean,” was created by Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies. The Institute calls itself a “meeting place” within the Mediterranean region. The exhibit sparked workshops on the theme of violence and furthered the creation of similar exhibits in each country.

 •  In 2004, The World March of Women, an international network of 6,000 grassroots women's organizations, created a women's solidarity quilt, a colorful patchwork of women's hopes and promises for a better world. The quilt passed from country to country around the globe. At each stop, the local women stitched together a quilt patch to represent their country and to illustrate the aim of living together with "equality, peace, freedom, solidarity and justice."

 •  Women in Black, a world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice, uses the tactic of wearing black, carrying placards, and standing in non-violent vigils in public places in countries in conflict. Begun in 1988 in Israel with Jewish and Arab Israeli women standing in silent vigils, today Women in Black demonstrations exist in many parts of the world. Wherever a member network is formed, the goal of having the active and equal participation of women of diverse backgrounds in decision making is required.

Find activities about women’s organizing strategies, and ways to connect students around common interests.

The solidarity quilt

Organizing for Intercultural Dialog

Circles of Connectedness

Additional Resources:

Organizing: A section of the International Museum’s online exhibit “Women, Power & Politics.”

Women’s Many Roles in Reconciliation. Essay
In European Platform for Conflict Prevention and Transformation:

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
Click for Author Information

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