In June 1975, weeks after Saigon fell, Betty Friedan led a large delegation of American feminists to Mexico City for an International Woman’s Year World Conference hosted by the United Nations. The feminist trailblazer—whose legacy is in the spotlight on International Women’s Day today, 50 years after the publication of her book The Feminine Mystique—traveled south “relatively naïve,” she would recall, hoping “to help advance the worldwide movement of women to equality.” Instead, she endured what she called “one of the most painful experiences in my life.”
The conference’s anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism shocked Freidan—and diverted attention from the feminist agenda. Men, political spouses, or “female flunkies,” she noted, dominated most official delegations. Few of the delegates seemed interested in women’s issues. American feminists were mocked as spoiled bourgeois elites raising marginal concerns to avoid confronting more pressing issues of racism, imperialism, colonialism, and poverty. A thuggish atmosphere intimidated the American feminists, especially in the parallel NGO, or non-governmental organization, conference. At critical moments “microphones were turned off” and speakers shouted down. Friedan recalled in notes found in her papers, which formed the basis of her famous article “Scary Doings in Mexico City”: “the way they were making it impossible for women to speak—on the most innocent, straightforward of women’s concerns, seemed fascist—like to me, the menace of the goosestep.” Friedan saw the Israeli prime minister’s wife, Leah Rabin, booed and boycotted, and she watched, horrified, as the “Declaration on the Equality of Women” became one of the first international documents to label Zionism as a form of racism.