Reflections on First and Third World Relations, Dialogue between an English and an Argentine sister by Caroline Series and Maria Losada
The article which follows was written 30 years ago by myself and my then mature PhD student Maria Losada from Argentina. As explained in the `postscript’, it was circulated and discussed at the 1988 EWM meeting in Warwick, and subsequently published in the CSWP Gazette of the American Physical Society, 9 (4) November 1989.
It has been resurrected here thanks to the persistence of Laura Tedeschini and retyped by Anna Cherubini. I would like to thank both of them for their interest and encouragement.
It seems like a long time ago but I hope that people will still find it thought provoking and perhaps controversial. I would particularly be interested in the reaction of my Latin American friends; it is perhaps timely that I am just now returning from the ICM in Rio and September will see the 30th anniversary meeting of EWM in Austria.
After gaining her PhD from Warwick, Maria returned to Buenos Aires where she taught university level maths. She is now retired and regretfully I have not been able to contact her to discuss the republishing of this article—Maria, if you are there, I would love to hear from you and I hope you don’t mind.
As many of you no doubt know, I stayed on at Warwick, becoming a professor in 1992 and retiring at the end of 2014. In the same year I became the Vice Chair of the IMU’s new Committee for Women in Mathematics CWM and from 2017-19 I am President of the London Mathematical Society.
This dialogue was written after reading a report in the Kovalevskaia Fund Newsletter of November 1988 of the meeting of Third World women scientists which took place at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, October 1988.
Most of the report was a factual account of the meeting, but two paragraphs
about certain tensions that arose in the meeting particularly caught our attention.
For several years we have being observing similar difficulties among women’s groups here in Britain in which Latin or Third World women were participating. In some cases, tensions developed to such an extent that people actually left the group in question.
We have been discussing these problems for some years, and reading this report we realized for the first time that these tensions were not at all a local phenomenon, but a symptom of something global and very deep.
This dialogue is not in any way intended as a criticism of the report. We are simply
using the two paragraphs in question as illustrative, because they coincide so precisely with the nature of the conflict that we have ourselves observed.
Here is the first paragraph of the two referred to above:
“As the week drew on, it became clear that there were several sources of tension
and disagreement among participants. Some women appeared reluctant to acknowledge that any form of gender inequity existed in their countries; some explicitly stated that they had no problems that were not shared equally by male scientists. (For various reasons, this tendency was particularly noticeable among certain Latin American invitees.) These participants were inclined to prefer purely scientific reports, and disparaged those talks which focused on women’s access to scientific education or on the impact of science and technology on women’s lives.”
Reading this paragraph, one feels that the writer is not allowing the possibility that those women who deny that gender inequity exists in their countries may actually be describing the true state of affairs. She seems to be making the assumption, all too easy for us in “advanced” societies to make, that the position of women in’ less “developed” societies must necessarily be inferior to that in our own. Is it not possible that there is at least some degree of truth in what these women are saying, that in at least some regards they do not experience the problems which are facing us in the developed world? It seems to me that it may be tremendously important to listen to these Latin women. Of course, a genuine and unprejudiced listening will, due to our preconceptions, be extremely difficult.
I have no doubt at all that some of the tensions arose because the Latin women felt that they were not being listened to. I myself very often experience the same thing. The feeling of not being listened to is solid, almost tangible. At different moments I hypothesize different causes for it: Is it that English is not our mother tongue? Perhaps our English sisters identify cultural respectability with high technology? At other moments I am convinced that there is a totally inexplicable prejudice against Catholics. Sometimes, I almost believe that it is simple racism. But whichever reason I believe at the time, when I
enquire, I am systematically told that none of the above is true: it must be my imagination.
I think that there is some truth in all of the reasons you give, but none of them is the
whole story. In the First World, there seems to be a deeply rooted sense of cultural
superiority, and at best we do no more than pay lip service to the idea that other cultures
may have something to teach us.
So often I have the sensation that our values are not taken seriously: our poetry and
art, our sense of beauty, our spiritual world; our capacity to love and understand the values
of different races, different cultures and to merge with them; our sense of opening to the
While I was living in Mexico I was visited by American friends, and I wanted so
much to show them some beauties which exemplify the high degree of creativity of the
people of that magical country. My friends could speak Spanish. They dodged true works
of art in the same way you and I would dodge lamp posts: just to avoid colliding with
them. Until then, I had not believed that truly educated people could be so near to so much
art and beauty and yet see and hear nothing. When my friends returned to the U.S.A. they
simply repeated their cliche that Mexico was a poor and backward country.
I think that we in the First World need to look deeply inside ourselves and examine
the roots of our prejudice. Why are we so convinced that people from other cultures are
not worth taking seriously? Especially now that we seem to have brought the world to the
verge of total disaster, we should open ourselves to listen to and to take seriously voices
coming from outside our world.
It is only very recently that we Latins have ourselves begun to understand that our
own culture may have something to offer. Look again at the paragraph from the Trieste
report. When I was young, indeed right up to only ten years or so ago, these Latin
American scientists would have never upheld such position. The thoughts in their minds
would have been more or less these:
“High technology and big industry are good for you. They improve the quality of
life. That is what makes the First World so civilized. The position of women in these
developed countries must be far more advanced than in our own. They seem to have
strong feminists with a high degree of consciousness. The latter are always telling us how
oppressed we Latin women are, how oppressed Catholic women are, how macho are our
menfolk. We are backward, behind these developed countries, but someday we will grow
and catch up with them, if we follow their steps, and then the position of Latin American
women will improve, for we Latins will have become truly civilized.”
This tight package of interrelated and inseparable concepts, feminism&
gender&civilization&technology, was particularly strong among the academic
intelligentsia. It seemed to us Latin scientists that we could buy a ticket to First World
respectability by putting down and devaluing our own family structures, our own
traditions, our own religion, our own history, our own culture and folk.
Many of us had never been in a non-Hispanic country, let alone in a First World one.
Still, we knew that “they” surely must have it much better than “us”.
That paradigmatic package of ideas is largely gone, even from our intelligentsia,
and this is precisely what the reporter of the Trieste conference is
observing. Times have changed. The whole idea of what a civilization is has
Our own culture is beginning to question its own values. It has lost its direction in
many respects. Not only are relations between the sexes uncertain and confused, but our
values seem to be measured only in terms of money and status. A combination of our
scientific success and our greed has led us to the verge of destruction of the planet itself.
Perhaps worst of all, we seem almost to have lost our sense of mystery and wonder. One
could say that we are in danger of losing our very souls.
At the same time, you say that Latin women have just begun to realize that their culture
offers alternatives to the ‘Western” model. We have actually forgotten that even today
large populations in the world have completely different forms of social organizations to
our own. Is it possible that, in particular, the more matriarchal societies have managed to
avoid some of our problems?
In the heights of the Andes, millions of Indians belonging to one of the oldest
civilizations on earth have, for the past few years, been organizing themselves politically
in order to resist “westernization”, and in order to defend their ancient cultural structures.
Many of their leaders are women, a logical consequence of the marked matriarchal character
of many Andean cultural institutions.
Simultaneously, fifteen thousand feet down from the Andes and thousands of miles eastwards,
in the depths of one of the thickest jungles in the world, Amazonian tribes who have never even
heard of Andean Indians began to do likewise. Perhaps a coincidence? But all these powerful
changes are certainly connected with the changes in consciousness in Latin cultures.
Particularly strong are the changes in consciousness having to do with sex and gender
matters: we Latin women are, on the whole (of course, there are always problems),
happy with our position as women in our societies. We do not view ourselves as playing
an inferior role in our societies. Many First World sisters, on the contrary, do seem to have
such a view of themselves: they experience being a woman as a problem. But for them to
make a construction of reality in which Latin American women also have the same
problem (and actually try to convince us that we have it even worse than them!) is quite
There is another example of our preconceptions in the second paragraph from the report:
“Unfortunately, conference participants were unable to agree on the formation of a
Third World Association for Women Scientists. Many women seem to fear that such an
organization would be viewed negatively by their male colleagues. They held that they
wanted “to be judged as scientists, not as women”, and they were unimpressed by the
argument of some participants that women’s organizations are necessary in all spheres of
activity in order to protect women against discrimination and marginalization”
Why are we so hasty to interpret the reluctance of women to form an organization
of Third World women scientists as fear? This very same point has arisen in our
mathematical meetings, and I believe that it had nothing to do with fear.
Precisely. In Latin society, the sexes do not find themselves alienated and in
confrontation with each other. In anthropological terms, gender complementarity works.
And nobody wants to destroy it.
This is not to say that networks of women do not exist. On the contrary, networks
of women are deeply and traditionally rooted in the culture. These are, to this very day and
age, often based on very extended networks of matrilineal bloodlines, that is, on a large
group of women descended from a common ancestress, often several generations removed.
Men marry into this group. For example, my father’s closest ties with other males are not
with his own blood relatives, but with the husbands of his wife’s sisters. A man has his
deep sense of identity connected with these extended family ties much much more than with
any peer group of males or females, formed via his job or his friends. In other words, a
man obtains his sense of identity from these family networks (strongly centered on
women! ) rather than from his job. Hence, women feel themselves at the very core of the
life of their society, and are, therefore, very reluctant to upset the existing gender patterns.
An indispensable feature of these patterns is the non-exclusion of men. This is the source
of the reluctance that was interpreted as fear.
Caroline and Maria (separately, not in chorus!)
With the development of industrialization, the nuclear family emerges in such a
degree that it gradually takes over from extended family networks, which finally disappear.
This can be observed clearly in England. Discussing her book Sex and Destiny, Germaine
Greer pointed out this very fact saying that Home, as the main seat of the cultural and
social sphere in people’s lives, is now gone from our modem culture, that life doesn’t take
place at home any more. And that, therefore, modem women need to go out of the house in
order to re-enter social and cultural life.
From this, and the fact that kinship networks cannot be improvised (for it takes centuries to
form them) we have to conclude that forming peer groups is all that is left to English women.
In First World societies men bond in peer groups, which even when not exclusive
are usually male-dominated. Women do not bond. This is why forming the corresponding
female peer groups is so very important.
The message that we would like to send out is this: there is more than one
paradigm structuring gender and power in this world. The Latin world has one, the first
world another. Neither is perfect, but we believe that the Latin one has much to offer.
The sooner the First World sisters come to terms with these facts, the sooner we will
be able to establish a dialogue as women, and will be able to begin to work together in the
arduous task of constructing a better world.
This paper was taken as a discussion topic at the European Women in Mathematics
Conference in Warwick, December, l988. In the brief report of the meeting (written by two Scandinavian women) it was singled out as “the most animated discussion” of the whole meeting.
There were positive responses from almost every quarter. The Latin women felt very excited
because it crystallized hitherto unarticulated aspects of their cultural structures.
Maria Losada is from Argentina. She did her first degree in mathematics in Buenos Aires.
Subsequently, she lived for several years among tribal people, African Loangos in the Amazonian part of Venezuela. She has travelled widely through a variety of ethnias in Latin America. For the past few years she has been living in England and the U.S.A. and has just completed a Ph.D. in mathematics at Warwick University under the supervision of Caroline Series (whose life, regrettably, has not been quite so interesting).
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