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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Portraits of American Women Abroad

“Women have to harness their power – it’s absolutely true. It’s just learning not to take the first no. And if you can’t go straight ahead, you go around the corner.”


The American diaspora is stirring.  Thanks to the homeland government we are waking up and taking action.  And did anyone notice that women are on the front lines?  The very first anti-FATCA demonstration was Two Moms in Tennis Shoes in Canada.  Lynne Swanson is becoming a powerful voice through her articles which are being published far and wide.  Jackie Bugnion, the ACA president, is everywhere it seems educating and advocating.

Go to any site talking about issues affecting Americans abroad and you will see the women speaking out, putting their ideas on the table and organizing action.

The battle we are fighting today over taxation can be seen as a continuation of that long war that Americans abroad have been fighting for recognition - for the moral (not just legal) right to emigrate and be a part of a globalized world while retaining an American identity wherever they may live.  

There have been some truly remarkable women in this fight - women whose names are not well known in the American communities abroad today.  But we should know them.  Not just to honor their actions in the past, but to inspire us now.  

I can think of no better place to begin than a book that arrived in my mailbox from Germany the other day.  It's called Beyond Borders:  Portraits of American Women from Around the World.  
Beyond Borders contains a collection of portraits and stories about cultural identity, about being an American woman in a world that has lost its belief in the good will of the United States, about the power to go beyond borders and make things happen, and about the necessary sacrifices and well-deserved triumphs along the way.
In it you will meet 30 American women living in 15 countries who made and are still making a difference in their home and host countries.  These are ordinary women who have done extraordinary things:  Jean Darling (Ireland), Yuzana Khin (Thailand), Gillian McGuire (Italy), Kim Powell, (France), Lucy Laederich  (France), Marcia Brittain (Uruguay),  and Jane Cabanyes (Spain) to name just a few.  The book came out of a FAWCO (Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas) project and is the work of two members:  My-Linh Kunst (photography) and Charlotte Fox Zabusky. 

I finished the book in one sitting and then I sat at my dining room table and cried.  Nearly 20 years abroad now - some successful, some fraught with loneliness and grief - and this is the first time I have ever seen American women abroad portrayed so positively.

It's worth pointing out here that these women are migrants.  They all left the United States at one time or another and cast themselves upon distant shores.  Their reasons for leaving were as diverse as the countries they now call home but what they share is the migration experience.  

Migration is not gender-neutral.  What can be said of all women migrants from all countries and that includes developed countries like the United States is that they are not treated equally when they choose to leave their home countries and they are not treated the same in their country of destination where they are both women and foreigners.  

Host country immigration laws and policies are often tailored to the "average" migrant who is presumed to be young and male.  As for the home country, women are all too often afterthoughts in the making and implementation of emigrant/emigration policies (citizenship, voting, taxation, family reunification) coming out of the homeland.  An American woman married to a foreign national who loses access to a joint bank account in her host country because of homeland laws and policies is (at best) said to be "inconvenienced" or (at worst) told that she is only getting what she deserved because she had the temerity to marry a foreigner and live in his country.

None of this is new.  When Phyllis Michaux, founder of AAWE and AARO, went to Washington, D.C. in 1971 to fight for citizenship for the children born abroad to Americans abroad, she met with General Counsel Charles Gordon and his staff:
There I was, facing four empowered officials.  They were not necessarily hostile but were obviously in authority.  Gordon said magnanimously, 'Now, I wouldn't want you to think that your government does not want to listen to you.'  Another, more sharply, asked, 'Why don't these women come home to have their babies?'"
Mes amies, the foundation of what we do today was laid long ago.  We are standing on the shoulders of great women.  Where we go from here is up to us but as I look around me today and see so many dedicated, talented, passionate, powerful women working for change, I am optimistic that we are up to the challenge.  

“A woman is like a tea bag: you cannot tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Eleanor Roosevelt


Gillian Longworth McGuire said...

Thank you for this very thoughtful review of My-Lihn's remarkable book.

Blaze said...

My articles?!? Yours too!

At one time, American women who married non-American men automatically lost U.S. citizenship. That was true of many countries, including Canada.

The tea bag quote was originally from Eleanor Roosevelt. You are a strong brew!

"This is the final lesson. We see how far we've come and it's then we know there can be no turning back." (Gloria Steinem)

Judith Barret said...

It was a pleasure to have My-Linh in my home to do the interview and photo shoot. As an American educator, living in Spain, Hong Kong and then France it has been a life time of wonderful responsible students who, today, are making remarkable efforts to improve our world today. I am very proud of them.

Judith BARRET96

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you for stopping by the Flophouse and leaving your comments. This post was pure pleasure to write.

And I felt such relief and joy when I read the stories. It was as if I'd been wearing tight uncomfortable shoes for years that someone else forced on my feet. And then along comes a group of women with a whole selection of pairs that actually fit.

Thank you to all the women who participated in the making of that book.

Ellen Lebelle said...

A wonderful post, Victoria. Those women are the reason I am a member of AAWE and AARO.

Unknown said...

Victoria, I love this article. It brought tears to my eyes. My great grandmother was a suffragist so I was brought up to believe in the power of women.

I'm going to order this book asap. Like you in all my years outside the U.S. I don't think I've read any book that portrays women abroad in a positive light if they are mentioned at all. I hadn't thought of those in the past nor looked at those of us in the present in quite the light you have summed up so well in this article before. Really wonderful take on both the past and present.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Ellen, And that is one of the best things that has come out of this horrendous mess we are in right now - the chance to meet women like this.

@Atticus, Oh please do. I think you will love it. The present was built brick by brick in the past I am slowly discovering. :-)

Your grandmother was a suffragist? Wow...