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Hope lies at the end of this train’s line
By Beth Glick-Rieman
Northstone Publishing Inc., 288 pages, $19.59, paperback


Besides the fact that she is a good storyteller, what I appreciated most about Beth Glick-Rieman’s book was its honesty. If Glick-Rieman were ever tempted to sugarcoat the peace movement, the women’s movement, this particular experience or even her own responses, she certainly rose above it -- enhancing both the writer’s credibility and the reader’s regard.

In 1995 Glick-Rieman was one of 242 women and a few men who converged on Helsinki to begin travel on The Peace Train, for seven weeks, to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. This is her story, told picture-postcard style, beginning in November 1994 when she first learned that there would be such a peace train, itself a re-enactment of a 1915 pilgrimage of women across Europe “pleading for an end to all wars.”

It should be noted that, despite the title, the book is principally about this journey by train with relatively little about either the U.N. Conference or its counterpart, the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Forum to which the author was a delegate.

Beth Glick-Rieman is an ordained minister and founder/director of a consulting firm to enhance skill-building and communications. At age 72, this is at least her second U.N. Conference, as she alluded to her presence in Nairobi in 1985.

Travel can be daunting at any age, even before one leaves, and so it was for Beth, from funding issues and visa and passport problems, to the typical pre- trip anxieties -- some about leaving children and grandchildren, including a seriously ill son. But “Crossing Borders,” the theme of The Peace Train mission, is what this book is about -- geographical borders, cultural borders, intra-movement borders and personal borders.

It is in this that her honesty is most appreciated. From Helsinki she wrote about the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the sponsor and organizer of the Train, and as admirable an organization as it is, how it still was rife with its own justice and communication issues. For example, the league made no attempt to introduce the travelers to one another, much less begin building any sort of community. What was understood to be a paid-in-full junket proved not to be, as participants were dunned in Finland for their meals at the official stopover points in the eight countries they would visit. Those who couldn’t pay were excluded from the dinner gatherings and banquets.

She is honest about the racism that tarnished the assembly, about the ageism -- which she acutely felt -- and even sexism, as a man was given a workshop slot while several women would-be-presenters were turned down. And she was embarrassed by the way women from the United States, by far the largest delegation, often steamrolled their agenda over the preferences of women from the other 41 countries.

She was also honest about the Chinese organizers, who with their government’s backing in ways subtle and not-so-subtle tried to undermine the gathering, most blatantly by moving the NGO Forum 17 miles out of town and then making it difficult to get there. They also fabricated a quote in the daily newspaper attributed to Glick-Rieman.

But as honest as she was about all this, she was no less than honest about her exhilaration at just being on The Peace Train -- interacting, learning, introspecting, reflecting and growing by the hour. At each stop they de- boarded to meet and interact with local women, to hear their stories, learn their issues, difficulties and triumphs. The travelers also learned from each other, both formally and informally, via the workshops held in a special car on the train and in impromptu late night chat sessions.

“The air around me,” she wrote, “still resounds with the stories of women, some told in Helsinki, many told on The Peace Train and many more told in Beijing, stories full of suffering, action and hope. Some were about privileges and commitment to personal growth and responsibility. Some were about giving voice to the voiceless, the poor, the oppressed. Some were about putting an end to the craziness of war and preparations for it. Some were about saving our Mother Earth. ... Some were about open confrontation of the evils being perpetuated against women and girls.”

Glick-Rieman is explicit that this book represents her experience alone; nevertheless, readers get to meet many of those other women and hear their voices. One entire chapter, in fact, and parts of others consist of interviews and storytelling.

One thing the book does not deal with at all is the politics of the U.N. Conference proper so that we get none of the controversy surrounding the Vatican delegation and how, for example, the delegation was perceived as stonewalling on reproductive and other issues. She does, however, quote Charlotte Bunch of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership who opened a panel on women’s human rights by throwing down the gauntlet to the United Nations and world governments in general by citing all the rhetoric at this and previous conferences and demanding accountability.

“What are you doing,” she demanded, “to fulfill the promises made to protect and promote the human rights of women, promises made in Mexico City in 1975, made again in Copenhagen in 1980 and again in Nairobi in the Forward-Looking Strategies document in 1985, promises made in Vienna at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993? Most of these promises remain unfulfilled.”

As for herself, Glick-Rieman left the conference with a “very personal and self-appointed task,” to write this book “to empower women with the courage and strength it takes to challenge oppression against ourselves and all women wherever we find it.”

Earlier in the book, she had quoted Vaclav Havel’s understanding of the terms optimism versus hope. “Optimism is the belief that things are going to turn as you would like, as opposed to hope, which is when you are thoroughly convinced that something is moral, right and just, and therefore you fight, regardless of the consequences.”

Glick-Rieman writes, “When I see the passion, determination and sacrifices that are being made by courageous women all over the world, I have hope. I’m even guardedly optimistic.”

Judith Bromberg is a regular book reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998