The honorific “Bà” or “Lady” has been bestowed upon some of Vietnam’s greatest women from warriors like Hai Bà Trưng and Bà Triệu to poets like Bà Huyện Thanh Quan. Dan Duffy looks into why Lady Borton, an American woman, might deserve such a title.
The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam celebrates women every October 20. I think they mean “women” rather than “woman.”
Vietnamese language doesn’t distinguish between one and many women. Neither do people in the way they behave.
For instance, an officer of the Viet Nam Women’s Union represents the daughters, nieces, sisters, aunts, wives, mothers and grandmothers of the people. She is not someone you bring flowers to on Mother’s Day and take out for dinner on Valentine’s.
She is in charge of the women’s sphere. She cares for society as she has cared for her family.
White and black women first organized in this manner in the United States around drinking, empire, immigration, Indians, schools, slavery and the vote. Lady Borton, the American feminist most closely allied with the Viet Nam Women’s Union, is of such stock.
Immigrant women organized in our labor movement with the same spirit. Another American ally of the Viet Nam Women’s Union is Susan Brownmiller, a Jew born to workers.
But feminism changed here about the same time as we interfered in Viet Nam. Susan used data from that war to argue at passionate length against rape.
Feminism here became the liberation of women rather than their service. Each woman may compete without regard to her obligations and privileges as daughter, niece, sister and the rest.
The United States at last embraced such equality before the law under the mockery of our Soviet rivals. First blacks then women then gays, the cat is out of the bag.
I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Lady who introduced me to Viet Nam is living out her days there.
She has buried her father in the United States. He managed relief in Europe after the last war.
She went from Oberlin, one of our abolitionist colleges, to Quang Ngai. She drove a bus for refugee children not far from the killings at My Lai.
Back home she bought a farm and drove a bus for special-needs kids in Appalachia. In a video from those days she rocks in a chair and tells about watching infants die at the camp, nothing to be done, they had missed too many meals in a row as their families fled.
The great die-off of the Vietnamese civil war was that of the citizens of our ally the Republic of Viet Nam. Our air support, our artillery, our herbicide, our ten-ton trucks with teenage drivers, occasioned no one knows how many deaths.
When the people fled again, from the disastrous rule of Ha Noi, Lady left the farm for the camps that received them. Read her account in Sensing the Enemy.
She returned to the farm and her bus to shoot back out when reconciliation between the United States and Viet Nam approached. She worked in rural aid for the Quakers from Ha Noi where she obtained visas for Americans visiting through the Indochina Reconciliation Project, the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, the Indochina Arts Project, on and on.
Lady would be the last person to put herself forward on Women’s Day. But in Ha Noi I have seen the ladies of the Union push her out front to take a bow.
They are her people. Talking to them she wrote After Sorrow, her account of their war.
For a different view read the stories of Le Minh Khue, a woman of the Army rather than the Union. Khue writes of the purity of men and women’s relations during the war and their compromise and corruption afterwards.
For a really different view, read any novel by Duong Thu Huong, who used to be published by the Union. Huong was an idealist who like Khue and Lady went to the war when she didn’t have to.
Now she thinks the whole thing was a load, especially the way the Party uses women. Every Union woman I have talked to says Huong is too angry but not one has said she is mistaken.
Another woman to read is Le Ly Haslip who was a child in Lady’s part of the war. She writes of war as the anarchic, indifferent hell American readers are familiar with.
Le Ly returned to Viet Nam about the same time Lady did, to do good works. You can’t help noticing that more women do that.
Never forget that each has an individual reason. Remember that many don’t see it that way.
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