JOHANNA BRENNER is coordinator of women's studies at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Women and the Politics of Class (Monthly Review, 2000).
CAPITALIST GLOBALIZATION HAS HAD a profound yet contradictory impact on women's lives and on the possibilities for contesting male domination in both the core and periphery of the world capitalist system. On the one hand, older forms of male dominance are being undermined; on the other, women's life conditions are in many respects growing worse.
Capitalist penetration deep into the rural periphery has disrupted the settled economies which supported "classic patriarchy" -- a system in which men's power rests economically and politically on male property ownership and household headship.1 In the cities of the periphery, the "fordist gender regime" -- the male breadwinner/female housewife household -- which had emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, the "golden age" of economic development in some parts of the Third World, is also crumbling as male wage and salary earners no longer earn a family wage. At the same time, based in part on women's incorporation into wage labor and their access to literacy and education, feminism has emerged as an organized political force. Women from the global South are not only mounting challenges in their own countries but are participating in a global feminist movement that is capable of affecting the policies of transnational organizations such as the UN and the European Union.2
Counterbalancing these developments, women and children, even more than men, are victimized by global capitalist restructuring. Economic insecurity and impoverishment, exposure to toxics, degradation of water, high infant and maternal mortality rates, forced migration, increased hours spent in paid and unpaid work are only some of the indicators of women's burdens worldwide.3 Women's organizations that have emerged to defend women of the working class and the rural and urban poor find themselves caught in a contradictory field of power relations defined by three contesting forces: national states, religious fundamentalist movements, and the global centers managing the neo-liberal agenda.
Third World governments are male-dominated, often inefficient, plagued by cronyism, and sometimes corrupt; and the pressures of structural adjustment programs imposed on them by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have certainly aggravated these tendencies. Their failure to deliver on the promised benefits of "free-market" policies has spurred the growth of religious fundamentalist political movements that target feminism and challenge governmental power. National governments respond to these movements with both political repression and accommodation, primarily at women's expense -- for example, ceding local civil authority to religious courts and leaders. Such policies shore up traditional patriarchy in its social control functions while the capitalist transformation of local economies deprives women of whatever protection and security patriarchal systems did provide.4
In contrast to the weakened and male-dominated national state and the fundamentalist movements, key institutions of the neo-liberal order, pre-eminently the World Bank but also First World government agencies such as USAID, proclaim their support for modernization and democratization. Offering resources for women's economic development efforts, social services, and health care organizations, the managers of the new world economic order present themselves as allies of liberal feminism. Central feminist aspirations -- full political citizenship, equal access to education and occupational opportunity, and an end to the culturally and legally authorized right of men to control women's bodies, sexuality, and reproductive potential -- are fully compatible with neo-liberalism. The forces that have the most to lose from the institutionalization of liberal feminism's political goals are not the World Bank, the WTO, or the transnational corporations. The major forces contesting feminism, for example, within development policy circles and the international conferences through which the United Nations attempts to regulate development policy are not those of the new world economic order, but organizations representing groups threatened by the loss of older forms of patriarchal political and economic power: Islamic governments, conservative Muslim non-governmental organizations, the Vatican and Catholic organizations, the Protestant evangelicals, and the International Right to Life Committee.5
Of course, a neo-liberal economic order will never usher in gender equality. But, just as capitalism offers more room for self-determination and self-organization for people than does feudalism, so too does the neo-liberal gender order allow women more room to engage in public life and to contest with men for power and place. Yet in the Third World, as in the First, women's continuing responsibilities for and commitment to the work of caregiving disadvantage women in relation to men within the increasingly competitive and individualized economic and political worlds associated with the demands of global capitalism. This continuing differential relationship of men and women to the important and necessary labor of caregiving -- work which is increasingly privatized because of the demise of the welfare state -- is preserving male dominance albeit in a new form.6
In the current situation, feminists, especially those who want to create a movement that reflects the needs and interests of working-class and poor rural and urban women, face intense and difficult political dilemmas. We can appreciate these dilemmas through an analysis of three arenas of political action:
ORGANIZED FEMINISM HAS BEEN most effective both transnationally and locally in promoting liberal political rights for women and even in raising issues that previously were invisible -- such as sexual assault and domestic violence. There is still a long way to go here, of course, but it cannot be denied that in country after country feminist organizations forced debate about sexual and domestic violence into national politics in addition to making some gains in access to formal politics.7 Locally and internationally, feminists continue to face the difficult and pressing issue of how to argue for and define women's rights in a way that does not align feminism with neo-colonial relations of domination. Women in the Third World are forced to contest two powerful and opposing forces. On the one side is a masculinist nationalism that selectively defines tradition and nation in ways that force women to be the bearers of cultural difference, while men are free to participate in the world of modern political and economic power. On the other side is transnational capital that in its current phase threatens to overpower the national state and subject women along with men to new forms of economic exploitation or even to exclude them from the economy altogether -- at the same time that it offers opportunities for escaping from traditional male control. Just as women of color in the U.S. have challenged feminists to recognize that their categories of analysis assumed the universality of white, middle- class experience and defined equality and opportunity in ways that marginalize the political interests of working-class women and women of color, so also have women from the neo- colonized South challenged the dominant voice of women from the North.
Since the first international meeting of women convened by the UN in 1975, international feminism has debated the question of how to define women's interests, including as this conversation has evolved, questioning the unitary category of "women" altogether. An important development in this conversation is the adoption of a "human rights" platform as an organizing agenda that women can cooperate on transnationally as well as use locally. At the World Human Rights Conference, organized by the UN in 1993, women's groups argued that "Human Rights are Women's Rights and Women's Rights Are Human Rights" and called on the Conference to recognize "gender based violence as a violation of human rights requiring immediate action." This effort included promoting the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, finally adopted in 1979 by the UN but still not ratified by the United States.
Nationally, women's organizations have used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, expanded by the UN in 1966 to include economic, social, and cultural rights, to demand accountability from their governments. However, as might be expected given the current dominance of capitalist class forces, in practice only political and civil rights have real support, while women's social rights, along with those of men, are increasingly violated and marginalized by the destruction of public services in core and periphery. Additionally, there remains the problem of who will define the content of these rights -- that is, what criteria should be used to define practices that violate women's human rights.
Raising concerns about human rights as a political discourse is in no way an endorsement of cultural relativism -- women from the global South are only too well aware of how assertions of cultural difference could be used to legitimate patriarchal practices. Third World women are also very well aware of the need to defend their nations and cultures against First World hegemony -- a hegemony that treats western practices as the measure of progress for women and for society and thus legitimizes neo-colonial domination. Insofar as First World feminists have participated in this kind of "universalizing" political discourse and thereby have denied the possibility that modernization shaped by non-western cultures might in some instances offer women more dignity, power, and respect, they have made it easier for anti-feminist forces in the Third World to define feminism as a part of the western imperial project. There is no better example of the cooptation of "women's rights" for imperialist purposes than George Bush's claim that the U.S. war on Afghanistan was carried out to promote human rights for Afghan women. The ground for this claim was laid in part by the international women's rights campaign begun in 1997 by a coalition of western women's rights organizations.8 This campaign, which called on the "international community" to deny investment and recognition to the Taliban, completely ignored the complicity of the West in the installation of the Taliban in the first place and the ways in which Washington's tolerance of Taliban rule was bound up in its overall neo-liberal, geo-political agenda.
Under the leadership of Third World feminists, some organizations have tried to chart a course between patriarchal nationalism and colonizing feminism. For example, Women Living Under Muslim Law challenges religio/political fundamentalism from within an Islamic framework of discourse, redefining, just as men have done historically, what constitutes an "Islamic" practice. Rita Coomaraswamy poses the question: how do we protect human rights in substance at the local level while avoiding being pawns of imperial strategy? She proposes two guidelines: 1) any practices that cause severe pain and suffering to the women concerned should be criminalized, and 2) other practices should be evaluated through debate, dialogue and coalition-building by the women of the particular society who have "in different ways fought racism and communalism but who also struggle against patriarchy and for women's rights. Even within this group there are big differences."9 The proper role of feminist organizations in the imperialist core countries is to support this local dialogue with resources and with respect.
Parallel tensions and conflicts regarding who defines women's interests and rights serve to marginalize the voices of working-class and poor women within national and transnational feminist coalitions. At first glance the feminist insistence that freedom from sexual violence is a woman's human right offers an obvious basis for cross-class alliance. Yet, working class and poor women in the global South often shape their understandings of male violence in class terms, locating male violence as an issue within a particular social context -- for example in relation to government promotion of liquor sales to impoverished districts or rising unemployment and the disappearance of traditional male work. In contrast, when middle-class advocates translate international human rights politics into the local arena, they are more likely to focus on the need for changing laws and police practices in isolation from the broader causes of violence against women.10
Transnational feminism has depended for its organizational growth not on funds generated from grass-roots membership but on resources provided by powerful institutions such as the UN, social democratic governments in the North, and private foundations in the capitalist core countries. In the early 1990s, the United Nations, certainly as a consequence of feminist pressure from within, committed to funding the involvement of local women's groups in the national conferences projected to address development issues.11 Within the Third World, women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) similarly rely on external funding sources. This context has aggravated what would in any case be an inevitable process of professionalization and bureaucraticization when grass-roots groups become social movement organizations and then primarily advocates for rather than mobilizers of their constituency. Some organizations have done better than others in maintaining connection with and accountability to their social base.12 However, stratification among women's groups has grown as those with elite ties, access to international funders, and the organizational characteristics that funders want to support are able to command more resources and political influence. In their structural position vis-á-vis their national states and international funders, these NGOs became advisors and gender "experts" who play a brokering role between the state and its clienteles.13
ONE OF THE IRONIES OF THOSE STATES that achieved economic development in the golden age of the 60s and 70s was that, even though political rights were relatively circumscribed, some of the development-induced surplus was directed toward expansion of basic services -- most particularly education and health care, which did improve maternal and child health, lowering maternal and infant mortality rates in many countries. The struggle for the establishment and expansion of collective or social rights has been fundamental to the political mobilization of women in the working-class, urban and rural poor, and indigenous communities. The assault on standards of living in urban areas, the destruction of rural livelihoods, and the shrinking of the state under Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the IMF created a virtual explosion of women's activism over the last two decades. This activism has three characteristics. It is motivated by survival needs; it is based in cross-household networks of mutual help and supported by communal values; and it is legitimated primarily by women's traditional gender roles at the same time as these roles are expanded to include women's engagement in public life separate from men. In the first instance a politics based on maternal care does not challenge traditional gender roles, and may even reinforce women's identification with motherhood. However, political engagement can also lead grass-roots activists to challenge male power and reshape gender identities -- if it takes place in a context which includes feminist ideas about women's rights in relation not only to the state but to the men in their own communities, households, and movement organizations.14
In the 70s and early 80s, there were struggles among women activists both internally in Third World countries and internationally that tended to counterpose a politics of women's needs to a politics of liberal (civil and political) rights, with working-class/peasant women arguing that collective and social rights are "more important" to Third World women than individual civil rights. This conflict was in part determined by the encapsulation of women activists in the politics of the traditional organs of working-class/popular political mobilization -- labor unions, organizations of the unemployed, left political parties, and peasant organizations. However, over time, partly as a result of the interchanges among Third World feminist organizations themselves and partly through the increasing resources available externally that were used to support autonomous women's organizations, grass-roots women's groups emerged from the struggles of poor rural and urban women, and women in the new proletariat of the free trade zones developed their own versions of a working-class/popular feminism. Moving out from under the masculinist politics of local social and political movements, working-class and rural women began to address issues of sexual politics and to develop distinctive feminist modes of organizing: consciousness raising, participatory decision-making, and attention to personal empowerment as a basis for collective empowerment.15 This political evolution would have been truncated without the existence of transnational feminist organizing. Regional as well as international conferences, workshops, and meetings gave locally marginal women's grass- roots organizations moral and practical support.
Middle- class/elite women were the first to articulate a program for women's equality and participation, and to identify new targets of feminist contestation broadly understood as "sexual politics." Although originating outside the working-class, these feminist organizations play a critical role in opening up a political space and, in the best instances, in providing organizational resources that can push forward the emergence of a different kind of feminist politics among women of the working-class, peasantry, and urban poor. However, these same organizations can also play a very negative role -- insofar as they reproduce relations of class privilege and domination within movements, frame feminist ideology and strategy within the limits of a liberal political project, and enter into conservatizing alliances with political and economic elites.
One can find no better example of the latter than the proliferation of NGOs throughout the global South managing programs of small-scale loans -- microcredit -- for women. Although the Beijing platform of action in 1995 proposed a broad range of reforms and interventions to improve women's position in Third World economies, not surprisingly women's NGOs have been most successful in promoting microcredit programs. Emanating from institutions such as USAID and the World Bank, these programs have garnered the vast majority of development funds targeted toward women. Appearing to offer women economic independence through entrepreneurship, microcredit has had the opposite effect in most cases -- increasing women's integration into the informal sectors of the economy, forcing them to exploit their own children, especially their daughters, in order to get their work done, increasing competitive relationships among women, and doing little to lift women or their families out of poverty.16 Further, ideologically, microcredit reinforces the neo-colonial view that ascribes to Third World women both moral characteristics and personal powers that alleviate the need for state-controlled and regulated development. In valorizing "grass-roots" women's maternal virtues and survival strengths, NGOs argue for targeting women as the "best investment" for development funds. Since men are less likely than women to pay back loans, more likely to spend their income on themselves rather than their households, and to participate in the petty corruption that is a route to local political influence, these claims have real force. On the other hand, like all powerful ideologies, they also rest on a very partial picture and have the unintended consequence of further solidifying the neo-liberal agenda. Third World women are set up as a reproach, not to the forces of capitalist domination, but to those who supposedly lack their courage and determination to negotiate the market -- that is, the "dependent" men of poor countries who have relied on the state to protect them from the competitive challenges of the market.
The emergence of the "microcredit industry" tells us one story about how NGOs staffed by women from privileged strata in the Third World find avenues for employment, international travel, and political influence through work in which they project themselves as representatives of women who are marginalized in and excluded from the new economic order. Given the formidable constraints posed by the powerful economic and political forces that they confront, women advocates for women are forced to inhabit a niche that is simultaneously empowering and disempowering -- incorporating women's representatives into state resource allocation processes at the cost of distancing them from their social base and shoring up, rather than contesting, neo- liberal ideologies and policies. Similar kinds of pressures face NGOs working in the arena of women's reproductive rights.
FROM THE 1950S, under pressure from the World Bank, USAID, and other development agencies, states in developing countries began implementing population control programs. These programs have been accurately described as designed to lower women's fertility "by any means necessary," and their myriad abuses have been well- documented.17 Beginning in the 1970s, international networks of feminists, most working through NGOs and the United Nations, sought to shift the dominant population policy away from a focus on fertility and onto the promotion of the health and well-being of women and children. They argued that governments should promote real economic development, ensure that women have equal access to the benefits thereof, and provide conditions necessary for women's personal autonomy (education, maternal and child healthcare, changes in family law, etc.) rather than trying to control the reproductive lives of women. Although lowering the birth rate should not be the goal of these initiatives, in fact the outcome of such programs would not only be an improvement in women's lives but also a decline in women's fertility. This transnational feminist effort achieved a significant victory at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development meeting in Cairo which adopted a "Platform of Action" affirming women's reproductive rights and specifically condemning government policies driven by numerical population targets. Unfortunately, partly as a result of strategic compromises engineered by the larger women's NGOs who dominate political processes at international meetings, the "Platform" also endorsed the neo-liberal assault on the state, calling for greater reliance on the private sector and NGOs for service delivery.
While achieving considerable success at the level of theoretical vision and UN (and even World Bank) rhetoric, NGOs have been entirely unsuccessful in promoting women's reproductive rights in practice at the national level. Across the Third World fertility rates have plunged, in many cases achieving in only 20 years a demographic transition that took close to a century in the West. Where fertility decline in the West came as a result of increasing standards of living for the working-class majority, economic transition and structural adjustment in the Third World have produced a "crisis-led fertility decline." It is important to stress that the causes of this decline are complex and reflect, at least in part, women's own desires to control their reproductive lives, increasing demand for women's labor, and aggressive family planning promotion that has made sterilization operations, IUD insertions, and hormone-based contraceptives easily available. However, the rapidity and depth of the change in fertility patterns is also the result of more negative factors: women's impoverishment; the rise in female-headed households, increasing demands on women's working days while also reducing their exposure to unprotected heterosexual contact; women's appropriate fears of the health risks of pregnancy, including maternal mortality (the result of illegal abortions); compromised health status from poverty; and lack of access to pre- and post- natal health care.18 Although numerical targets may no longer drive government programs, abuses of women's basic bodily rights continue to pervade the system. And, in any case, even where women are not lied to, offered cash bribes, or threatened into accepting risky birth control methods or sterilization, the overall institutional context so severely restricts women's choices as to be inherently, if not purposively, coercive. Rates of sterilization among poor women, and especially poor women in racially oppressed communities, are far higher than among women who are racially and economically privileged.19
AT THE END OF THE CENTURY, the managers of global capitalism, meeting at the Davos World Economic Forum, were forced to acknowledge a deep crisis of legitimacy in the neo-liberal order.20 Half-way around the globe, in Porto Alegre, the activists gathered at the World Social Forum sought to create a political agenda for the global justice movement that had put global elites on the defensive. The participation of women, as leaders and as representatives of grass-roots movements at Porto Alegre holds real promise; so also, does the involvement of feminist organizations in the organizational networks that constitute local "anti- globalization" forces. Thirty years ago, it would have been unthinkable, even within radical social movements, to have women in leadership over men or to have issues of gender oppression anything other than a matter, at best, for a woman's auxiliary. The organizations that command the most widespread respect for their militancy, revolutionary vision, and courage are deeply influenced by feminism -- in their political agendas and their leadership cadres. For example, in 1993, following a process of convening local women's committees and holding hundreds of community assemblies, the Zapatista Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee in Mexico passed the Revolutionary Laws of Women. This program of women's rights includes women's right to decide the number of children they will have and care for, women's right to work and receive a just salary, the right to choose their partners, and so forth.21
Alongside these clear gains, there remain areas of tension between transnational feminism and other parts of the global justice movement. Reflecting a complex set of forces, these "fault lines" cannot be fully analyzed here. In what follows I offer some preliminary observations about two examples of the problems that the global justice movement will have to resolve: 1) tensions between women's NGOs and labor unions, and 2) strategic silences on the issue of abortion and sexual orientation.
TrADITIONAL MODES of union organizing have proven to be ineffective in organizing women workers for gender specific reasons that cut across industries. The strategies that do organize women are those that cross over the public/private and work/family divides, acknowledging women's caregiving responsibilities and their dense ties to their communities. The nature of the industries that currently employ the majority of women working in the formal private sector of the economy further compromises the effectiveness of the organizing strategies developed by and for male workers. The labor intensive industries were women are concentrated can respond to strikes by simply transferring production elsewhere. Women workers are joining trade unions across the globe, but NGOs have also emerged, sometimes formed by women workers leaving male-dominated unions, and sometimes created when no unions were interested. With the growth of the female labor force and of women's militancy, NGOs organizing women workers now represent an important constituency of the working-class movement. Given the limited opportunities for women in the formal labor market, NGOs are striving to preserve women's jobs in the labor-intensive industries that will hire them, while they organize to improve wages and working conditions. They have tended to rely more on community organizing, moral suasion, international funding, and political support than on union dues and traditional weapons of struggle -- especially the strike. If labor unions are unsympathetic to the reasons for the NGO's strategic choices, they fail to enter into supportive alliances with grass-roots organizations of women workers, driving the NGOs further away from the trade union movement. In turn, the NGOs become more vulnerable to cooptation by management- dominated international "watchdog" committees, which have become a major tool for transnational corporations responding to the anti-sweatshop movement.22 Such a trajectory is not inevitable, but depends on the continuing politicization of the trade union movement which, as we have seen in other times and places, opens more space for working-class feminism to challenge and change the strategic and organizational practices of the unions.
Silences in Community-Based Movements
WHILE WOMEN'S GROWING IMPORTANCE as a constituency within the labor movement represents an historic shift, women's activism in community-based movements, which have mobilized huge numbers over the last two decades, reflects historic continuity. For centuries, women have entered into political struggle in order to secure the livelihoods of their families and communities. In addition to organizing to demand resources from local government -- trash collection, potable water, electricity, etc. -- many communities, unable to wrest much from the state, began to engage in alternative modes of production and provision of services -- cooperative work schemes to produce food and clothing, building crèches and houses, organizing trash collection, etc.23 What is new in these popular movements is the emergence of women's leadership and the incorporation of feminist demands into their political programs. This is the case especially where community-based organizations are part of broader movements that carry radical political worldviews (e.g., the Zapatistas in Mexico or the Workers Party in Brazil). These developments reflect tremendous gains and offer tremendous hope. Still, there is work to be done. Within the global justice movement, some feminist political ideas and demands are more easily expressed than others. The contrast between the clear progress made on the issue of domestic violence and the glaring silences on the issues of abortion and sexual orientation is interesting.
One possible reason for this difference might be that some feminist claims are more compatible than others with a maternalist politics. For example, for women to demand the right to be free from domestic violence or to control the spacing and numbers of their pregnancies can be framed in ways that preserve the essential relationships of the traditional heterosexual family. Fertility control can and often has been allied to claims about preserving mothers' health and that of their children. The notion that men have an obligation to care for women in their families -- and should not expect to retain familial authority if they violate that obligation -- is not fundamentally antagonistic to paternalistic gender norms. Make no mistake: both these shifts in understanding substantially expand women's power and authority within marital relationships and represent a victory for feminism. But as difficult as these changes have been to make, abortion has generated far more opposition to feminism. Abortion could be regarded as simply a form of contraception (and is in some societies framed as "menstrual regulation"). But instead it has come to be defined as an act of maternal rejection and a powerful symbol of women's ability to separate (hetero)sexuality from procreation and to claim sexual pleasure for its own sake. The validation of lesbian sexuality, of course, goes even further in the direction of denying the inevitable, natural, and moral status of families organized around a heterosexual bond.
A second possible reason for the silences around issues that are so central to sexual liberation could be the role that religious organizations, particularly the Catholic Church, play in providing institutional and monetary support to popular movements. Although it might appear that their constituents' religiosity inhibits the political issues that organizers can raise, at least in the case of abortion, illegal abortion is a fact of life for many Catholic women who find ways to make abortion compatible with their religious beliefs.24 I would argue that it is organizations' dependence on the Catholic hierarchy for funding and political legitimacy, rather than their women constituents' religious beliefs, that enforces this code of silence.
CONFLICTS AND TENSIONS around gender relations and feminist politics within the global justice movement offer hope as well as words of caution. Conflicts exist only because women activists and their organizations are serious players on the political stage, contesting male dominance not as outsiders but from within the networks of the global justice movement. Whether feminism will come to inform the radical vision and the everyday politics of global justice activists, men and women, depends on how well the movements are able to sustain political coalitions that are participatory and willing to engage in dialog. Movements that make a space for the political and strategic interventions of working-class and popular feminist activists and their organizations will constitute a powerful pole of attraction, an alternative for those who now believe they have no choice but to compromise with the neo-liberal order.
Contents of No. 34
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