Gender and Globalization: Where, Now, Are the Women, the Feminists…and the Movement?

Peter Waterman

Global Solidarity Dialogue





'Globalisation and Gender', Signs, Vol. 26, No. 4, Summer 2001. Special Issue. Editors: Amrita Basu, Inderpal Grewal, Caren Kaplan, Liisa Malkki. Pp. 943-1314.

Weighing in at what feels like a healthy kilo, over 350 pages in length, containing some 20 contributions, and co-edited by well-known specialists, this collection makes a substantial feminist contribution to a developing area of study and struggle.

An Editorial sets out the intentions of 'Gender and Globalization' (henceforth G&G). These are, in the first place, obviously, to fill a lacuna in critical theorizing about globalisation - its customary gender-blindness. Whilst feminist political economists and others have recognised the significance of women's subordinate role in internationalization/globalisation, the editors are concerned about the absence of address to women's centrality within, agency in respect of, and social movements in opposition to, globalisation. They are equally concerned that feminist theory should surpass such simplistic binary oppositions (also feminist ones) as globalisation from above/ globalisation from below, global capitalism/local social movements, and northern-imperial social movements/southern (anti-imperial?) ones:

The articles in this special issue complicate these approaches…In particular, these articles address the ways in which political economy, social movements, identity formation, and questions of agency are often inextricable from each other. They discuss the participation of women trying to better their conditions as crucial aspects of globalisation, thereby contradicting the assumption that globalisation is a process imposed solely from above by powerful states or multinational corporations. (944-5).

The attempt to look at globalisation both as a gendered process and in a dialectical way is carried out through a set of articles, exchanges and book reviews. We have a diverse series of contemporary studies, in which are considered the relation of gender and sexuality to globalisation and nationalism, several of which reflect critically on existing feminist and other globalistion theories. Another group of articles considers the relationship between women's activism and globalisation, again criticizing facile assumptions concerning international solidarity. There follows a series of brief dialogues, commentaries and roundtables on aspects of globalisation: these are as varied as: the globalized prison industry, the international division of labour, the anti-globalisation movement, international financial institutions, Chinese feminism, studies of the Middle East, and women-and-globalisation studies more generally.

Whilst the collection contains a number of admirable pieces, I feel it lacks overall impact. This may be because the Editorial actually goes further than what follows. We are certainly presented with challenges to simplistic approaches, 'malestream' or feminist. And much is made of 'agency' – to the point of characterizing certain collective behaviour as 'agentive' (an adjective I won't mind never seeing again). But the Editorial fails to prepare us for the extent to which the papers are addressed to US academic feminist concerns and theory, which are – inevitably – a limited part of, or angle on, our increasingly complex and globalized world disorder. Even when we move from 'agency' to 'movements', the latter turn out to be mostly Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and their international relations. I miss the Latin American feminist demand to move de la protesta a la propuesta (from protest to proposition). But, then, the vibrant international/ist movement and thought of and on Latin American women and feminism is also absent (Alvarez 2000, Barrig 2001, Mendoza 2001, Olea 1998, Sanchís 2001, Vargas 1999, 2001, as well as Thayer below). My feeling is, then, that whilst we have a worthy supplement to other feminist work on globalisation, we have here no noticeable advance.

I have other problems with the editing of the collection and writing style. I am not accustomed to finding feminist writing lacking focus or stylistic fireworks. But the 35 pages on the autobiography of a Jamaican Creole woman entrepreneur and adventurer – with no anti-colonial, anti-racist, social reformist or feminist characteristics – seems entirely out of place in this collection, whatever it might tell us about 'the complex interplay in the nineteenth century between gendered mobility, black diaspora identity, colonial power, and transnational circularity' (949). Elsewhere in the collection I felt somewhat overwhelmed by a uniform US academic malestream style, in which the personality and subject position of the author is buried under layers of formal stylistic ritual. I do not know whether this is responsible for the considerable overlap or repetition within and across contributions, but it has a dulling impact.

Having got this all off my chest, let me mention some pieces that impressed. These include Suzanne Bergeron's useful overview of political-economic discourses on globalisation; Carla Freeman's case study of Caribbean women who combine their day jobs in the white-collar, but proletarianised and globalized data-entry industry, with spare-time, globalised petty-trading, reveals the limits of any simple class analysis; two pieces on transnational women's/feminist NGO networking, one on Russia, one on South Africa, show how contradictory such relations can be; one of the dialogues, on/against the World Trade Organisation brings us close to where - I hope - the next wave of global feminist activity will be centred. I was, finally, fascinated by a study of the Miss World contest in India, precisely because of its address to the novel, complex and contradictory responses to such of women and social movements locally. I will return to the last two items in more detail, starting with the Indian one.

Rupal Oza's 'Showcasing India: Gender, Geography, and Globalisation', is about the protest surrounding the 1996 Miss World contest in Bangalore. There were here two broad protest movements, a rightwing Hindu-based movement, defending Indian culture from westernization, and a leftwing socialist and/or feminist one defending the Indian economy from globalisation. Whilst there were distinct differences between the two movements, there was a coincidence in 1) seeing representations of women's bodies as threatening to India's borders, 2) making the Indian nation and/or state the point of positive identity, 3) failing to come to terms with women's own agency and sexuality, and 4) subordinating women and sexuality to the economy, the nation and the state. Oza draws a conclusion of more general relevance:

The construction of resistance at any level that is predicated on structures of oppression or suppression at other levels or is contained through them is problematic from the start. Equally problematic are the assumptions of political hierarchy whereby gender and sexual politics are put on hold against the priority of local resistance to the overarching force of globalisation. The underlying assumption here is that gender and sexuality…are not already constitutive of globalisation and of local resistance. The political hierarchy in this context, then, is a ruse for denying agency to gender and sexuality. These issues have been raised in the context of the struggles for women's rights and the structural place of the women's movement within nationalism. Therefore, conceptually progressive politics, when framed in terms of local resistance to globalisation yet dependent on adherence to hegemonic structural positions within a 'new' patriarchy, is politically dangerous and theoretically precarious. (1090)

Although Oza's case deals with a nationally-identified and bounded women's/feminist protest against globalisation, it throws light on the anti-globalisation movement worldwide. Here, too, we find leftwing movements that, because they see globalisation in terms of 'the highest stage of imperialism', must pose against it 'the highest stage of nationalism', i.e. a socialism both nation-state-based and defined. In, however, posing the Nation against the Global, such movements not only find themselves in uncomfortable proximity to a rightwing both hated and feared, but are also disqualified for two essential contemporary tasks: 1) developing what has been a traditional inter-nationalism into a global solidarity movement and discourse (i.e. one that displaces the state-defined nation from the centre of politics); 2) re-inventing the democratic nation-state in the light of the global and gender justice movements. The international women's movements, and feminisms, proposing post-national identities, can make a major contribution to these struggles. But do they do this, in the case of the major international movement of our day, the 'global justice', 'anti-corporate' or 'anti-capitalist' movement?

Kathleen Staudt, Shirin Rai and Jane Parpart's discussion suggests that women have been marginal to this latest internationalism, and they seem to consider the anti-globalisation movement responsible for this absence. I would consider it, rather, the prime responsibility of the women's movements and the feminists (as with the late, light presence of labour, and the virtual absence of African-Americans in Seattle)! It is true that, whilst feisty women and prominent feminists have participated in, and are even spokespeople for, the anti-globalisation movement, there has been minimal women's movement presence or explicit feminist engagement here. I can only put this down to a previous over-politicisation (state-centredness) of the women's movement, and to the engagement of much of its leadership with inter/national (again: inter-state and state-like) policy-making institutions, or their gender advisory committees. This proposition is lent credibility by G&G and in two ways. The first is explicit, lying in the critiques of international 'ngo-isation', the second is implicit, lying in the paucity of contributions on actual women's/feminist movements confronting globalisation.

There is no shortage, in the real world, of such movements, nor, actually, of feminist address to such. Two references make the point. The first is the book on globalisation, democracy and women's movements by Catherine Eschle (2001). The second is a paper by Millie Thayer (2001) on the relationship between popular women activists at the global periphery and transnational feminism.

The Eschle book does not appear promising, given that its primary focus is on democracy rather than movements and that its form is that of a critique of the literature (already over-represented in the G&G collection). But she is concerned precisely with the necessity and possibility of a feminist contribution to a reinvention of democracy in the era of globalisation. And her understanding of feminism and democracy is one that is dependent on social movements. So, after a long march through and beyond the commonly state-centric theories of democracy, she addresses herself energetically to 'Reconstructing Global Feminism: Engendering Democracy' (Chapter 7). Here she stresses the necessity for the women's movement to be anti-capitalist, as also to develop 'transversal' (horizontal, reciprocal) relations, and to democratize internally. I do not intend to set up Eschle against G&G, in so far as she develops a note and orientation present within the collection. Moreover, there are limitations to both her conceptualization and her evidence. 'Transversal' is an evocative but loose or non-technical term. One can say much more by developing the classical notion of 'international solidarity' (for an attempt see Waterman 2001: 235-8). There is also a limitation in so far as her case studies are drawn from a secondary literature that is often stronger in the mode of advocacy than of analysis. Although, finally, she is concerned that the international women's movement be anti-capitalist, she hardly exemplifies this. So it may be that my favourable comparison with G&G lies mostly in her 'movement-centredness'.

Millie Thayer's provocative title is 'Transnational Feminism: Reading Joan Scott in the Brazilian Sertão'. Her rich case study and theoretical argument runs as follows:

Fieldwork with a rural Brazilian women's movement…finds another face of globalisation with more potentially positive effects. These activists create meaning in a transnational web of political/cultural relations that brings benefits as well as risks for their movement. Rural women engage with a variety of differently located feminist actors in relations constituted both by power and by solidarity. They defend their autonomy from the impositions of international funders, negotiate over political resources with urban Brazilian feminists, and appropriate and transform transnational feminist discourses. In this process, the rural women draw on resources of their own based on the very local-ness whose demise is bemoaned by globalisation theorists.

Again, I do not wish to pose Thayer against G&G. Indeed, the intention of the G&G Editorial seems to be rather well exemplified by her paper. Nor is Thayer without her own shortcomings or lacunae. She surely misreads Manuel Castells' masterwork on the information society, since he actually gives women's/feminist movements the space, scope and transformatory significance he denies to workers' ones (Waterman 1999a). And whilst she suggests a virtuous spiral between, in this case, Northern and Southern feminisms/women's movements, we are not shown how the Southern experience or ideas feeds back to the Northern (or international) movement, rather than to her as a Northern feminist academic. It is, again, the tone of the writer that is at issue here. Gramsci would recognize the disposition of both writers towards the movement: 'scepticism of the intellect; optimism of the will'.

My final thought on G&G is that it cast its net too wide. The field (to move from fishing to agriculture) has actually been better tilled than the Editorial suggests. See, for example, Dickenson (1997), Harcourt (2001), Wichterlich (2000), and two review articles (Eschle 1999 and Waterman 1999b). What is now needed may be more narrowly-focused collections. And, of course, more women's movements making their customarily pertinent, outrageous and utopian contributions to the major internationalist movement of our day.


The Hague/Lima




Alvarez, Sonia. 2000. 'Translating the Global: Effects of Transnational Organising on Local Feminist Discourses and Practices in Latin America'. Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, Vol. 1 (November).

Barrig, Maruja. 2001. ‘Latin American Feminism: Gains, Losses and Hard Times’, NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 34, No. 5, pp. 29-35.

Dickenson, Donna. 'Counting Women in: Globalisation, Democratisation and the Women's Movement', in Anthonly McGrew (ed), The Transformation of Democracy? Globalisation and Territorial Democracy. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 97-120.

Eschle. Catherine. 1999. 'Building Global Visions: Democracy and Solidarity in the Globalisation of Feminism', International Feminist Journal of Politics. Vol. 1, pp. 327-31.

Eschle, Catherine. 2001. Global Democracy, Social Movements, and Feminism. Boulder: Westview. 278 pp.

Harcourt, Wendy. 2001. 'Globalisation, Women and the Politics of Place: Work in Progress', Paper to EADI Gender Workshop: Gender and Globalization: Processes of Social and Economic Restructuring, April 20 200.

Mendoza, Breny. 2001. 'Conceptualising Transnational Feminism'. Paper to Conference on 'Trends in Transnational Feminisms', Institute of Gender, Globalisation and Democracy, California State University, Northridge. June 13. 11 pp.

Olea Mauleón, Cecilia (ed). 1998. Encuentros, (des)encuentros y búsquedas: el movimiento feminista en América Latina. Lima: Flora Tristán. 234 pp.

Sanchís, Norma (ed). 2001. El ALCA en debate: Una perspectiva desde las mujeres. [The FTAA in Debate: A Women's Perspective]. Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos. 195 pp.

Thayer, Millie. 2001. 'Transnational Feminism: Reading Joan Scott in the Brazilian Sertão', Ethnography, No. 4, June.

Vargas, Gina. 1999. 'Ciudadanias globales y sociedades civiles. Pistas para la análisis' [Global Citizenships and Civil Societies: Lines for Analysis], Nueva Sociedad, No. 163, pp. 125-38.

Vargas, Virginia. 2001. 'Ciudadanía y globalización: hacia una nueva agenda global de los movimientos feministas' [Citizenship and Globalisation: Towards a New Global Agenda for the Feminist Movements] in Norma Sanchís (ed). El ALCA en debate: Una perspectiva desde las mujeres. Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos. Pp. 61-76.

Waterman, Peter. 1999a. 'Women as Internationalists: Breaching the Great Wall of China' (Review Essay), International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 490-97.

Waterman, Peter. 1999b. 'The Brave New World of Manuel Castells: What on Earth (or in the Ether) is going on?' (Review of Vols. 1-3 of `The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture'), Development and Change. Pp. 357-80.

Waterman, Peter. 2001. Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms. London: Continuum. (Paperback Edition, New Preface). 302 pp.

Wichterich, Christa. 2000. The Globalised Woman: Reports from a Future of Inequality. London: Zed. 180 pp.