I want to acknowledge in closing that while I emphasize momentum, I am not ignoring the unfinished feminist agendas concerning sexuality, the body, and violence, as well as economic and political rights. I recognize, for example, that as market economies expand globally, they draw women from rural areas into the world of urban sexual commerce (including prostitution and pornography). At the same time, the freedom of choice within industrialized and recently democratized societies incorporates a sexualized consumer culture that remains fixated largely on representations of female anatomy and that exports those images internationally, often replete with racialized stereotypes. I think that feminist tensions over the right to choose sexual labor or to flaunt female sexual allure illustrate the dilemma of partial justice: without economic and political equality, when is sexual labor and allure a free choice and when is it implicitly coercive?
Nor am I ignoring the historical pattern that in every era in which women gain public authority, we face considerable backlash, from women as well as men. Opponents of change often appoint certain conservative spokeswomen to champion women’s right to be supported in the home, while fundamentalist religious groups of all stripes insist that God has ordained women’s obedience to men. Indeed, despite the predictive value implied by my title “No Turning Back,” I am well aware that a feminist future is by no means inevitable. My argument about momentum rests upon a historical foundation of democratic longings combined with economic expansion. Where only one or neither of these conditions prevails, politics are particularly resistant to feminist critiques of gender hierarchy. Afghanistan under the Taliban represented an extreme case, but elsewhere, authoritarian states or ravished economies deepen patriarchal values. Women may continue to organize underground or in exile, as did the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan by providing education and health care for refugees from the Taliban. But totalitarian regimes, war, and occupation undermine feminist momentum.
Even where feminism has been flourishing, it faces constant challenges. Religious fundamentalism represents one powerful international counterforce. Some Christian churches in the United States, for example, have revived an ideal of wifely obedience in the home. Throughout the world, a coalition of the religious right (including Catholics, Muslims, fundamentalist Protestants, and ultra-Orthodox Jews) mobilizes to restrict reproductive rights, including the withholding of state funding and international aid for family-planning programs. The political right also effectively deploys gender nostalgia to win votes and, once elected, tries to reverse feminist gains. For example, in 2002, the highly popular right-wing French presidential candidate Jean-Marie LePen promised that if elected, he would repeal the electoral reform of parite.
Furthermore, in both academic and popular culture, we now witness a resurgence of deterministic biological theories, which consider gender difference and male dominance natural. Sociobiologists have revived ideas about “human nature,” updating the Enlightenment notion of “natural sex” to emphasize woman as reproducer and, in some cases, man as natural sexual predator. These views not only deny the full humanity of both women and men but also threaten the feminist political project, which is deeply grounded in the social and historical rather than merely biological construction of gender and, indeed, is deeply rooted in politically utopian rather than deterministic values.
All of these caveats and complications considered, I still believe that the historical momentum for achieving full economic and political citizenship for women is extremely powerful as long as it remains connected to broader campaigns for democratization and social justice and continues to be malleable. In the past, feminism has survived and gained momentum by combining old and new political strategies. The maternalist legacy, for example, survives within groups such as Las Madres del Plaza de Mayo (The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo), who demonstrated against the disappearance of their children under the military dictatorship in Argentina, and the Mothers of East Los Angeles, who organize to oppose prison construction in the United States. With the liberal feminist goal of suffrage almost universally achieved, women now mobilize to increase their political representation by backing female candidates for office.
At the same time, ngos proliferate to address women’s local needs in regions only recently affected by democratic politics or market economies. In the former Soviet Union, for example, the gaia Women’s Center in Moscow provides a forum for consciousness raising, social services, job training, and political lobbying, while the Feminist League in Kazakstan supports feminist education and tries to eliminate sexism in the mass media. In the 1990s, the Chinese Women’s Research Institute created the first national hotline for women, with trained volunteers responding to legal, economic, sexual, and health questions. This hotline legitimated public discussion of issues once considered too private to address. Though they often must struggle to survive, these groups represent a vast global underground that seeks to redress inequalities rooted in patriarchal practices.
Despite widespread discomfort with the term and repeated media proclamations of its death, feminism has persisted to become central to contemporary politics. Although it is resisted and contested, it will likely be critical to political histories of the next century, especially if human rights expand rather than contract, if caregiving and breadwinning tasks can be disentangled from gender, and if the legacies of colonialism are vigilantly refused.
As Gertrude Mongella, secretary-general of the Fourth World Conference on Women, told the gathering in Beijing: “A revolution has begun and there is no going back. There will be no unraveling of commitments — not today’s commitments, not last year’s commitments, and not the last decade’s commitments. This revolution is too just, too important, and too long overdue.”16 In my view, the historical record supports her prediction.
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