In addition to revising its labor policies in the face of structural change, feminism has shifted other central agendas after confronting internal challenges. Because the category “woman” is by no means universal but rather masks internal social hierarchies, conflicts among women of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds have repeatedly forced redefinitions of feminist politics. Those who insist on expanding the composition of the movement beyond the white, Western, middle classes have forced feminists in the United States and internationally to ask not only about gender disparity but also about “which women” feminism serves.
Two key internal conflicts derived largely from the legacies of colonial relations. The first concerns racial justice: Would feminism make race subordinate to gender concerns or recognize opposition to racism as central to its politics? The second pertains to national liberation from European dominance: Would Western feminism reject the “white woman’s burden” of “civilized morality” — Gilman’s Teutonic bias, for example — and acknowledge the political integrity of non-Western women and former colonial subjects? These questions have continually redefined feminism. Indeed, the historical strength of feminism often correlates with its attention to broader social justice concerns, while its weak periods are often those in which feminism is isolated from other critiques of social hierarchies.
In the United States, for example, strong ties between movements for gender and racial justice characterized the antislavery and early women’s rights movements. Yet the initial alliance of abolitionists and feminists before the Civil War largely crumbled after 1870. During the postwar era of white-supremacist politics and Jim Crow segregation, the suffrage movement reflected the racial biases of the larger culture. The National American Woman Suffrage Association excluded black women as speakers to keep white southern members in the fold, and both suffrage and women’s temperance movements had segregated chapters. African American activists, however, never stopped pressuring white feminists to reject the racial hierarchy that relegated black women to the back of the American suffrage parades and the margins of the political agenda. Tentative interracial coalitions reemerged in the twentieth-century civil rights movement, as activists in churches, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and the antilynching movement finally heeded African American women’s call for allies. Later, the involvement of young white women in the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s helped revive feminist politics by providing models of strong black female leaders and lessons in community organizing.
After the 1960s, when the United States had a more diverse population, not only African American but also Mexican American, Native American, and Asian American women — as well those who identified as lesbian and disabled — insisted that feminism dismantle all social hierarchies that
impeded women’s full citizenship. In the words of activist Barbara Smith, speaking in 1979, “Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women Anything less than this vision of total freedom is
not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”9 During the 1970s and 1980s, a repeated process of naming differences, organizing separately, and working toward political coalitions challenged U. S. feminism. Separate groups of women of color identified the issues most pressing for their communities, such as health care and welfare. Books like This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981) helped educate white women about these priorities and about the effects of racism within feminism. Rather than splintering, many feminists have tried to learn, in the words of the African American lesbian poet Audre Lorde, “how to take our differences and make them strengths.”10 But feminism can do so only if it remains vigilant about opposing racism both inside and outside its ranks.
Racial inclusion meant that the U. S. feminist agenda had to change. Reproductive rights, for example, came to include not only contraception and abortion but also an end to the sterilization abuse that denied reproductive choice particularly to Native American, African American, and Mexican American women. The women’s health movement had to address the particular concerns of women of color and make health care available in their communities. With so many women of color living in poverty, welfare reform had to become a feminist issue. While large swaths of American feminism still reflect a white and middle-class membership, at its best, the movement now works in alliance rather than in competition with movements for universal civil and human rights.
Internationally, colonialism set the stage for most global encounters among women, leaving a powerful legacy of unequal relations across regions. Although women in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East had historically forged individual routes to authority, European feminists often failed to appreciate the power held by these women. They tended to assume that imposing their own ideas about clothing, education, and family life would rescue colonized women, a project that could serve their own political goals. Just as some American women called for woman suffrage as one means of counteracting African American and immigrant male voters, British suffragettes incorporated the language of white racial superiority when they argued that as “mothers of the race” white women needed the vote to support the work of imperialism and to uplift native women.
Nonetheless, Western critiques of political hierarchy did appeal to many colonial subjects who questioned both foreign rule and patriarchy. In India and Egypt, for example, concerns about women’s rights paralleled anticolonial movements. Pandita Ramabai, a widowed scholar in Bombay who worked for Indian independence, drew on Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas about education when she founded a training institute for teachers and called for women’s medical schools. When women became involved in Egyptian politics in the early twentieth century, they often sought both national independence and women’s education and citizenship rights. Thus, Huda Sha’arawi not only mobilized women to resist the British but also rejected the practice of veiling and successfully campaigned for women’s access to Egyptian universities; in 1923, she founded the Egyptian Feminist Union.
Not all nationalist movements empowered women. In Turkey and Iran, male leaders tried to co-opt feminism. In the name of modernization, they imposed certain Western practices — such as rejecting the veil and establishing formal education for women — but at the same time, their regimes either crushed or took control of feminist political organizations. Elsewhere, successful national liberation movements proclaimed feminism a form of Western imperialism and took steps to overturn women’s rights. In Algeria, a history of forced, public unveiling of women by the French colonial powers made the reveiling of women a symbol of national resistance. Even though the women who had struggled alongside men to win independence gained suffrage, in the 1960s, the leaders of the new Algerian state called for a nationalistic return to one version of local “tradition,” namely, patriarchy, enforced through a family code that restricted divorce and contraception.
As women mobilized to gain their rights in former colonial regions, they communicated with European and North American feminists. Not surprisingly, given the history of European dominance and anticolonial critiques of the West, the international feminist organizations of the early twentieth century remained international largely in name only. In addition, what has been termed “feminist orientalism” on the part of European women, who treated all colonized women as if they were passive victims, hampered their outreach efforts. Women of color continually protested these condescending attitudes. At an international conference in 1935, for example, Shareefeh Hamid Ali of India spoke for women of “the East” when she explained to women of “the west” that “any arrogant assumption of superiority or of patronage on the part of Europe or America” would alienate “the womanhood of Asia and Africa.”11 Again, internal critiques pushed feminists to recognize the legacy of colonialism.
Growing internationalism after World War II expanded opportunities for women’s communication across cultures. In its charter in 1945, the United
Nations endorsed “the equal rights of men and women.” Since then, the organization has been instrumental in facilitating transnational feminist organizing, particularly during the Decade for Women (1975 – 85), which produced three international conferences, with concurrent ngo forums. From these conferences came the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women, as well as international dialogues about global grassroots projects to address women’s needs. Interactions at the U. N. conferences forced Western feminists to begin to decenter their priorities and to recognize multiple strategies for empowering women. As the newsletter for the ngo forum in Copenhagen reported in 1980, “To talk feminism to a woman who has no water, no food and no home is to talk nonsense.”12 Poverty, illiteracy, and homelessness—critical women’s issues throughout the world — had to become central to international feminist movements.
Transnational feminisms now try to acknowledge cultural differences among women and form alliances across those differences. This approach has made some activists more comfortable embracing feminism as a political identity. From the Feminist Peasant Network in Mexico to the Feminist Networks in eastern Europe, the term itself has been incorporated to describe ngos. When the Women’s League of the African National Congress (anc) returned from exile in 1990, it proclaimed that “feminism has been misinterpreted in most third world countries. . . . There is nothing wrong with feminism. It is as progressive or reactionary as nationalism.” With the establishment of a democratic government, the group dropped its call for “liberation before feminism” and began to negotiate for equal representation of women in the ANcd3
By the time of the U. N.’s Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, both ngos and states had created extensive feminist infrastructures concerned with women’s economic inequality and physical vulnerability and committed to gaining greater political representation and creative opportunities for women. A broad range of projects now address these issues by organizing domestic workers in Latin America; monitoring the treatment of migrant domestics internationally; exposing domestic violence in India through street theater as well as legislation; expanding microenterprise in South Asia; and empowering women economically. Grassroots movements seek to eradicate female genital cutting in Africa and expand female literacy in Asia. Women seek marriage and divorce reform in Egypt and Turkey. Women’s arts, theater, publishing, and performance spaces promote creativity throughout the world. In countries ranging from Canada to
Zimbabwe, male feminists have organized, particularly in the fight against sexual violence or to reclaim parental, caring work.