From Global Sisterhood to Global Feminism

Like many other social movements, feminism has long been transnational, in­cluding the transnational woman suffrage movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Keck and Sikkink 1998). Yet, even though the United Na­tions had declared a commitment to equality in the U. N. Charter, the idea for an international conference on women and the following U. N. Decade for Women was historic (Fraser 1987). Mainstream women’s organizations with consultative status to the United Nations, most of which eschewed the feminist label, had created the U. N.’s Commission on the Status of Women. Outside the United Nations, women’s organizing—extending to radical feminism—was gathering strength around the world in the 1960s and 1970s. The first conference held in Mexico City in 1975—and the following conferences in Copenhagen in 1980 and Nairobi in 1985—meant a new venue for transnational feminism where voices for all kinds of women’s groups, from many places, could meet, in both the formal meeting and the parallel NGO forum.

Unfortunately, the high hopes of many women for the emergence of a “global sisterhood” were dashed by “deep divisions” and “resentment” (Basu 1995, 3). For many from the Global South, the universalistic agenda of Northern feminists erased important differences among women, veiled global inequality, and silenced their concerns. For some, drawing from postcolonial critiques, feminism became a new kind of imperialism within a global context of increasing economic and po­litical divides between industrialized democracies and the developing world (Mo – hanty 1991). Although some issues were shared, there was no agreement on “how to define these issues, how and whether activists ought to pursue policy change, and how discussions ought to be organized” (Weldon 2006). The gatherings were also disrupted by broader international conflicts, such as the Cold War and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

By the mid 1980s, as the Cold War was ending, women’s activists at the United Nations responded to these concerns and disputes. The new approach was sym­bolized in the decision to hold the third conference in Africa and to include more women from the developing world than from the industrialized world. Charting a course between the centripetal force of universalism and the centrifugal forces of recognizing important divisions based on race, class, gender, nationality, level of development, and the like, the movement developed norms of inclusivity (Wel­don 2006). “Such norms include a commitment to descriptive representation [in­cluding different categories of individuals in the movement], the facilitation of separate organizations for disadvantaged social groups, and a commitment to building consensus with institutionalized dissent” (55). The movement simultane­ously became more united and “more dispersed, decentered, and divided” (Basu 1995, 18). This re-imagining of global feminism, while still confronted with global structural inequalities, created a new “politics of solidarity” (Saarinen 2004) that enabled policy influence domestically and globally. The result was a fresh kind of global feminism that sought to be more culturally sensitive than earlier ap­proaches by creating unity based on common interests, not common identity (Moghadam 2005).

Although also about economic justice, this new global feminism was expedited by the creation and popularization of the composite concept of “violence against women” (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Moghadam 2005; Weldon 2006). Although different groups of feminists, from the North and South, had raised various gen­der violence issues—such as rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, torture of political prisoners, and dowry deaths—until the mid 1970s these had been separate campaigns (Keck and Sikkink 1998, 171). Framing all these issues as violence against women created solidarity between movements—all forms were constituted equal, none exoticized—but also allowed for “autonomous self orga­nization” (Weldon 2006). In other words, there were interconnected global and local campaigns simultaneously. The new global feminist consensus does not re­fleet perfect congruence in understanding the root of the problem or even in pol­icy recommendations. In contrast to the earlier sisterhood attempts, the consen­sus allows for these disagreements, albeit imperfectly, as part of a tactical alliance to speak to the mostly nonfeminist world.