Globalizataion and Feminism

Against the Current, No. 135, July/August 2008

Angela E. Hubler

Transformations: Feminist Pathways to Global Change,
an Analytical Anthology
Edited by Torry Dickinson and Robert Schaeffer
Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008, 286 pages,
$33.11 paper.

IN THE CONCLUDING chapter of this innovative and insightful anthology, Torry Dickinson and Robert Schaeffer argue that “A key development for both theory and politics has been that the intersection of different global hierarchies has led to the rise of global, intersecting social movements. Many of the movements that have emerged are feminist-inspired and women-centered because women have been targeted by male-dominated institutions as new sources of accumulation, profit, and greed.” (273)

In leading up to this conclusion, Dickinson and Schaeffer synthesize a vast quantity of scholarship from a host of disciplines — sociology, women’s studies, history, political economy, etc. — to map the historical, political and economic conditions in the post-World War II era that have led to this targeting of women, and the consequent emergence of movements aiming to create a more just world. The anthology includes readings and discussion on a wide range of such social change movements in chapters titled “Redefining Work, Gender and Development;” “Feminist Pathways to Democracy and Equality;” “Humanizing Social Relations;” “Restructuring Gender to Promote Alternative Development;” “Feminist Reconstitutions of Work and Market;” “Women and the Environment;” and “Feminist Movements for Nonviolence and Peace.”

Selections include contributions from well-established and well-known authors like Paulo Freire and Chandra Mohanty as well as very valuable essays by less widely known authors. One that I had not previously encountered but found very interesting focused on combating sex-trafficking of women from Thailand: “From Research to Action” by Sirporn Skjrobanek, Nataya Boonpakdee, and Chutima Jatateero. These researchers find that it is critical to distinguish trafficking and prostitution in order to work effectively and to avoid alienating women who felt they had succeeded as sex-workers. This practical point is pertinent to the current debate within feminism about how to understand these issues.

Gender Linked to Economics

This anthology is particularly useful as it links gendered experience to the economic framework outside of which it cannot be adequately analyzed. The authors point out that globalization is an economic strategy that was conceived as a solution to economic problems resulting from rapid development after WW II. Many of the cost-cutting factors associated with globalization have significant impact upon gender — “deunionization, outsourcing, the feminization of the workforce, and immigration,” as well as “the global decline in wages.”

For example, as a consequence of declining wages and the demasculinization of the work force, “new forms of patriarchal domination” have emerged:

“(M)en have turned in increasing numbers to fundamentalist and orthodox religious movements (orthodox Judaism and fundamentalist Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions); to conservative, ‘family values’ political parties, which are often linked to fundamentalist religions; and to violent, militant social movements (gangs, militias, and insurgent groups) as a way to defend male ‘breadwinner’ identities, reassert patriarchal authority in household and society, discipline women, and prevent feminist values and women-centered movements from making headway around the world.” (14-15)

This analysis, then, highlights the impact that post-Fordist economic development has had upon men’s and women’s labor and household relations, and how the accelerated exploitation of women positions them as key players in challenging globalization.

Dickinson and Schaeffer find other approaches to the material they discuss to be problematic. First, clearly, are those proponents of globalization who herald the benefits of free trade capitalism, and a new, more level playing field, a la Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat. But Dickinson and Schaeffer identify the costs of Walmart-mantra “low, low prices”:

“(T)he consolidation of corporate, monopoly power, the immiseration of wage workers and small-scale producers, the recent feminization of especially low-paying work and the intensification of work for women, and household members, and the destruction of government programs designed to promote public health, education, and security. In globalization’s extreme form, structural adjustment and privatization have destroyed states, and where this has occurred, economic marginalization, epidemic disease, and endemic violence have followed in its wake.” (14)

Materialist Alternative to Postmodernism

This perspective, of course, will not be new to readers of Against the Current. However, Dickinson and Schaffer’s account is both thorough and concise, and a necessary corrective to the postmodernist feminism that is so pervasive within academia and with which the authors engage in this text. Indeed, Schaeffer and Dickinson associate postmodernism with identity politics and point out that a politics predicated on difference “has made it difficult for people to make common cause or develop an effective politics in the South or West.” (31)

While poststructuralist feminist theorists like Judith Butler reject the concept of identity and of identity politics, the focus within poststructuralist theory on the social construction of subjectivity results in an ironically similar focus in the two theoretically opposed camps. Several selections in this anthology discuss the consequences. In a brief excerpt from Gender, Development and Globalization, Lourdes Benería points out that “postmodern work emphasized issues of identity, difference, citizenship, and agency,” a theoretical tendency that has

“(R)un parallel, on the material side of everyday life, to the resurgence of neoliberalism across countries and the globalization of markets and of social and cultural life…. Yet a good proportion of postmodern analyses has [sic] tended to neglect the dynamics of political economy, thus deemphasizing important areas of social concern having to do with the material and, more concretely, the economic….This generated a growing imbalance between the urgent need to understand economic reality — since distribution is about the sharing of things material — and the more predominant focus on ‘words,’ including issues of difference, subjectivity, and representation.” (90)

The subject of postmodernist discourse tends often to be the subject of discourse itself, as the rejection of Marxism fundamental to poststructuralist theory reasserts itself as an inability to confront the material dimensions of human existence. As one of the graduate students in my feminist theory class recently wrote in her journal, she has a hard time connecting the poststructuralist feminist theory she loves to the feminist activism she is committed to.

In this text, however, Schaeffer and Dickinson are careful to trace the pathways from research, theory, and pedagogy to social and political action, and include a number of selections on participatory education that engage these connections.

One field where poststructuralist theory and the emphasis on difference and subjectivity is particularly strong is that of sexuality studies. Yet a selection from Stevi Jackson’s “Sexuality, Heterosexuality and Gender Hierarchy” shows that even within this field, understanding the significance of the material circumstances within which sexuality is constructed is critical:

“Seeking to undo binary divisions by rendering their boundaries more permeable and adding more categories to them ignores the hierarchical social relations on which the original binaries were founded. We cannot hope to abolish hierarchies by creating finer gradations or more movement within them. All this can achieve is a concealment and mystification of material inequalities through which heterosexuality and gender are sustained at the macrolevel of structures and institutions as well as the microlevel of our everyday social practices.” (116)

Thus, while challenging the assumed natural status of binary gender categories — as do Judith Butler and Anne Fausto-Sterling — is critical, such destabilization is not in itself sufficient. Rather, the social construction of gender must be understood in relationship to “the historical processes of this particular society and its hierarchical structures and the global transformations that are taking place.” (118)

Powerful Diversity in Global Context

“Difference” is a postmodern buzzword, but for Dickinson and Schaeffer also a profoundly important social fact. Their anthology is outstanding in its representation of diversity — ranging from Yvonne Corcoran Nantes’ “Female Consciousness or Feminist Consciousness? Women’s Consciousness Raising in Community-Based Struggles in Brazil” to Marilou Awiakta’s “How the Corn Mother Became a Teacher of Wisdom: A Story in Counterpoint —Two Mind-Sets, Two Languages” to Andrea Smith’s “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing.”

But unlike many analysts of difference, Dickinson and Schaeffer insist that it is critical to understand difference within “the context of a historical, global system.” (273) Thus they argue in favor of “join[ing] feminist intersectional analysis with world-systems analysis.” (274)

For them, world-systems theory provides an account of the larger systemic framework within which the particulars of a diverse world appear. “By examining the construction of ‘difference’ in relation to the whole, it is possible to advance strategies that deconstruct difference and the intersecting hierarchies that maintain it and promote real ‘equality,’ democracy, environmental regeneration, humanizing work relations, and peace” (275).

From this perspective, Dickinson and Schaeffer see that while the fragmented social identities that are, in part, a consequence of global capitalism do function to divide women and other agents of political change, this fragmentation also presents the opportunity for coalition building: “Although women-centered movements have diversified in organizational terms, they still intersect and cooperate with other movements. They do so in part because each movement typically consists of people with hybrid, multiple, and overlapping identities, which makes it easy for them to cooperate with or participate in other movements.” (281)

On the basis of their analysis and the testimony of the various authors represented in this outstanding anthology, it becomes clear that these movements are not “other” at all, but rather represent intersecting aspects of human being and experience unnecessarily impoverished and endangered in the era of capitalist globalization.

ATC 135, July-August 2008