The American Constitution made no affirmation of the rights of women. As Howard Zinn writes in relation to the Declaration of Independence, “The use of the phrase ‘all men are created equal’ was probably not a deliberate attempt to make a statement about women. It was just that women were beyond consideration as worthy of inclusion. They were politically invisible. Though practical needs gave women a certain authority in the home, on the farm, or in occupations like midwifery, they were simply overlooked in any consideration of political rights, any notions of civic equality” (2005:73).
Seeking to expand the meaning of democracy, women in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries formed a movement that sought the affirmation and protection of their rights as women. The movement included liberal reformist efforts to extend the concept of individual rights and liberties to women, radical critiques of the structures and ideology of patriarchy, and syntheses of feminism and socialism. The movement was able to attain the constitutional right of women to vote in 1919. And it had a significant impact on the dominant US culture from the 1960s to the 1980s, as many feminist ideas, especially from liberal feminism, became widely disseminated. Fundamental principles of the movement, principles such as equal educational and occupational opportunity and the right of women to full participation in the public sphere, became widely accepted (Buechler 1990; Madoo Lengermann and Niebrugge 2008).
But the feminist movement encountered organized opposition in the 1970s, blocking the passage of a proposed constitutional amendment. Successfully exploiting issues such as abortion rights and gay rights, the anti-feminist counter movement portrayed the women’s movement as opposed to “family values” and as contributing to a moral decline in the nation. By the 1980s, a conservative mood was ascendant, and there occurred a de-radicalization of the movement, in which its potential to attain a social transformation was lost (Buechler 1990:120-25, 186-98).
The inability of the movement to protect itself against the counterattack of the right is related to its limitations. The movement never organized women into a mass organization, in the context of which intellectual work could have been tied to the practical concerns of women, leading to the formulation of a proposed national program of action that would have the recognized support of the majority of women. At the same time, issues of gender have been fragmented from other issues, such as poverty, class inequality, race and ethnicity, environment, and imperialism. Social scientists in the 1980s spoke of the need to unify issues of “race, class, and gender,” but this was not accomplished in theory or practice.
In the presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson tried to unify progressive forces through a “Rainbow Coalition,” a progressive alliance of women, blacks, Latinos, workers, farmers, and ecologists. In relation to women, his 1988 campaign proposed a reform of salary structures in accordance with the principle of comparable worth and funding for child care, and it affirmed the right of women to reproductive choice. Although overwhelmingly supported by black and Latino voters, he received only 12% of the votes of white women voters in the democratic primaries of 1988, equal to the percentage of votes that he received among white men (McKelvey 275-84).
Fundamental principles of the women’s movements of the developed nations were widely disseminated throughout the Third World during the 1970s and 1980s, and they became integrated into the renewed Third World movements that emerged after 1995. In its global dissemination and integration into Third World movements, feminism was transformed. The new Third World feminism selected key ideas from liberal, radical, and socialist feminism in order to formulate an understanding that could attain popular consensus. Taking from liberal feminism its focus on equal rights for women, Third World feminism affirms the right of women to full and equal participation in the construction of a just, democratic, and sustainable world. Taking from radical feminism the recognition that violence against women is a systemic problem, Third World feminism mobilizes public opinion and engages in political education in relation to the problem of violence against women, and it seeks to establish structures of support for women who have been victimized by violence. Taking from socialist feminism the need for integration, Third World feminism sees its role as one of redeeming the general social struggle of the people and of bringing the struggle to a more advanced stage. In this process of integration into the popular movement, Third World feminism treats with delicacy the issues of lesbianism and abortion, seeing these issues as divisive and as undermining the possibility for a practical integration of fundamental feminist concepts into the unfolding anti-neocolonial popular movements. As a result of its creative adaptation to its particular social and economic conditions and its sensitivity to popular sentiments, Third World feminism has become an integral part of a global movement that today challenges global neocolonial structures and that seeks to construct a just, democratic, and sustainable world-system.
In a series of conversations that I had in 1998 with founders of women’s organizations in Honduras, the principal leaders of the Honduran women’s movement described to me this process of the transformation of feminism. They had found compelling the fundamental concepts of feminism that had been formulated in the developed nations. But they understood the necessity of adapting feminism to their particular social and economic conditions. Thus they gave emphasis to some concepts and rejected others, and they developed an alternative form of feminism. Their approach was sometimes criticized by feminists from the North as an immature feminism, but they insisted on defending their feminism as valid and as appropriate for the neocolonial situation of their country (McKelvey 1999).
Thus we may speak of the internationalization and transformation of feminism. As a form of feminism that is integrally connected to popular anti-neocolonial movements, Third World feminism could be interpreted as a more advanced formulation that synthesizes concepts that emerge from social struggles against multiple forms of domination. Perhaps the “womanist” formulations that have emerged in the black community are a particular manifestation of this integral and more comprehensive form of feminism.
Buechler, Steven M. 1990. Women’s Movements in the United States. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Madoo Lengermann, Patricia and Gillian Niebrugge. 2008. “Contemporary Feminist Theories” in George Ritzer, Sociological Theory, Seventh Edition, Pp. 450-97. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
McKelvey, Charles. 1994. The African-American Movement: From Pan-Africanism to the Rainbow Coalition. Bayside, New York: General Hall.
__________. 1999. "Feminist Organizations and Grassroots Democracy in Honduras" in Jill Bystydzienski and Joti Sekhon, eds., Democratization and Women's Grassroots Movements. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Pp. 196-213.
Zinn, Howard. 2005. A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Harper Perennial Modern Classics
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