by Rachel O’Donnell
Transnational feminist movements have made a profound contribution to a realization of global feminist politics and international development more generally. Since these movements are not often recognized or covered in mainstream media, it can be difficult to gather a complete understanding of the ways in which gender equality is gaining ground globally, through the dedicated work of collective organizing among transnational feminists.
I would like to connect what is happening in transnational movements to specific examples of feminist organizing in Latin America and how it moves transnationally—across borders—to other groups of feminist organizers who in turn use this transnational power for more fundamental global and local change. The particular issue of the economy has come up repeatedly, as transnational feminism has worked to educate around capitalism and dismantle its institutions. It is our job as activists to understand and promote the wealth of histories and actions of transnational feminist movements, and reflect critically on their global contributions to knowledge, policy and social change, especially when we think about international development and the Global South. It also serves us to critique these movements and ask searching questions about where we would go next and what kind of world we want. By connecting how feminist movements have taken on ‘transnational’ economic concepts recently, including how these movements have broadened the concept of what we mean by the Third World or Global North, we can track the power of global movements more clearly, even from the history of feminist organizing in Latin America to recent calls for gender equity in Hawai’i.
When did discussion of global gender politics become commonplace? By the end of the 20th century, a global women’s movement had emerged. Some argue that the ‘transnational’ pieces of this movement began with the idea of gender and women’s rights taking hold in the mainstream, beginning with a mid-20th century women’s movement in the Global North. The UN world conferences on women (1975–1995) and the global conferences of the 1990s allowed feminists from the South and North to meet and debate in person, as well as articulate an expanding global vision of not only women’s rights but of gender equality. This call for ‘diversity,’ or what is now more clearly articulated as the continued inclusion of gender minorities and women from the Global South, emerged as many asked for Global North feminists in particular to stop denigrating ‘Third World women’ within and apart from these movements and institutions. Feminists have even deliberately pointed to resulting assumptions about such “third world women:” “ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc.” (Mohanty 56). When it comes to international development work, development is often synonymous with economic development and capitalist progress—in the substitution of “women’s activity” for “labor,” for example—relationships between women and the global order seem to exist outside of social formations. This is often purposeful, as global institutions such as the World Bank offer analyses predicated on keeping the global system as it is. Such analyses, instead of attempting to analyze social relations to understand the structures through which the lives of women are constituted, make many assumptions about individuals. What transnational feminist organizing has done is articulate feminist priorities while making certain to not “include” women as an afterthought, but as central to arguments for global restructuring. Global conferences in part enabled transnational feminist movements from the Global South to emerge as a force, both within and outside global governance institutions, in ways that continue to inform the last half century of feminist organizing.
Transnational feminist movements from the South responded to these assumptions about the nature of their lives from the North. As a result, they have become groups of committed individuals who work in feminist organizing, but also developed into organizations, networks, coalitions, campaigns, and advocacy groups that politicize women’s rights and gender equality issues beyond the nation-state. These groups emerged more clearly in the 1990s, when deepening globalization and new communications technologies allowed feminist organizers to connect and interrogate their local and global situations. When we explore the historical, political, economic, and social contexts in which transnational feminist movements have emerged and evolved, we see how several definitions of transnational feminist movements are considered and debated.
Transnational feminist networks have been defined as “mobilizations that advocate for women’s participation and rights while also engaging critically with policy and legal issues and with states, international organizations, and institutions of global governance” (Moghadam, 2005). Transnational feminist networks often bring together groups of women from multiple nations around a specific set of grievances and goals, often women’s human rights, health or economic justice. Nonhierarchical structures in these organizations can span local and global spaces, and such networks often engage extensively in cyber activism. Moghadam has categorized four types of contemporary transnational feminist networks: (1) those that target the neoliberal economic policy agenda; (2) those that focus on the danger of fundamentalisms and insist on women’s human rights, especially in the Muslim world; (3) women’s peace groups that target conflict, war, and empire; and (4) networks engaged in feminist humanitarianism and international solidarity (2013). Others have added body politics, citizenship and state-building, political ecology, and digital-age transformation.
One example of this type of organizing happens among feminist networks across Latin America that merge the local and global. Feminists across Latin America have contributed new ways of defining democracy, building their distinct identities, theories, and paradigms from different streams, campaigning against women’s exclusion from and subordination in the public and private spheres; urban women have confronted women’s traditional roles and the public-private divide; and women in political parties and trade unions have questioned “the democratic dynamics inside these traditional spaces of male legitimacy” (Moghadam 2013, 20). Latin American feminists have consistently politicized the private sphere, which included women bringing their “private” grief for their disappeared children into the public sphere and challenging patriarchal and authoritarian regimes; feminists making visible what until then had remained nameless: domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, and the feminization of poverty. Chilean feminists, in their fight against the Pinochet dictatorship of the 20th century, often extended the concept of democracy—politically and theoretically—with their slogan “democracy in the country and in the home.” In the 1990s, and continuing into the twenty-first century, Latin American feminists challenged the myth of the unitary nation on which the imagery of the state had been built. The Latin American and Caribbean feminist encuentros (encounters), first held in Bogotá, Colombia in 1981, have served as critical transnational sites in which local activists have adopted practices distinctive of the region’s feminisms.
“Un vialador en tu camino” (“A rapist in your path”)
These practices continue. On November 25 of last year (2019), the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, hundreds of women gathered around the Chilean capital of Santiago to denounce gendered violence. The women danced while declaring “¡Y la culpa no era mía, ni dónde estaba ni cómo vestía!” (“And it was not my fault, or where I was, or how I was dressed!”) The most important part of their chants, however, is that of the shifting of blame away from women who experience sexual violence and onto the state; activists pointed to functionaries such as the police, judges, and the president declaring, “¡El violador eres tú!” (“The rapist is you!”), “¡El estado opresor es un macho violador! “(“The oppressive state is a male rapist!”). The protest, named “Un Violador en tu camino,” went viral, and activists in Puerto Rico and Mexico have since used the same phrasing to bring attention to the ongoing local struggles against femicides and continued colonial exploitation, and even to advocate for education that prioritizes a gendered perspective.
Rather than articulating a private problem of sexist behavior, this form of activism in Chile demonstrates how much what is considered ‘gendered’ is a public problem of larger global and state apparatuses that participate in and facilitate violence against women, and in turn, must be confronted in the open. Activists have made use of a song and its message of larger social formations—not individuals—into wider circulation. “Un violador en tu camino” in Chile and other sites around the globe has been a feminist transnational performance that enhances the global movement and also amplifies local struggles.
Escalating and mobilizing global strikes is a tactic that emerged in Latin America and consistently spread beyond. With the Paro International de Mujeres, or International Women’s Strike (IWS), organizers—from Buenos Aires to Bogotá to New York City—have aimed to bring attention to the many forms of unacknowledged and under-compensated labor mostly performed by women, such as childcare, eldercare, and intimate labor. Organizing through popular assemblies, strike activists have declared their movement to embrace a “feminism of the 99%” every year since 2015. On the day of the strike this past March, 2020, thousands of women around Argentina and the world withheld their labor at work, school, and in the home. Marches and rallies planned in Buenos Aires even coincided with the fight for reproductive rights, as it has appeared recently that the legalization of abortion was imminent in Argentina. After a long struggle by activists, the elements of a strong movement aligned in favor of reforming the 1921 criminal code that allows a legal abortion only under very narrow circumstances. Scenes of the massive demonstrations outside Congress, made green bandanas synonymous with abortion reform and fueled a “Green Tide” not only in Argentina but across Latin America, leaving many to articulate a common loss for reproductive rights in Congress, but a win in the streets. The increasing inequalities exposed during the coronavirus pandemic have compounded social and political tensions, which were already on edge since the beginning of the protest movement. Forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods, some people have continued to protest in different forms regardless of the quarantine. Demonstrations in historically marginalized communities have denounced the lack of aid from the government, again connecting what seems like a singular reform to the need for larger democratic change. Communities in Chile are also organizing ollas comunes (soup kitchens) to feed themselves, as they did in the harshest years of economic crisis during the 20th century dictatorship. The community networks behind them — many of which emerged or were strengthened during the estallido (pandemic) — are also responding to the newest contingency by organizing trips to grocery stores and pharmacies for the elderly and patrols to accompany and support victims of domestic violence (NACLA May 2020).
Transnational feminist organizers have also taken up the struggle against debt as a banner of struggle as part of the dynamics of the feminist strike. Around the world, there have been calls such as: “We want ourselves alive and debt free!” (Argentina); “It is us against debt!” (Puerto Rico); “They owe us a Life!” (Chile); and “We don’t owe, we won’t pay!” (Spain). The feminist movement is politicizing, at the mass scale, issues of global finance, and it is a feminist analysis of debt that allows us to rethink economic violence in terms of its relationship with sexist violence. The feminist strike in Latin America, which began by denouncing the debt with the International Monetary Fund and demonstrating its impact on household debts, calling debt a “historical mechanism of capitalism used to loot, exploit, and privatize the commons that we create and re-create, as well as to increase labor exploitation in moments of crisis.” This is, of course, a constant scene in Latin America: in the 1980s, debt disciplined the democratic transitions in the region following decades of dictatorship, and in the 1990s the Washington Consensus of neoliberal reforms pushed new thresholds of debt, while in recent years, we are witnessing a new relaunching of neoliberal financial colonization. Bolivia’s adoption of a new word, ‘depatriarchalization,’ clearly articulates the ways in which colonialism and patriarchy are intertwined to maintain debt and poverty throughout Latin America, and especially for the indigenous populations, but more clearly articulates efforts to undermine these structures in place.
Connecting debt, violence, and labor is a priority of the feminist strikes. In the call for this year’s international strike in Argentina, the discussion of debt is interwoven in different territories with a productive and reproductive strike expressed with the main feminist slogan: “The debt is owed to us, not the IMF or the churches,” demonstrating the movement’s broader horizon, a method of analysis and action that connects global financial regimes to individual experiences of debt and poverty.
Feminist organizers in the state of Hawaii have, in the past few decades, addressed gendered economic inequalities and implored the state to raise the minimum wage to a living wage ($24.80/hour for single mothers), adopt universal basic income and single payer health care, and paid sick days and paid family leave. A recent feminist economic recovery plan by the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women (2020), has recently made use of the feminist political economic work of these Latin American feminist activists, marking it as a part of a larger transnational feminist movement. Articulating the state’s role in perpetuating gendered poverty, they are advocating for broad policies that eliminate cuts to social services, including services for domestic violence and for maternal, sexual, reproductive and mental health, and the coalition is still making recommendations to avoid government employee furlough wherever possible, as the public sector disproportionately employs women and people of color. The commission likewise urged creation of opportunities to allow existing government workers to participate in new roles within the recovery effort, rather than furloughing employees, coupled with free, safe and accessible childcare as soon as possible: “Caregiving, associated with and expected of women, is necessary for economic production to take place and yet it is split off from economic production, thereby structurally subordinating women in society. This is why even within their own racial, indigenous status, and economic groups, women are the most marginalized.” This represents the strength of transnational feminist movements, as the movements and issues move across borders and are articulated in other places that call out the violence of the state in ways that translate it for everyday organizing.
What transnational feminists have done is force us to move from an everyday politics of states and ‘actors’ and look at the movements themselves, directly connecting them to everyday lives. Transnational feminist movements can and should continue to be a crucial site for radical, collective social change. They strive to continue an intimate, collective and structural work from Chile to Hawaii, as they tackle global pandemics and networks, and make them both globally and locally relevant.
The grassroots construction of feminism as a transnational political movement is doing the on-the-ground work for the liberation of all gendered subjects and marginalized populations in ways that much feminist theory or policy in international development has not. Organizers and activists worldwide are, even amid a pandemic, working to connect and end the militarized domination of capitalism, from debt to gendered violence to labor.
One underlying problem with ‘international politics’ as we have come to understand it, is the lack of attention to transnational feminist organizing and its consistent effort for reshaping the globe. For all the fragmentation and division we speak of when we think of movements, there are also collective new alliances, new feminist knowledge and imaginings, and strategic engagements with and outside of global institutions that are already taking place. A feminist analysis (not just one that takes on the idea of women or the idea of gender) entails becoming committed to uncovering the implications of power of every gendered dynamic and social relation and interaction, not just highlighting the roles of women.
Mainstream policy work on international development is often dominated by theories and practices that focus on sustaining power structures as they are. Global feminist movements are often doing the opposite: opposing capital and the nation-state as given and articulating and imagining what a new, non-patriarchal, society could look like. As activists have reimagined possibilities, they have also changed what was once termed international politics to a globalized and transnational politics; what was once termed foreign policy now includes an understanding of the impact of continued processes of debt and sexist financial practices on our everyday lives. As Cynthia Enloe argues, theories of gender alone do not create more reliable global politics; rather, feminist consciousness must inform work on gender and politics as a whole. Feminists have moved the centers of power, to show how individuals and their communities, and especially their transnational movements, are in many ways central to understanding and opposing global power relations. There is much more to come.
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“’Un violador en tu camino’, el himno global feminista que nació en Chile.” YouTube. Dec 5, 2019. youtube.com/watch?v=mjhGYeKHkbQ
Rachel O’Donnell teaches at the University of Rochester. She has written about the revolutionary forces during the Guatemalan civil war as well as the legacy of the Central American civil wars on development and policy in the region. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The production of ‘Third World women’ as the collective ‘Other’ through universal categories that position them as ‘poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, and victimised’ overlooks the complex and interconnected set of factors that produce ‘women’ as a category.— Awino Okech and Dinah Musindarwez