Feminism : the radical notion that women are people

Photo credit: Oxfam/Policy & Practice Blog

As the latest issue of Gender & Development examines the role of solidarity, editor Caroline Sweetman emphasises the importance of collective action to feminism. 

Feminism is 'the radical notion that women are people...' in the words of activist and academic Cheris Kramarae. Whether we choose to use this word or not, we're all feminists if we believe in equality between the sexes and think it's a principle worth fighting for. 

To change millennia of cultural conditioning and the laws and practices which go with it requires political action - from the struggles of women to get the vote alongside men, to the struggles of women marching against violence and discrimination in the home and the workplace. 

As writers in the new issue of the journalGender & Development show, feminism isn't about individual women managing to overcome the system on their own without challenging the system itself. Instead it's about fighting for the equal rights of every last woman and girl - and to do that requires the power of collective commitment and action: 'power-with' to take on and vanquish 'power-over'. 

Feminism is the difference between one woman trying to stop her husband beating her and a whole villageful of women banding together to shame abusive an husband by beating metal cooking pans outside his door, shaming him in the eyes of the community. 

This type of collective action has a long, long history.  Raising the alarm outside a house to show disapproval of wife-beating inside was called 'rough music' in English villages in the early nineteenth century. Similar strategies have evolved down the centuries all over the world and remain in use by feminist activists in communities today. 

An example comes from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where one woman started a campaign against men spending household income on alcohol, encouraging her friends in her village to picket the liquor shop, go on strike at home, and support each other against reprisals. Together, the campaign spread and women ultimately succeeded not only in stopping their menfolk from buying drink, but actually persuaded the government to ban the sale of liquor in the state - despite state reluctance to lose the income from this. As a result, savings went up, violence levels dropped, and the lives of poor women began to improve.

Where and how does feminism meet international development? 

Collective action has a long history in development organisations informed by a left-wing perspective on inequality as the cause of poverty and suffering.  If we believe that inequality is the reason people don't have enough to eat in our world, we have to believe that ending gender inequality is as critical as ending inequality arising from race or class-based discrimination. If we believe in a vision of human development which is about everyone having enough, and ensuring we can claim this as a right, we work on what's now called 'gender justice' - asserting women's rights in development.

How have these values of feminist solidarity and collective action been taken up and used in development practice, with its interest in gender justice and equality, and women's rights? The new issue of the journal explores how feminist ideas and practices have been adopted, adapted and morphed, and considers whether we recognise them in their new incarnation as parts of development methods and process. 

Feminists inside and outside development have worked together throughout the past thirty years to lobby for development resources to be channelled to women and - most importantly - to campaign for women to shape the course of development itself through political participation and leadership at all levels of society. In the 1980s and 1990s, we used our different identities and locations to press for recognition of gender issues as development issues and the importance of women's empowerment to achieving a better world for all.

So solidarity and collective action are essential ingredients in a recipe for women's rights. They spell the difference between individual women making good, and women as a sex being able to depend on gender equality as their right - not only in principle, but in practice.  The ideals of togetherness, sisterhood and a belief that together,  'we will overcome' fire women all over the world to join groups to take action to improve their lives, fighting sexism wherever they find it.

No technical fixes, no magic bullets

Yet the tendency in development to see the virtues of 'technical fixes' and 'magic bullets' has often led to a dilution of political purpose; to a focus on the checklists and bullet points of policy statements on the one hand, and on particular kinds of programming - most notably, the provision of loans to individual women or groups who police each individual member to ensure she feels the pressure to pay back on time. Neither technical fixes nor magic bullets leave space for the most important ingredient in a recipe for gender equality - concerted political action among women.  In this issue, Mala Htun and S Laurel Weldon present their research showing the most important element in reducing violence against women in 70 countries from 1975 to 2005 was the existence of vibrant feminist activism to hold states to account on their duty to address the issue.  Amy Dunckel-Graglia shows how state provision of 'pink transport' (women-friendly public transport) in Mexico City had a wider impact, facilitating women's own activism to make their city safe. Naila Kabeer, Kirsty Milward and Ratna Sudarshan focus on women workers' activism to secure their right to decent work. Sally Baden explores women's collective action in livelihoods work in Ethiopia, Mali and Tanzania.

Good development work leaves space for the transformation which occurs when women get the chance to build solidarity with each other. This means working with existing women's organisations to further shared goals; building opportunities into community development work for women to foster relationships with each other and share views on what needs to change in their lives; understanding the link between 'economic empowerment' and the social and political empowerment which needs to accompany increased prosperity if women are to live their lives as equal citizens alongside men.

The key message of this issue of Gender & Development is that international development needs to  work in genuine, equal partnership with the women's movements worldwide. They're the experts on gender equality!  

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Caroline Sweetman, Editor, Gender & Development Journal

Caroline Sweetman is Editor of Oxfam's international journal Gender & Development. The journal is published by Routledge and aims to support development workers to integrate gender justice and women's rights into their work.

This blog first appeared on Oxfam's Policy and Practice Blog. To read the blog as it originally appeared, click here.

From Global To Local And Back Again: Building Links For Stronger Campaigns

Photo Credit: Spark

Photo Credit: Spark

A smart commenter on our first blog post in March posed a very interesting question. How should UK-based organizations campaigning on women's rights with an international focus link with women's rights organizations and movements within the UK? 

I’ve been active in the UK women’s movement, and built links with women’s rights activists internationally, and so I want to try to give some personal reflections on what it means to me to build links between movements, and raise some points that I think as feminists we need to discuss.  Please leave comments, it would be great to share experiences to make all our activism stronger and more effective.

First up, as readers of this blog undoubtedly know, gender inequality is not something that happens ‘over there’, to ‘other’ women, although sometimes in international development campaigning we stray too close to the path of portraying exactly that.   Nowhere in the world have women reached equality with men: globally, violence against women will reach one in three of us in our lifetimes; in the UK two women a week are killed by our partners; we earn 14.9% less than men for the same work, and a whopping 55% less if we work in the finance sector; we get fired because we’re pregnant; we’re the first to feel the brunt of the government spending cuts and they cut us deeper.  I could go on, but you get the picture, and it’s not a good one.

There are many feminist activists in the UK, campaigning for change in women’s lives.  A Guardian article last month hailed an “explosion in new grassroots groups” of feminists.  But it was the responses to this article – criticising the lack of representation of black women, of disabled women, of working class women, of older women and of LGBT women in the original article – that gave a more insightful view of the breadth and depth of activism taking place across the country, and the struggles that the women’s movement still needs to face to become inclusive.  As a post by Black Feminists said, “feminism is not All White”.   The Brighton Feminist Collective stated that “if every feminist is not treated as equal, then every single one of us has failed, and we need to shut up shop right now”.  As activists we have to address these issues, have some uncomfortable conversations and challenge ourselves on our own part in perpetuating an image of feminism led by white, middle-class women.

These are important issues to grapple with when thinking about engaging with the women’s movement in the UK.  Which women are we talking to?  How do we engage UK feminists in campaigning for women’s rights in developing countries, whilst ensuring that women’s rights activists from those countries remain in the driving seats of their campaigns?  How can we ensure that the women we engage in our campaigns reflect as broad a spectrum of activists as possible? What do we have to offer women activists in the South anyway, if we can’t get our own house in order? 

From talking to many members of the women’s movement in the UK, through Twitter, over pints, and at demos, I know there’s a huge desire to take action in solidarity with women around the world. But feminists are smart, they want to campaign in the most appropriate way – a way that will support, and not drown out or misappropriate, the voices of women in the global south. 

Feminists have passion, commitment and a multitude of skills to share, often built through collective organisation and action.  So wouldn’t want them on side?  Yet sometimes, campaigns simply put feminists off.  The way that Lush, for instance, have recently shown a woman being violently assaulted to make a point about animal testing, raises huge problems for many feminists I know.  PETA are also repeat offenders for using naked women in their messaging.  Living in a society where women’s bodies are objectified to market the latest goods, we know that the links to inequality, gender stereotyping and discrimination are significant, and many wish that this objectification was not perpetuated by those seeking to advance ‘good causes’.  

A good example of building links between local and global is the No women, no peace campaign, which links women’s rights advocates in Afghanistan, and those who want to support their demands in the UK.  In this case, the campaign coalition clearly stated that the demands were those of women’s rights activists in Kabul towards the international community, and asked UK feminists to reinforce those demands to MPs and government ministers, through petitions, letters, green scarves and vigils.

Whilst there are examples of good practice, genuine linking between international development campaigns and UK based feminists is still a mixed picture.  Building bridges between movements is, I feel, the only way forward to true solidarity and strengthening of our global women’s rights campaigning.  It’s not a straight path to a unified global feminist vision: the path has twists, turns and hazards along the way.  But tread it carefully, and with respect, and we’ll have ourselves a true force to be reckoned with.  


Lee Webster, Womankind

Why we're not ready to calm down, dear.

WSPU founders Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Women's rights campaigning has changed a lot since Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King’s horse in 1913. Hunger strikes, window smashing and setting fire to letterboxes are not the typical fare of a 21st century campaign strategy. Activists no longer adorn themselves in colourful sashes (well mostly). And the rallying cries for change are now more likely to reverberate through the twittersphere than be seen on a hand-embroidered banner.

But how much have we really learnt about campaigning for women’s rights in the hundred years since? In spite of the courage, anger and ingenuity shown by women around the world, and in spite of the great advances that have resulted from the actions of women like Emily Davison, we know that gross inequalities remain.

One relatively recent change in the campaigning landscape is that many mainstream development and human rights NGOs are now picking up the baton, whether this is in the form of dedicated campaigns on women’s rights (or gender equality), or looking at how to address gender issues within their existing campaigns.

So what does this mean?

Well first of all, to state the obvious, it means that there is a growing number of individuals and organisations now campaigning on women’s rights. It also means, at risk of stating the obvious again, that women’s rights have increasingly become a mainstream issue. After all, women’s rights are also human rights and making them a reality is critical to addressing poverty and inequality.

These are both very welcome trends. However, we want to ensure that the growing number and diversity of women’s rights campaigns and campaigners result in real change. In doing so, we want to reduce the risk of tokenistic gestures or oversimplified messages that actually end up reinforcing gender stereotypes or focusing on meaningless asks.

So this is why we have set up this blog.

We are a group of gender equality and women’s rights campaigners. Some of us work for women’s rights organisations, some of us work in human rights organisations, and some of us work for mainstream development organisations.

We want to share learning and stimulate debate about how to campaign effectively for women’s rights and gender equality. We want to investigate what works and what doesn’t, as well as draw out the key factors that contribute to a successful women’s rights or gender equality campaign.  Perhaps most importantly, we want to explore whether  there is something qualitatively different about campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights.  We know we want our methods to reflect our values and aims, but what does this mean in practice?

We will therefore use this blog to profile inspirational campaigns and inspirational campaigners. We will also suggest practical ways in which we can all improve our campaigning on women’s rights and gender equality. And we will challenge ourselves - and you - to practice what we preach so our campaigns are part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Here are just some of the questions we want to try and grapple with:

  • Do we, should we, can we use instrumental arguments for women’s empowerment?

  • How on earth do we take on the ‘sticky issue’ of cultural attitudes within our advocacy and campaigning?

  • How can we effectively engage men as women’s rights activists?

  • How do we stem the creeping tide of 'cupcake feminism'?

Who is this blog for?

This blog is for anyone engaged in campaigning. If you are women’s rights activist, human rights campaigner or simply fighting to end global poverty, then this is a blog for you.

And what do we want you to do?

Well apart from reading the blog of course, we want you to share it with others, discuss and test out our ideas, and even - dare we say - challenge our thinking. Your first task, however, is to share with us your own questions about gender equality and women’s rights campaigning.

So let the debate begin. In a calm and orderly fashion of course.

Rachael Stokes, VSO