Outskirts online journal

Chilla Bulbeck

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Volume 10, November 2002

"And the Women's Movements Go Marching On"
Introduction to Special Issue on Women's Movement Politics

This special issue contains four articles that deal with women's movement activism in Australia, Africa and Indonesia. This international perspective sheds light on the claim by many feminist academics in the west claim that feminism 'has become little more than a blip in the march of economic neo-liberalism', to use Lyn Segal's (1991:1) phrase. Similar claims have been made by Barbara Epstein (2001:2) for the United States and Belinda Probert (2002:7) for Australia.

Sarah Maddison's contribution to this issue is a timely rejoinder to these doom-sayers. She argues that young women, many of whom do not call themselves feminists, are in fact holding the space open for the resurgence of a strong women's movement some time in the future. Maddison continues the discussion of feminism and generation raised in Outskirts number 8, by exploring potential fruitful connections between generations of feminists. She offers the example of a group of young mothers trained in politically aware activism by older feminists:

The Young Women Who Are Parents Network are part of a unique program in which the staff who work with the network recognise that if these extremely disadvantaged young women tried to take on the world as activists without any training or support they would be setting them up to fail. Therefore the work of the Network takes place within the context of a training program and ongoing, structured support.

By contrast, the Cross-Campus Women's Network, who one would assume, have feminist scholars at their fingertips, struggle to make political and moral sense of their issues, which range from improving safety on campus to supporting women outworkers in developing countries. Working without any interaction with an older generation of feminists who have also grappled with these issues, these young feminists may well be burned out by their attempts to grapple with 'the "postsocialist" struggle to avoid an either/or choice between a social politics of class or equality and a cultural politics of identity or difference'. Maddison concludes that 'There is a clear challenge here for older, more experienced activists to find ways of supporting the activism being practised by contemporary young women'.

Elaine Dowd provides a third case study of gender politics in Australia with her discussion of the impact of Western Australian legislation on the rights of sex workers in Perth. Indeed, Dowd argues that the Prostitution Act 2000 (WA) infringes the rights of all women in the community. For example,

any woman who is suspected of an intention to engage in an act of prostitution can, quite legally, be held down by one or more male police officers while her vagina and anus are searched by a male doctor. This รค could legitimately happen to any woman who happened to be standing on a street corner waiting for a friend or a taxi.

The move-on provisions of the legislation debar sex workers from geographical access to outreach projects, a needle and syringe exchange centre, Women's Health Care House, and the WA Sex Workers Agency. Dowd provides a trenchant analysis of feminist scholars' obligations to accord sex workers the same support and human rights as they would accord women suffering heterosexual relationship violence or sexual harassment at work. Dowd claims that feminist scholars must work closely with sex workers to establish how their human rights can best be protected:

The criteria which is applied by some feminists in the struggle to improve the lives of prostitute women compared with non-prostitute women is often not consistent. Those women who 'choose' to marry rarely have to undergo the same level of scrutiny that women who work as prostitutes must endure despite the often financially motivated decision in either case. My point is that sex work and marriage are intimately related and that discussion of prostitution as sexual abuse must always recognise the similarities with the institution of marriage.

Maddison describes how the Cross-Campus Women's Network in New South Wales is silenced in their attempt to grapple with difference. Edith Miguda suggests that, when western feminists discuss difference, it is not themselves that they silence, but the 'othered' women. Miguda addresses the marginalisation from western feminist writings of the millions of African women who are involved in African women's/feminist movements. African women were first distorted in European anthropological and missionary writings, then in Africanist writings reacting to and attempting to correct these colonialist distortions, and finally in feminist writing, which 'largely employs lenses coloured by its western orientation, leading to misrepresentation of African women and their experiences'. Ironically, just as rush 'to "give voice" to women of the Third world', western feminists silence these women in this very action. Miguda offers some new questions and approaches for western feminism if African women are put at the centre of analysis.

While western commentators claim that feminism is in decline, the women's movements in many Asian countries appear to be expanding in scope and effect. On International Women's Day this year, equal opportunity legislation came into force in Taiwan (pers. comm. Chen-Yen Ku). There has been a ferment of legislative change in the Republic of Korea, including outlawing violence against women and promoting equal opportunities (Chai 1997:176; Kuninobu 2000:2091). In Hong Kong in 1996, a statutory Equal Opportunities Commission was established; a Women's Commission was established in January 2001 (Ng and Ng 2002:7). Women leaders and women's groups have been prominent in protesting the Indonesian government's response to the economic crisis (Sen 1999:14-15; Suryochondro 2000:232,236).

Rachel Rinaldo explores Indonesian women's movements, puzzling over the question concerning how this apparently independent and 'feminist' movement could rise so quickly out of the highly government regulated women's movement under Suharto's New Order. Rinaldo suggests that the middle class woman was invoked and created as a political actor under the previous regime, and she was thus given a legitimate public role and space:

The New Order promulgated particular notions of gender and family, reliant on a construction of male and female as binary opposites, belonging to separate spheres. Nevertheless, by establishing the social category of middle-class women, the state's mobilization of women may have laid the groundwork for renewed women's movements in the 1990s and beyond.

Furthermore, whatever the intentions of the state, women were not merely passive absorbers of messages to be loyal wives, but adapted and resisted these prescriptions in various ways. However, as Rinaldo goes on to explore, contemporary Indonesian women's movements are now dealing with the legacy of a focus on Java and on middle-class women, seeking ways to incorporate women and their specific needs elsewhere in Indonesia. Issues of difference are preoccupying the activist women of Indonesia, just as issues of difference provoke African feminists and young Australian feminists.

Together these articles suggest that the death of feminism has been exaggerated. They also describe synergies between theory and practice. Feminist scholarship continues to grapple with the problems of feminist politics, just as women's activism continues to search for ways to improve the position of women around the world. This is not to deny that the space for feminism is increasingly threatened by the reversal of gains made by women's liberation and its successors in the west, and by growing global income inequality and strains towards economic rationalism and individualism in almost every nation in the world. But these articles support the claim that feminist politics and theory is still being practised across the globe in efforts to understand and change the world for women.


Chai, Alice Yun 1997. 'Integrative feminist politics in the republic of Korea' in Lois A. West (ed.) Feminist Nationalism New York: Routledge

Epstein, Barbara 2001. 'What happened to the women's movement?' Monthly Review May:1-13

Kuninobu, Junko 'Women's studies: East Asia' 2000. in Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women's Issues and Knowledge, Volume 4, Chris Kramerae and Dale Spender (eds.) New York: Routledge

Ng, Catherine W. and Ng, Evelyn G.H. 2002. 'The concept of state feminism and the case for Hong Kong' Asian Journal of Women's Studies 8(1):7-37

Probert, Belinda 2002. '"Grateful slaves" or "self-made women": a matter of choice or policy?' Australian Feminist Studies 17(37): 7-17

Segal, Lynne 1999. Why Feminism? Gender, Psychology, Politics New York: Columbia University Press

Sen, Krishna 1998. 'Indonesian women at work: reframing the subject' in Krishna Sen and Maila Stivens (eds.) Gender and Power in Affluent Asia London and New York: Routledge

Suryochondro, Sukanti 2000. 'The development of women's movements in Indonesia' in Mayling Oey-Gardiner and Carla Bianpoen (eds.) Indonesian Women: The Journey Continues Canberra: Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University

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