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Feminism, Internationalism and Capitalism:
The Plural and the Singular

Peter Waterman

Mrinalini Sinha, Donna Guy and Angela Woollacott (eds.), Feminisms and Internationalism, Blackwell, Oxford and Malden (MA). 1999. 264 pp.

Let us start with the claim of the book, as printed on the back cover, and illustrated by a photo of middle-class European and Asian women, some in Asian costume, many wearing cloche hats, under palm trees, at some conference in the late-1920s: 

Feminisms and Internationalism addresses the theme of the history of internationalism in feminist theory and praxis. It engages some of the following topics: the ways in which `internationalism' has been conceived historically within feminism and women's movements; the nature of and the historical shifts within `imperial' feminisms; changes in the meaning of feminist internationalism both preceding and following the end of most formal empires in the twentieth-century; the challenges to, and the reformulations of, internationalism within feminism by women of colour and by women from colonised or formerly colonised countries; the fragmentation of internationalism in response to a growing emphasis on local over global context of struggle as well as on a variety of different feminisms instead of a singular feminism; and the context for the re-emergence of internationalism within feminisms and women's movements as a result of the new modes of globalisation in the late twentieth-century. This is an ambitious agenda. But so is the very title of the book, the first such of which I am aware. We begin with quite extensive abstracts, revealing authors with roots in Korea, Latin America, China, India, Iran and West Africa(?), as well as the more usual North-American and West-European ones. In addition to the introduction and a set of seven cases (the body of the book), we are offered a forum, followed by several review essays. The authors of the seven articles are all new names to me - as are those of the editors - which is again promising. The forum is led off by a veteran historian of Latin American feminisms, Asunción Lavrin. The respondents and reviewers include such well-known names as Leila Rupp, Mary John, Francesca Miller, V. Spike Peterson and Val Moghadam. 

The editorial introduction provides further orientation to the collection. This is where the back cover blurb comes from. I think, however, we immediately run into a problem here, because the editors neither define nor discuss `internationalism'. As a matter of fact, they don't define or discuss `feminisms' much either. But a useful contemporary understanding of such can nowadays be assumed (and in any case is much discussed elsewhere in the book). This is not the case for `internationalism' which, curiously for our pluralist times, appears here in the singular. 

The editors apparently looked for historical (or historians') contributions, and seem to consider that such provide the necessary basis for further academic work on the subject. Yet it seems to me that while we have an increasing body of historical work in this field (see the review articles and bibliography, as well as that in Waterman 1998: Chapter 6), what we lack is precisely theory. In the absence of a conceptualisation, a model, or some organising hypothesis, we are likely to create something in which the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The editors do argue for a certain orientation, but this is a general and now commonplace one, seeking a mean between or beyond an abstract universalism and a particularistic relativism. They also make much of `defamiliarising' and `decentering'. But this implies that there exist theories, theorists, schools, traditions or tendencies which require such. And, unfortunately, the one classical liberal-feminist historical work worthy of this (Bernard 1987) is nowhere even referred to!

 As a result of the above, the articles and reviews sections seem to be held together more by reference to the international than to internationalism. There is, therefore, in this collection much about feminism and (anti-)imperialism, or international relations, and even development. The piece on Yemen makes no reference even to the international and actually belongs to the abundant literature on feminism and nationalism! And even if the collection is admirably sensitive to westocentrism it is not to classocentrism. Although labour, socialism and international feminism are mentioned in the introduction, they seem to be hidden from the following history. We are dealing here almost exclusively with middle-class feminists and middle-class women (sometimes aristocratic ones). I find this both detrimental to the project and somewhat puzzling. 

My feeling is that the history of left and popular feminism internationalisms is likely to provide more lessons for the future than that of the liberal and middle-class ones. The latter are today abundant: the problem is precisely making them popular, radically-democratic, egalitarian, and socially-transformatory (a nice way of redefining `socialism'?). The only explanation I can come up with for this academic blindspot is the international shift from a social-movement to a political-institutional feminism, in which primary attention goes to those who - in the past as in the present - are most politically articulate and influential, who both read and write feminism…or, possibly, the domination of feminism (as much else in academia) by discourse analysis, which focuses on meanings at the expense of doings…?

This does not, of course, mean that the case studies are necessarily lacking in either historical interest or contemporary political relevance. 

Christine Ehrick's chapter on interwar (the European World ones) liberal feminism in Uruguay has a fine feeling for North-South, South-South and Argentina-Uruguay contradictions and dynamics, as well as for the class composition and orientation of her particular movement. My feeling is that such national/regional conflicts were inevitable in the period of national-industrial-imperial capitalism. Which does not - as we will immediately see - mean they will disappear of their own accord during our global-informational capitalist period. 

Ping-Chun Hsiung and Yuk-Lin Renita Wong employ an understanding of `difference feminism' (my phrase) to identify independent feminist/women's movement voices in China, which are seeking their own understandings independent of both Western feminism and the Chinese party/state. Each of the latter two claims to speak for Chinese women and they are (therefore?) in diametrical opposition to each other. There is, however, a curiosity here since the authors associate their Western feminism (which they specify quite distinctly), with `the confrontational paradigm projected in the NGO model' (ix). In so far as the Western NGO model, both nationally and internationally, has been increasingly criticised precisely for its excessive engagement with the state/interstate (Alvarez 1998), there seems to me a possibility that this and the Chinese feminist strategy might meet - but at an increasingly problematic place for the development of a global feminist movement!

Now: most of the earlier-mentioned shortcomings are more than compensated for in the exchange between Asunción Lavrin (on Latin America), Leila Rupp (`the Centre'), Mary E. John (India), Shahnaz Rouse (on Islam) and Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe (on `borderland feminisms'). The 30 or so pages of discussion do not relate closely to the contents of the book. What they do is to begin a cross-national/regional/cultural/epistemological dialogue on women and internationalism that has not previously existed.

 Lavrin, who launches the discussion, notes the particularity of Latin American (LA) feminism in successive periods, but she rather emphasises its specific contribution to the international (beyond LA) than its participation in such. She also identifies a sharp debates within LA, between what one might consider an indigenista feminist (one who tends to fetishise the indigenous, as distinguished from those that variously express it) and those more open to the international. She also shows a welcome class sensitivity where she states that:

 It has been argued that theory is necessary to feminisms for opening channels of understanding across national boundaries because theory has the universal quality that makes feminism international…Yet, the dilemma of how to make theories accessible to women without formal education becomes more puzzling the more sophisticated the theories become…Perhaps the most important task of international feminism is to find that ample theoretical framework capable of embracing the largest number of female experiences. (186. Original emphasis) This is, again, an important reflection on international feminism but not on feminist internationalism. And although she echoes the common Northern feminist admiration of the achievements of the LA and Caribbean feminist encuentros, she seems to have missed the last (hopefully only the latest) one in Chile, 1996, at which long-invisible or hidden tensions exploded in not only a disruptive but also a destructive manner. 

Leila Rupp has recently published a book on three or four major international 19th-20th century organisations of what she herself calls `elite, older, Christian women of European origin' (190). Although she might seem to be there reproducing the limitations of the collection under consideration, her ideas on how to approach/understand feminist internationalism are actually much broader. She argues for looking at this less in ideological terms than in those of the senses and levels of collective self-identity: e.g. organisational, movement and gender ones. In such terms, she suggests, what is important about the conflict Lavrin mentions is less the ideological difference than the fact that they are talking to each other about it. If her first remarks suggests an interesting research methodology or project, The second might be taken as suggesting the increasing centrality of communicational form to a contemporary internationalism. Rupp concludes on the necessity for looking at feminisms and internationalism (singular again!) from national, comparative and international locations. Then, in a wisely iffy sentence, she argues 

optimistically for the promise of global feminisms. If nationalism and internationalism do not have to act as polar opposites; if we can conceptualise feminisms broadly enough to encompass a vast array of local variations displaying multiple identities; if we work to dismantle the barriers to participation in national and international women's movements; if we build on the basic common denominators of women's relationship to production and reproduction, however multifaceted in practice; then we can envisage truly global feminisms that can, in truth, change the world (194).  Mary E. John, from India begins by recognising South Asian feminist ignorance of Latin America (an ignorance which, I can assure her, is blankly, cheerfully or shamefacedly reciprocated). She therefore begins by informing Lavrin, or Latin America - or in any case us - of the history of Indian feminisms. She continues with a challenging reflection on the manner in which globalisation has undermined simple and traditional meanings and oppositions between the `local' and the `global', given the extent to which globalisation, even in its early colonial manifestation, helped create the contemporary `local' manifestations of Hinduism and caste. She then addresses the problematic concepts of `pluralism' and `diversity', emphasising (Thank Goddess!) what I earlier suggested, that `If feminism is not singular, neither is internationalism' (199). She continues with examples of existing or possible internationalisms rooted in the subcontinent. And ends, again optimistically, on the possibility and necessity of  more egalitarian and dialogic Western collaborations, new perspectives on the South Asian region and the Indian diaspora, and attempts to rethink South-South relations. (202)  Shahnaz Rouse's interrogation of religious difference from what one might call the-point-of-view-of-internationalism has a particularly sharp cutting edge. She continues the line traced by Leila Rupp, criticising the academic shift: 1) from a materialist to `a right of centre, culturalist, even a "civilisational" focus', b) to a kind of `"orientalism in reverse", and c) an ontology of difference, and a new "exclusiveness"' (206). This is fighting talk, informed by a spirit of cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism and solidarity (i.e. internationalism). But if she may here be criticising her academic or ethnic sisters, she cuts equally radically into a classist feminism. Echoing, again, earlier forum contributions, she argues for a retreat (an advance surely?) from the politics of difference, whether religious or secular, to a politics of experience:  What is called for is a return to the `everyday as problematic'…The starting point here is not discourse but experience, fraught as that notion may be, and implicated as it is, in representation itself (in the dual sense, figurative and literal)…Rather than posing cultural authenticity in reified, de-historicised ways, we need to examine how capitalism creates difference in seemingly totalising ways but which if examined more closely reveal the close link between existing differences and power relations: secular and religious discourses themselves being two of these. (208) Capitalism. Now that is a word, and world, which I would have thought highly relevant to a discussion about the past, present and future of feminism and internationalism! I may be revealing my own particular particularism if I admit that I have, here, no major objection to it being referred to in the singular. I would only suggest two directions in which it might be usefully specified if studies of women and internationalism are to be furthered. The first, already implied, is in terms of its historical phases, particularly the threats, promises and seductions of its contemporary globalised form. The second, hardly mentioned, never theorised and barely strategised is that of money - simultaneously the most abstract and concrete manifestation of capitalism. This is something which, apparently, the women internationalists - handing it out or receiving it - still consider it difficult to talk about, whether in mixed company or in public. While their grandmothers, in the cloche hats, might have considered this simply bad taste, the granddaughters presumably see it as a discourse of vulgar materialism. Introducing the everyday into the analysis, theorisation and strategising of feminist internationalism may be more difficult than our last author imagines. 


Alvarez, Sonia. 1998. `Latin American Feminisms "Go Global": Trends of the 1990s and Challenges for the New Millenium', in Alvarez, Sonia, Evelina Dagnino, and Arturo Escobar (eds.), Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: Revisioning Latin-American Social Movements. Boulder: Westview. Pp. 293-324.

Bernard, Jessie. 1987. The Female World from a Global Perspective. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 287 pp.

Waterman, Peter. 1998. `Beyond Internationalism: Women, Feminism and the New Global Solidarity', in Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms. London: Mansell. Pp. 153-97.

[Peter Waterman, who retired from the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, in 1998, is author of Globalization, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms (Mansell, London and New York, 1998) and co-editor of Labor Worldwide in the Era of Globalization: Alternatives for Unions in the New World Order (Macmillan, London and St Martin's New York, 1999).
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