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Is the Women's Movement Today Active or in Abeyance? Discuss.

Is the Women's Movement Today Active or in Abeyance? Discuss.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Padraic Grant. Originally submitted for Political Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, with lecturer Sara Clavero in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Padraic Grant. Originally submitted for Political Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, with lecturer Sara Clavero in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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Is the women’s movement today active or in abeyance? Discuss.In the past few decades, the western women’s movement appears to have undergone adecline in regard to practical action. The second wave of the women’s movement(spanning the late 60’s-late 70’s) saw women taking to the streets in massive numbersto participate in actions ranging from demonstrations to “zap actions.” Today thewomen’s movement is relatively inactive, with no broad consensus on either important issues or tactics. The critic Barbara Epstein observed that “there is nolonger a mass women's movement. There are many organizations working for women's equality in the public arena and in private institutions … But, where therewere once women's organizations with large participatory memberships there are now bureaucratic structures run by paid staff. Feminist theory, once provocative andfreewheeling, has lost concern with the conditions of women's lives and has become pretentious and tired” (Epstein, “What Happened to the Women’s Movement?”). Incontrast to the western current, however, women’s movements in the rest of the globeappear to be growing in strength, attempting to attain the same rights gained bywestern women decades ago against repressive, often religious fundamentalistgovernments. The existence of these contrasting movements suggests that thewomen’s movement is neither fully active nor in abeyance. Both geographicalrepresentations of the movement include some degree of activism, with the easternmovement only recently emerging while the western era of mass politics declined andthe movement’s visibility shrunk.Epstein, in her previously quoted statement, sums up the twin reasons for the declineof the western women’s movement: Firstly, an acceptance of Liberal Feminist ideasabout changing the system from within, a shift that saw organisations like the National Organisation for Women (NOW) campaign on issues located almost solelyin the public sphere. Secondly, by the late 80’s feminist theory had become disjointedand self-reflective; racial issues caused friction between white women and women of other races (who perceived the mainstream women’s movement as a solely whitecause) and in academia the adaptation of Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralismresulted in the questioning of the core concepts of feminism. The combined effect of these debates was to debilitate the women’s movement and cause it to becomeconcerned with a few public sphere topics, rather than focusing on the originalRadical Feminist aim of opposing patriarchy and the private/public divide.The practical aspect of women’s liberation was undermined by both the focus onchanging the public sphere, and the theoretical battleground outlined above. The polarisation of feminists on the topic of pornography demonstrates this division.Those opposed to pornography increasingly channelled their energy into the legal and political spheres, attempting to gain legal protection for women within the pornography industry. At the centre of this debate was the prominent second waveactivist Andrea Dworkin, whose devotion to feminist dogma led her to adapt positionsthat ran counter to liberal values. On the one hand, Dworkin continued to assert theRadical Feminist idea that the private and public spheres must not be differentiated;this manifested itself in continued activism, including a key role in the 1978 “TakeBack the Night” rally that saw 3000 women march through the San Francisco RedLight District under the aegis of the Women Against Violence in Pornography andMedia (WAVPM). On the other, devotion to the anti-pornography cause saw her activism focused on a single issue crusade that reached an apex in the 1980’s, when
Dworkin used the courts to oppose the exploitative elements of the industry and evenreached agreement on the issue with members of the New Right, a conservativeideology. The fracture between the anti-pornography and the “sex positive” wings of feminism was a symptom of a deeper malaise within the movement: its peak had beenreached in the early 70’s, and although limited gains continued to be won in the publicsphere, the failure of Radical Feminists to capitalise on the momentum of that periodmeant that the ideology, along with other radical ideologies, was consigned to the political margin.By the mid-to-late 1980s the activist area of feminism was largely forgotten astheorists retreated from street politics into the realm of academia. This resulted in afocus on feminism as a self-contained ideology rather than a method for confronting patriarchy. Post-Modernism questions the validity of all-encompassing theories of history and societal organisation, while Post-Structuralism’s main method of analysisis to expose the contradictions at the heart of signifiers (words) and the signified (theconcepts words are meant to represent), an idea similar to the feminist distinction between sex and gender. While this suggests a correlation between the two methodsof analysis, the importation of Post-Modernist ideas had the consequence of weakening the certainty of feminist discourse.Post-Modernist Feminism faced criticism by some in the women’s movement for itsdilution of core feminist conceptions of sex and gender. Sylvia Walby has argued that“the signifiers of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ have sufficient historical and cross-culturalcontinuity, despite some variations, to warrant using such terms” (quoted in Pilcher and Whelean, 111). Another accusation levelled at Post-Modern Feminism was itselitist nature, dividing academics from ordinary women. Carol Hanisch, a prominentactivist in the second wave period warned that “academic feminism has the resourcesand therefore the potential to teach students the real history of the WLM [Women’sLiberation Movement], but it can’t do so if it replaces that history with its own self-serving ivory tower theories that have no relationship to the lives of most women”(Hanisch, “What’s Wrong with Feminism Today). Therefore, a general consensusamong those feminists opposed to Post-Modernism was its divorce from practical politics and the error in assuming that gender is a constructed idea.Another fracture occurred due to the issue of race relations which began within theAmerican feminist movement. The Black Feminist theorist Gloria Joseph argued:“Just as women cannot trust men to ‘liberate’ them during or ‘after the revolution’; in part because there is little reason to think that they would know how, and in part because white women’s immediate self-interest lies in continued racial oppression”(quoted in Bryson, Valerie “Feminist Political Theory: An Introduction, page 255). Asthe 1970’s progressed Black Feminist organisations like the National Black FeministOrganisation (NBFO) were formed and remained divorced from the rest of thewomen’s movement.Related to Black Feminism’s critique of the white middle class character of thesecond wave feminism is the criticism that that same movement reflected a western-centric viewpoint. This has led to the development of region-specific feminism.Therefore, in despite the decline of mass politics in western feminism, the women’smovement in the rest of the world is slowly increasing in influence and achievements.
With differing material conditions and social relations, these movements often facegreater practical obstacles than western feminists.In countries where a patriarchal interpretation of Islam holds sway, theimplementation of full Sharia law reduces the role women have to play in public lifeand de-humanises them in the private sphere. Iran is a prominent example of thisoppression, where the religious bodies and their executive counterparts in the statehave the power to: “value a woman’s life as half of a man’s life in blood moneyexchanges (deyeh), to stone adulterers to death, torture women for not observing thestrict hijab and showing some strands of their hair (Ta’zir), punishing them by cutting parts of their body (including blinding by gouging an eye out), rape virgin women in prison before execution (so they are excluded from ‘heaven’) and much more”(Sheibani, “Women of the Revolution”). Such conditions exist in numerous countriesin Africa and the Middle East, and demonstrate the open patriarchy that rules both the private and public spheres in these states.The severity of the punishments inflicted by these countries has not gone unopposed by women. Iran provides an example of the resistance displayed by the women’smovement in such conditions. Women have challenged the misogynist status quo“from the micro-level of relations within a family to broader political initiatives. For instance, Iranian women have now occupied a prominent position in arts, literatureand cinema … Women have created influential websites and blogs and, like others inthe grassroots progressive movements, uses the technological revolution to devisenew resistance strategies … the gains women have made have been heroically wonover the last 30 years in the teeth of fierce opposition from that regime” (Sheibani,“Women of the Revolution”). The defiance of the women’s movement in these statesranges from the small scale to the counter-hegemonic, with the entry of women intothe arts and online media designed to counter the prevailing misogyny inherent in thefundamentalist power structure.A similar development has occurred in Lebanon. The political party Hezbollah (whichcommands large support both there and in the rest of the Arabic world) hasincreasingly demonstrated support for women’s rights within an Islamic context. Theinclusionary nature of the party has led to a broadly conservative/liberal dichotomywhich sees some of the party campaigning for women to voluntarily wear the veilalongside others who support the nomination of women to the Lebanese parliament.Out of this ideological division has emerged a stunted form of feminism, groundedwithin Islam but mindful of the equality of women and men; the practical effect has been the strong integration of women into the party structures alongside a slowlydeveloping process of visibility in higher-level politics. Academic Joseph Alagha hassaid that “women are very active within Hizbullah, from the educational structure -the majority of teachers being women - to the media and women's NGO’s [Non-Governmental Organisations] … Therefore, the trend is towards a greater integrationof women into the movement” (quoted in Moos, “A progressive Islamic party?”).That a party which was once purely Islamist can move toward a progressive supportfor female equality is a promising example of the development of the women’smovement across the Middle East, particularly in a party that commands large-scalesupport and wide influence. In both oppressive and permissive societies, women’smovements are beginning to flourish in the region, but in a form more grounded than

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