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Gender discrimination occurs everywhere, thus women’s emancipation movements occur worldwide, but the struggles experienced and the potential solutions vary widely. Because of this, answers to gender inequities are best addressed by women working together within a culture to advocate for change that is acceptable to all. Gender may be universal, but there is no universal solution to gender inequality.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women’s emancipation movements, whether they were called the “woman question,” “women’s rights,” or “feminism,” challenged the Western family economy in which the primary role of women is that of wife and mother, with waged work being a secondary role. Because people saw the domestic sphere as primary, women’s work outside the home was undervalued and undercompensated. This distinction caused male domination of the political system with little hope of a reorientation of women’s position in society. During the past two centuries women (and a number of men) worked to change this system politically, economically, and socially with varying degrees of success. They rarely took race and class into account, and people usually had an unacknowledged view of universalism toward women in other parts of the world. That is, the position of Euro-American feminists was that all women have the same oppression to overthrow and that common tactics will be useful in all circumstances.
Today students of women’s lives recognize that geography is a factor. Although many feminists claim a universal theory of injustice and advocate a universal platform of change, their experience is limited to industrialized and democratic nations. Areas of the world that have experienced long histories of colonization or that have operated under forms of socialist, collective political systems present radically different challenges to women and call for varying approaches to change. For these reasons the term women’s movements (plural) is more appropriate for the 21st century. The plural (movements) acknowledges the validity of dissimilar approaches, and the plural (women’s) rather than woman recognizes that not all women face the same issues in widely divergent geographical areas. The elimination of the word rights is a nod to those cultures that do not see adversarial positions as desirable in fi nding solutions. Women’s movements reflect the different histories, cultures, and political systems of people who have a gender in common but perhaps little else.
Britain and the United States
During the nineteenth century, suffrage (the right to vote) received the most emphasis among women’s rights groups, but many middle-class women also saw social reform as their defining characteristic. With the rapid urbanization caused by industrial changes, the middle class grew in influence; women asserted their participation by addressing the miseries caused by the new orientations of society and wished to influence legal reforms by exercising the vote.
In addition to working for suffrage and engaging in good works, women during the nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean were interested in the very nature of womanhood. They debated fiercely what makes women different than men, and they discussed what all women desire. They also assumed that women of all classes and races are the same and that gender alone is the overriding difference in social constructions.
Women’s concerns were much the same in both countries with minor exceptions. Women in the United States tended to claim some moral superiority because the United States was more democratic and equitable than Britain, but British reformers tartly pointed to the existence of slavery in many U.S. states.
By 1924 both groups had achieved suffrage (although women under age thirty did not gain the vote in Britain until 1928), opened employment for many women, and amended the most oppressive marriage laws. At this point many feminist groups turned to public health issues, especially birth control and expanded legal rights for women. No single issue, however, emerged to unite all women as suffrage had. Women seemed to be disappointed with the goals achieved and confused about future goals.
Neither country was more radical or more effective. The major discouragements to women seemed to stem from the absence of change after women were granted the vote. The majority of women in both countries seemingly were not won over to reformist or radical platforms in women’s issues. Despite changes in the law, men did not accept women as political and economic equals. The biggest disappointments for women were in the inability of feminist groups to redress the inequalities in marriage.
The drawbacks inherent in legal changes were clear when the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass in the United States in 1923 and again during the last quarter of the twentieth century. The unlimited optimism of the Victorian era was squelched by the inability to achieve equal rights in the legal arena.
Political Variations: Latin America
Although Latin America is close to the United States in geographical terms, the differences in political, racial, and economic structures have influenced the development of different sorts of feminist concerns. In Latin America women’s movements cannot be separated from the context of military authoritarianism and the struggle toward political freedom.
Many people do not realize that women in Latin American nations have been active in political movements in the past, and often those people who study Latin American politics discount the interaction of women with politics, but it was historically important.
Feminist newspapers played an important role in disseminating ideas as long ago as the nineteenth century in Brazil. Since the mid-twentieth century urban life has provided a backdrop for networks of neighborhood women agitating for better services and lower consumer prices. Women participated in strikes and joined political parties even before they had right to vote, which came much later than in the United States or in Britain; Ecuador was the first Latin American nation to grant women’s suffrage in 1929, although it did not possess a liberal democratic tradition, and Colombia was the last Latin American nation to grant women’s suffrage in 1957. The suffrage movement in Latin America produced uninspiring results. As in the West, it was led mainly by middle-class women, and it aimed to produce reform rather than radical social changes. Women’s suffrage did not cause a significant change in Latin American societies in part because women who did vote supported the status quo and were subservient to the politically conservative Catholic Church. No large-scale shift in attitudes occurred in part because no concerted effort took place to join economic and educational change for women with the right to vote.
Because suffrage came so late and because it failed to institute real change in women’s lives in Latin America, few people would have predicted the emergence during the 1970s of women’s movements that were important in destabilizing military regimes. In addition to agitating politically, women’s human rights groups, feminist groups, and organizations of poor urban women began to cooperate.
In Argentina, for example, women who previously had never involved themselves in politics and did not define themselves as feminists stepped onto the political stage to protest the loss of their husbands and family members, known as “the Disappeared”—people whom military regimes regarded as enemies. The attention that the women’s testimony received from the press around the world affected military rule.
Other feminist groups were formed by women from leftist parties who were frustrated by the failure of the left to take women’s issues seriously. They agitated for women’s issues as well as for the end of military dictatorships.
By the late 1980s the most striking aspects of the women’s movements in Latin America were the contributions the movements made in overthrowing military dictatorships and in reconstructing civil society. By the end of the twentieth century this experience in cooperation led many people to concentrate on issues of class and race; poor women developed the organizational skills to combat sharp cutbacks in state spending, and women’s demonstrations forced political leaders to change course.
Postcolonialism and Culture: South Asia
South Asia shows that social justice and equality in family life cannot be culture free. Unlike women’s movements in Euro-America, women’s movements in India and surrounding countries have to negotiate ardent nationalism, divergent religious practices, secularism, and polarized political views to present an agenda directed toward change in women’s lives.
In addition to confronting a multilingual and multicaste society, reformers can appear to oppose ancient practices. The complexity of a postcolonial society includes the danger that a platform that advocates modernization can be construed as conflicting with tradition. Reform that advocates the equal rights of women can be manipulated into appearing to be linked with the views held by the former colonial power.
In addition to confronting suspicion of reform, advocates of women’s rights in south Asia must confront the tensions among major religions that have sharply conflicting positions. For example, Hindu traditionalists have supported sati (immolation of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres) in the face of feminist opposition. In the same vein Sikh extremists have continued to deny inheritance rights to women, and Muslims have resisted the granting of maintenance to divorced wives. All groups are suspicious of efforts by women to initiate reform and tend to oppose any reform as an erosion of religious tradition and power.
South Asian feminists face many complexities beyond simple changes in policy. Before independence many feminists believed that an independent nation would naturally bring with it equal opportunities for women. The decades after independence have demonstrated that the situation is far more complex, not least because women do not always share the same goals. Whatever the goals, south Asian feminists must maintain a clear distinction between themselves and Western feminists. This distinction is the only way to deflect accusations of sympathies with a colonial and imperial past.
Stereotypes and Diversity: Africa
The colonial past also influences many aspects of the present in Africa, including the perceptions of African women. People in the West often perceive of African women as victims or as ignorant simpletons who cannot manage new technologies, as victims of oppression rather than as agents of change. No typical African woman exists, of course, and this simplistic perception of a whole continent of women is misleading and counterproductive.
The largest difference between African women and other women in the world is that African women are frequently the primary economic providers for their households as farmers and traders. This complicated power structure challenges Western understandings of marriage and households as partnerships in which men are the main providers, and household funds are pooled. When women challenge the web of social relationships, as in south Asia, opponents appeal to custom and tradition as against “colonial” influences.
The education of girls is often an issue between advocates of gender equality and the resident power structure in Africa. Schools both strengthen social values about femininity and reinforce domesticity in girls. For example, nutrition education programs focus on how meager resources can be used to greatest effect, but if girls were encouraged to understand the causes of food scarcity, they might challenge policy. African governments frequently point to great improvements in education for girls and women by publishing statistics reflecting a strong commitment in education. Interpreting data published by governments is problematic, however, because statistics are notoriously unreliable in the developing world. Statistics often create the illusion of precision and certainty, but that illusion serves political ends by projecting a positive image while obscuring political indifference.
Even those African girls who are well educated often are not able to translate schooling into self-determination. Professional women sometimes find that because of social influences, their husbands make most of the decisions that affect their lives. More education might mean less control over one’s life. No single generalization is possible.
African women are usually portrayed as a powerless group subject to poverty and ignorance, in contrast to Western women, who are portrayed as educated, modern, and free to make their own choices. These portrayals often lead to programs that reinforce patriarchal ideology and inequalities. African women have access to programs that stress women’s health and reproductive issues. These programs are useful, but emphasis on such issues recognizes unequal power relations in the family but does not address ways to remove gender stereotypes.
People in Africa should address women’s problems in a multifaceted way. Local women need support from grassroots movements as well as recognition from international groups. African women are rarely asked to help design programs and strategies because standards for evaluation are frequently projections of Western analyses and models. African women must be asked to project their own goals for their own futures; they should be allowed to trust their own insights as the basis for resolving issues of gender equality.
Socialism and State Power
International politics as well as historical events often affect attitudes toward women today. Countries that have undergone radical political change demonstrate the interaction of the personal and the political. The rapid disintegration of a socialist or Communist political system does not mirror a parallel change in gender relations.
In socialist societies the view of women reflects that of the German political philosopher Karl Marx and the German socialist Friedrich Engels; that is, the subordination of women is just another aspect of class oppression. Engels believed that with the abolition of private property and the integration of women into work, women would gain economic independence and equality. The fl aw in this construction is that male control of female sexuality and inheritance predates the existence of the bourgeois family and industrialization. In reality, in socialist societies the male political leadership often had much the same view of the role of women as did their bourgeois counterparts.
The notion of a large socialist family was quickly established as a desirable goal, and so abortion was abolished in the Soviet Union in 1936. The state encouraged women to remain primarily responsible for child care as well as to accept employment in the public arena. This Soviet model of women’s dual role was quickly adopted as the basis of state policy in Eastern Europe, and the needs of the state took precedence over those of women. Because women were primarily responsible for activities in the private sphere, they frequently received blame for social problems such as juvenile crime and alcoholism, which were not addressed by the state.
Under the socialist system radical measures were implemented on maternity leave and child care, but they were not progressive because parenthood was seen as the exclusive purview of women. Because of their heavy domestic duties, women were increasingly displaced in labor and political arenas. When we see this from a gendered perspective, this is not true reform.
These gender stereotypes and inequalities remained in effect during the postrevolutionary period, but little attention is given to this area because the greatest attention is given to the economic reforms. Just as the socialist system influenced by Marx and Engels did not bring true equality for women, we have no reason to suppose that a free market economy and democratic elections will change male dominance and female subordination. No single women’s movement has emerged in Eastern Europe or in the nations of the former Soviet Union. The millions of ethnically and regionally disparate women would be unlikely to identify with a single movement, and little assistance is offered by the rest of the world, which is focused on political and economic issues.
Culture and Change: China
China presents an interesting amalgam of the gendered views of the socialist state but with distinctive regional and social peculiarities. Traditionally people in China viewed women as having a passive role in society, and this view was further complicated by the term feminist. People viewed feminism as a Western concept, hence a bourgeois concept to be avoided. The first women’s emancipation movement in China came about as a result of state-initiated policy. In 1949, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the new socialist Chinese government decided to prohibit such oppressive customs as the binding of women’s feet and prostitution. The official policy was to advocate full women’s employment. Women were given the rights to education, the vote, and full employment. Because jobs were assigned, however, women were frequently channeled into inferior or powerless positions. This fact was not recognized because women’s rights were seen as having been achieved through the efforts of the state rather than through the efforts of women themselves.
As was the case in the former Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China shaped gender relationships to suit the interests of central policy. Although massive changes were introduced during the 1950s, during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) the use of oppositional terms such as right–wrong, correct– incorrect, and socialist–bourgeois served to outline what was acceptable. No organization of women working for change could exist because under the rule of the Cultural Revolution, women already had equality.
Despite legislation, a large gap remained between women’s legal status and their social status. Gender issues affected power relations between women and men in that, as in the former Soviet nations, the idea that women are mainly responsible for standards of morality and family order was presented as “scientific fact.” This idea that nature subjects women to lives dominated by reproductive concerns permeates Chinese approaches to education and employment. At the same time, the state is not a gender-neutral domain of power. More than any other Chinese state activity, the imposition of family planning that allowed only one child per family has been represented in the United States, especially during the Reagan-Bush era, as the quintessence of Communist oppression.
Recent movements toward privatization and a market economy have brought no improvement in women’s autonomy in China. When privatization began in 1977, the idea that emancipation came not from individual efforts but rather from the state remained firmly in place. Further difficulties were introduced with the dissolution of the planned economy; now women have more difficulty in getting jobs because competition favors men, and women must resign when they have a child.
The experiences of 1995’s Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing provide a lesson in the cultural differences in women’s movements. The Chinese women’s movement that emerged from the Fourth World Conference is characterized by groups who are interested in promoting social change rather than depending on the Chinese state to improve the conditions of women. The groups and their tactics, however, are interesting reflections of the Chinese approach. No mass membership groups with demonstrations and organized displays exist as in the West, but rather the Chinese movement focuses more on service and voluntary work. Many people concentrate on scholarly work in women’s studies centers at universities. Such groups are careful not to impinge upon state authority but instead to provide assistance to women or to increase knowledge. They concentrate on issues that are not addressed by the state. In this way the state recognizes that certain types of social movements are not a threat to its power.
The women’s groups present issues of particular interest such as reproductive health, domestic violence, and sexual harassment as being global in nature. This presentation removes any critical tone that could be applied to the Chinese power structure, and so the power structure is more willing to tolerate steps to improve conditions in these areas. Work by women on reforms may be beneficial even to the state because the state is unwilling to pursue certain activities.
This peculiarly Chinese resolution of the dilemma of a women’s movement provides a counterexample to the stereotype of a rigid, inflexible Chinese Communist regime. Chinese women are able to work toward reform and still appear cooperative rather than confrontational. The use of negotiation shows that gender attitudes and methods of reform are deeply rooted in culture and cannot be viewed as universal in nature.
Gender Past and Future
Women around the globe are divided by their histories, by their class or income levels, by the political basis of their nation, by their religious beliefs, and by their social expectations. The one fundamental similarity, however, in each culture is that gender provides a basis for discrimination and deprivation. We cannot prescribe one plan of action to improve the lot of women everywhere, but the recognition that gender is a crucial aspect in the consideration of political and economic reform is an essential beginning. Solutions to gender inequities are best constructed by women working together within a culture to negotiate change that is acceptable to the dominant power structure rather than presenting a universal program that may cause unintended results. Women’s emancipation movements are global in scope because gender disparities occur everywhere, but the problems suffered and solutions undertaken vary widely. Gender may be universal, but no universal solution to gender inequities exists.
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