Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism: Remember the Context

Cover of Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism

Title: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism

Editors: Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres

Publication Date: 1991

Library of Congress Call Number: HQ1870.9.T49

I’m not even sure where to start.  This is an anthology, so its subject matter is very wide-ranging and its contributors all have very different voices. This blog post won’t attempt to cover all the essays in this book or even all the ideas in one essay. Instead, I’ll just focus on a few things I noticed and conversations among the included essays…

(and as is often the case, it’s been a couple weeks since I finished reading this, so it’s hard to collect all the thoughts I had at the time! Maybe I should start taking notes? But it’s even harder with an anthology because there are so many different ideas—and even more in this one, where the authors constantly insist that the individual, local context has to be understood in each case, and any generalizations must be cautious and mindful.)

I think the second section of the book, “Public Policy, the State, and Ideologies of Gender” was especially interesting because it took several ideas that are familiar to U.S. feminists in a Western context and showed how they become very different elsewhere. There are four essays in this section. The first looks at sexual laws and the concept of consent, the second at  abortion/sterilization/reproductive coercion and the concept of choice, and the third and fourth at women’s economic participation and crimes committed by women, respectively.  All of these were very interesting (and I feel like I understand the economy of Jamaica much better than I did previously!), but the second essay of the section, Carmen Barroso and Cristina Bruschini’s article about family planning in Brazil, was the most striking to me.

In the United States, the most important feminist argument in favor of reproductive rights and access to abortion is one about bodily autonomy.  It is wrong for the state to force anyone to carry a pregnancy to term, because we all have the right to authority over our own bodies. This is a really compelling and important argument, but what becomes clear in this essay is that it’s much more difficult to make an argument like this in Brazil because the historical and political context leads in another direction.  The essay gives a good historical background about the efforts of the United States, starting with Kennedy, to curtail population growth in Brazil for what Barroso and Bruschini call neomalthusian reasons.* The idea was that the economic problems of Brazil could all be solved, if only the poor would stop having so many children. (Plausible! (N. B., I do not actually find this plausible.))  The U.S. used several tactics in pursuit of this classist and racist ideology, some of which were clearly ethically unjustifiable (i.e, offering large incentives for sterilization).

When foreign powers show up in a country and attempt to prevent local women from bearing children, the principle of bodily autonomy is being ignored just as surely as when certain forces in the U.S. attempt to cut off access to abortion.  But this means that reproductive choice in this context must be seen as the right to have children, rather than the right not to have them (and here, astonishingly, you actually get the Catholic church arguing that “each couple has the right to choose the size of its family, without interference from the state” (155)!). Under these political circumstances, the resistance to reproductive coercion was essentially resistance to forced population control. Solutions to the problem of unwanted pregnancies, which were extremely common in Brazil (and which, I guess, are still very common, everywhere) were out of scope.  The question of reproductive rights as they pertain to avoiding and ending pregnancies couldn’t easily be formed in this way by progressives because this was too close to the conservative position and too easily confused with it.  At the same time, “Screw you, I’ll have as many babies as I want, or possibly a lot more!” only goes so far…

These problems weren’t permanently insurmountable, and the second half of the article includes many examples from a sex ed brochure put together by a group of researchers working together with working class women.  But what was most interesting to me was that the question of reproductive rights, which seems so clear in a U.S. context, becomes a completely different political fight in a different context.  Other articles in this section do something similar (the concept of sexual consent in Alexander’s article, the first in the section,  does an especially good job of it). This illustrates really clearly the entire purpose of this anthology as far as I can tell, which is partly to examine the specific issues that come up in the various essays, but partly to show that each issue, in each geographic and historical context, must be considered separately.  From this perspective, it seems that the audience for the anthology is really Western feminists who need to learn that porting ideas from one country to another doesn’t work well, especially when those ideas have been developed in an orientalist, Western-centric environment.

So I’ve spent most of my post just talking about one essay, but the entire anthology was excellent.  One thing it did well was create a dialogue among its articles. In “Women’s Equality and National Liberation,” Angela Gilliam attacks what she calls “sexualism,” that is, the tendency for Western feminism to focus on issues of gender and sexuality only.  She writes:

Female chauvinism is an outgrowth of a primarily gender-oriented struggle because it operates on the assumptions that women are more “human” than men, and that this is biologically determined (Johnston 1973). The projection of sexualism, which focuses on sex and sexuality separate from economics and politics, not only has made it difficult for many national minority women in the United States to identify with the more privileged sectors of the women’s movement, but such a perspective is also in the interests of the ruling class. For one thing, it prevents the women’s movement in the United States from becoming a powerful force for positive and creative change, because a unified approach to women’s issues is avoided. A unified approach must simultaneously integrate the questions of racism, class oppression, and sexism. (217)

There’s a lot more I’d like to quote here, but space is limited; I recommend reading the whole thing as it’s totally brilliant. But in the very next essay, “Sexuality and Sexual Politics: Conflicts and Contradictions for Contemporary Women in the Middle East,” Evelyne Accad argues exactly the opposite:

Sexuality seems to have a revolutionary potential so strong that many political women and men are afraid of it. They prefer, therefore, to dismiss its importance by arguing that it is not as central as other factors, such as economic and political determinations which are easily recognizable as the major factors that produce revolution—class inequalities, hunger, poverty, lack of job opportunities. In this essay, I would like to argue that sexuality is much more central to social and political problems in the Middle East than previously thought, and that unless a sexual revolution is incorporated into political revolution, there will be no real transformation of social relations. (237)

Different essays in the anthology fall at different points along this continuum.  This is yet another reason why it’s so great that this is an anthology; the reader can see the political and economic issues alongside the sexual ones, and we can come to our own conclusions about how we think they fit together.

It also made me think about what some other good reads for next Year of Feminist Classics might be—the discussion of The Color Purple made me wonder why I hadn’t thought of that as a suggestion (I’ve read it, and would like to read it again more carefully), and I think we have to fit Anzaldúa in there somewhere too. I’ve read excerpts of Borderlands/La Frontera before and I’d love to read the rest.

* Thomas Malthus was an eighteenth century economist who believed that the food supply was endangered because of population growth in the lower classes. In a word, he believed that the poor had too many children, and he thought they had so many children because they were irresponsible and stupid, so there was no way to persuade them to have fewer.

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8 Comments

Filed under Literary thoughts

8 responses to “Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism: Remember the Context

  1. Ah I’ve sadly not been able to pick this up yet but am really really looking forward to it as it sounds fantastic, and your review just highlighted that for me. On the first article you talk about, it sounds similar to what I read in Unnatural Selection (read some time ago but recently reviewed), which talked about how abortions and sterilization was pushed to countries as a family planning tool and what that means. Really interesting (and scary) stuff.

  2. I really like your suggestions for next year’s Feminist Classics selection. I want to read more Anzaldua, too! I wrote a similar comment on Amy’s review of Unnatural Selection, but your post reminds me of an article I read about a month ago called “When Pro-Choice is Anti-Woman” (I think) about how the typical U.S. framing of reproductive justice as the right to abortion doesn’t always make sense in the context of Indian feminism where so many abortions are sex-selective (meaning that female fetuses are aborted at hugely disproportionate rates). I know that this framing is inadequate in many parts of the world, including in the U.S. from the perspective of many women of color, too. Really fascinating stuff. I have not yet finished this anthology (ahem!) but I can’t wait to get to it!

  3. Thanks, Emily Jane–I’ll see if I can dig up that article!

  4. I’m browsing and catching up and just found this. thanks for an excellent review. I have found the same theme of different needs in different places in other books on international feminism. And I am struggle with the same problem of trying to review a big anthology of essays on the topic. Maybe we ought to think of a readalong on one of these spread over a couple of months.

  5. I’d definitely be up for that–when were you thinking of having it?

    • All I have right now is the idea, but let’s pursue it. Want to help out with specifics of what book to read and when? Any else out there who might join us?

      • Sure, I’ll help, but as you can see, I’ve been a little flaky lately! December/January would probably be the best time for me to participate, but if you want to do it sooner, I’d still be interested.

        As for what to read–well, I’ve been enjoying that Anzaldua, though her perspective is very different from mine, so maybe This Bridge Called My Back would be a good one to read? That’s the one that springs immediately to mind, but I can certainly do research and come back with more 😀

      • Yes. This Bridge would be interesting and perhaps some one reading for the Feminist Classics might join. I read it when it first came out and tend to think of it as anti-theoretical. I also want to read the anthology you just reviewed but doubt you want to read it again. There are several other theoretical, international, feminist anthologies that I think I have noted somewhere. I’ll see if I can find them. Let’s both keep looking and thinking.

        End of the year-ish would be fine for me.

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