Tag Archives: Chandra Talpade Mohanty

Feminism without Borders: Inquiry vs. Business

Cover of Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity Title: Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity

Author: Chandra Talpade Mohanty

Publication Date: 2003

LC Call Number: HQ 1870.9 .M64

I can’t even begin to write about this book as a whole, because it is long, complex and dense, but just as an introduction…. Mohanty wants to write about worldwide feminism and in particular the condition of Third World Women (a term she defines carefully and uses advisedly) while at the same time being very careful not to flatten “women” into a coherent group with identical interests. This means that she has to take all the nuances into consideration: legal and social differences in the status of women around the world and in different social strata, economic and class issues, the effects of race, the way that family is constructed, and everything else that affects what “women” means in that particular context in time and space.  So, yeah, this is really difficult.  It means recognizing that there is no way to immediately solve all the problems of sexism and racism and imperialism in the world because everything has to be addressed carefully, one context and one social group at a time, and it means that it’s quite difficult to find a position from which one can speak.  It’s overwhelming, but as Mohanty points out, all alternatives are oppressive and center women of privilege, so—she is probably right.   The post on the first chapter of the book at A Year of Feminist Classics includes a better discussion of this than I can give here.

I should note that, according to Mohanty’s definition, third world women can include women in wealthy countries who are poor, have migrated or are of color, because they are affected by globalization in much the same way as women in poor countries and often end up doing similar work. Mohanty’s methodology is one that she describes as eclectic, but it has a strong Marxist component, and she is deeply concerned with globalization and the ways that women around the world are exploited—and how women resist exploitation, and are discouraged from resisting.  Early in the book, she uses examples such as Indian lacemakers and women workers in Silicon Valley to show both how she thinks about the economic conditions of women and to teach her readers how such distinctions can be made.  She also includes a really interesting discussion about why it is so difficult for conditions to improve for such workers. Mohanty, then, actually shows how some analysis is actually possible when taking all these things into account.

But what I really wanted to focus on was a different part of the book. In the last several chapters, Mohanty quickly shifts focus to higher education in the United States. This seemed like a very strange move; there is a huge social and economic distance between many of the issues that she discussed earlier in the book and the problems of higher education. It was a real surprise, then, to find myself thinking about the goals of higher education, the problems of temporary part time educational labor, and the dangers of allowing commercial interests to participate.  Despite the strangeness of the way this fits into the book, I was really excited to see it, and if the book had been split into two, this may actually have been the half I’d have been interested in reading, if only because I work in higher education myself and am acutely aware of some of the problems she describes.

Mohanty is very concerned with the privatization of higher education, in particular, the relationships that have been formed with governmental and business interests.  She cites several authors who have written about the expansion of the military-industrial complex into various institutions and shows that even theoretically public higher education is implicated in this complex.  She’s concerned with the research done in universities is given a monetary value as “intellectual property,” so that it can be sold to military and industrial types.   With this move, the university becomes part of the economy, and is presumed to have its own economic interests.  Mohanty writes:

[I]mmense power as well as oppression is dispersed, funneled through, recycled, consolidated and above all justified through the daily operations of US universities newly resurrected through the processes of economic globalization.  It is this link between the university and other scapes of global capitalism that recycle and exacerbate gender, race, class and sexual hierarchies that concerns me.  (173)

In short, Mohanty argues that by participating in the project of globalization, the university gives up its pretensions of creating an atmosphere in which intellectual freedom is the primary value and democratic citizenship is an important goal.  Mohanty describes a set of ideals under which higher education is a means of both distributing and thinking through justice and equality. She points out the discrepancy between the university’s involvement in structures that create oppression throughout the world and the ideals on which the academy is supposedly built. The “entrepreneurial university” as she calls it, not only contributes to exploitation elsewhere in the world but also uses labor in a way that perpetuates inequalities of class, race and gender by employing white male professors on the tenure track, a large number of (mostly white female) adjuncts for less prestigious teaching work, and what she would third world women in menial and staff positions.

There is a ton going on here, so I’m going to look closely at only a couple points.  First, Mohanty is worried about the decay of the concept of public goods. She contrasts the more traditional ideals of the academy with the concept of “corporate citizenship,” which find the ideals of citizenship in the work of the self-interested capitalist marketplace:

Ideas of the public good, collective service and responsibility, democratic rights, freedom and justice are privatized and crafted into commodities to be exchanged via the market.  The institutionalization of capitalist citizenship at the corporate university thus profoundly transforms the vision of the university as a democratic public space, a sanctuary for nonrepression. (184)

This reminds me very strongly of the arguments Siva Vaidhyanathan makes in The Googlization of Everything, which I wrote about early in the life of this blog.  Vaidhyanathan’s interest is narrower; he focuses on the ways in which Google has co-opted many functions formerly assumed to be those of the university and privatized them in service of corporate profits.  He’s skeptical of Google’s user-friendly public image and points out their US-centric nature and their status as a for-profit company.  Although he doesn’t address the problems within the academy in that book, I’d recommend it to anyone who finds this argument compelling. I found that Mohanty’s critiques gave me more perspective on Vaidhyanathan’s argument as well.  Curiously, she criticizes the Human Genome Project, which he used as an example of promising collaborations rather than exploitative ones.

In any case, back to Mohanty: she finds  many problems with corporatized education and, for her, they are all linked together. She writes about the devaluation of her own field, women’s studies, and others that do not produce income but are intended to increase the amount of justice and equity in the world. She writes about the demographics of labor as I’ve mentioned above. She briefly discusses access to education and how public defunding decreases access, while information is instead being sold as described above.

I was a little surprised how close she came to discussing the problematic publishing practices of scholars and the need for open access, and then disappointed that she didn’t quite get there. I didn’t really expect it, of course, but it is such an important part of the constellation of things that she describes.  Current academic publishing practices provide profit to multinational publishers who may or may not embody some of the problems with globalization but who certainly contribute to the corporatization of the academy by charging outrageous prices for their journals and increasing money pressure on the academy.  Not only that, of course, but by limiting access, they contribute to the restriction of scholarly knowledge to the elite, which is a huge part of the problem that she describes.  Not only that, but the open access movement represents a kind of resistance that may be of interest to her.  Since Mohanty is not a librarian, of course, this is not at the forefront of her mind—but maybe it should be. Social justice types need to start thinking about this stuff.

In any case, Mohanty is hardly the first to note the shift of the university’s priorities from a place of free intellectual inquiry to a place where future workers can be trained.  Mohanty doesn’t discuss how and when this shift took place; from what I understand, it happened when just as higher education became accessible to those other than the elite.  The ideal of the academy as a place where citizens are created is—historically complicated. It’s been embraced within critical pedagogy for sure; I love critical pedagogy, but it’s hard to cast it as an integral part of the academy when it’s actually a radical movement.  Thus, I’m not sure about her characterization of the ideals of academic life, and I suspect that this shift to the corporate university comes about, historically, as a result of some of the changes that happened as a result of letting in people who were not previously considered worthy. This makes it a little complicated, actually, but I don’t think that it undermines her point about the importance of the kind of inquiry she wants to support and the difficulty of supporting it under the current circumstances.


Filed under Professional or Philosophical

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.


Filed under Literary thoughts