Essay 2014: What is Transnational Feminism?

What is Transnational Feminism?

Elizabeth Cox

                                                                                 The Puzzle

Transnational feminism is an ideological puzzle made up of uncounted pieces, all having similar background color, but each having unique lines, textures, and rhythms. The larger puzzle components are aligned by the application of feminist theory; others are matched by economic factors; still others are connected by political lines. Global feminists search for a platform where all may come together to assemble and present the totality of the puzzle: a picture which will speak the million words that tell our story.

Northern Hemisphere versus Southern Hemisphere perspective, First World affluence disconnected from Third World poverty, local compared to global environments – all are critical elements in the discourse of feminine praxis. In their collection Women’s Activism and Globalization Naples and Desai assembled essays focused on the everyday lives of women negatively impacted by globalization. These essays also speak of the many ways women fight structural adjustment, sweat shop conditions, and political marginalization through community and transnational activism.

In Global Woman scholars Ehrenreich and Hoschschild have shared stories told by women who are migrant workers coming to the North to seek a better life, while leaving their own families and children to be cared for by others. Affluent educated Western women finding the male professions finally more open to them must rely on nannies and maids from poorer regions to do their domestic and care work (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003).

In her film Life and Debt Stephanie Black enlisted victims of neo-imperialism in Jamaica to speak for themselves about the alienation of citizens from domestic production and agriculture and the destruction of their culture caused by structural adjustment economic policies (Black, 2001). In Mortgaging Women’s Lives Sparr describes cultural desecration caused by structural adjustment policies in detail. These policies driven by neoliberalism directly benefit Western multi- national corporations, while subjugating women’s labor and proffering the  exploitive use of maquiladoras and sweat shops (Sparr, 1994). From all walks and via all media paths women come forward to speak and strive to be heard and seen.

                                           Theoretical Perspectives

In her iconic 1988 essay Under Western Eyes Chandra Mohanty posited that Western feminist perspectives dominated the theory and discourse surrounding feminist praxis (Mohanty, 1988). The arena of debate around terminology and viewpoint was opened as the feminist third-wave movement also formed. The third-wave criticized many ideas and actions of 1960’s and 70’s second-wave feminism which were seen as rooted in Western male dominance and neo-imperialism. Third-wave feminism heralded new theoretical and epistemological approaches to feminist ideology.

Dissonance between members or factions of a group can be productive and may yield greater knowledge and progress. The third-wave worked to make feminism more inclusive. The movement fostered four major theoretical innovations: 1) intersectionality, addressing the perspectives of ethnicity and women of color; 2) poststructuralist perspectives; 3) postcolonial view or ‘global feminism’; 4) and approaches sprouting from a new generation of feminists. The third-wave discourse spurred some scholars to re-embrace Marxist feminist perspective previously discounted as inadequate in feminist analysis (Mann & Huffman, 2005).

On the other hand, lack of group cohesion may be detrimental to achievement of group goals. A high degree of cohesiveness within a social group strongly enhances the group’s ability to maintain its standards and internal norms. The more cohesive the group, the greater the likelihood that the group will produce prescribed behavior in its members, both new and established, and the greater the likelihood that the group will achieve shared goals (Schachter, 1951). In the feminist vernacular, there exists no equivalent terminology of cohesion to match the indoctrinatory strength of ‘male bonding’ as a powerful generic ideological tool used in the patriarchal scheme. The term “Sisterhood of women” has been disparaged by critics as too generalized and nonspecific to be useful as a banner of solidarity for global feminist groups.

The unifying work of transnational feminist networks has advanced feminist political and economic goals. These networks unite feminists across national boundaries who share common concerns: violence against women, reproductive rights, feminist economic goals, and women’s human rights in all environments. At the same time, weakness in transnational feminist organizing and lack of adequate funding stifles revolutionary progress that might otherwise occur (Moghadam, 2005).

Marginalization of women is age-old. In ancient times, women were considered to be property in many regions of the world. Men were valued more highly than women in biblical scriptural accounts (Rollston, 2012). Globalization has given new leverage and destructive power to oppressive practices which were localized in the past. Women who have traditionally worked in local agricultures throughout the world have been disempowered and politically silenced as large corporate interests have engulfed farms and other local means of production.  IMF, WTO, and World Bank policies are most harmful to women as a gender.

Sociological theories offer insight into the relationship between women and male-dominated globalization. Exchange theory examines how women participate in the unbalanced exchange that occurs when women are paid less for the same labor.  Standpoint theory explains how individuals see reality and truth from the perspectives of their particular position or roles. Dorothy Smith formulated much of her standpoint theory as she observed the dichotomy of her roles as ‘wife-mother-housekeeper’ contrasted with her role of university scholar and graduate student. Role strain theory explains the fatigue women feel as they work away from home for low wages while also being cast to perform domestic labor and caregiving at home for free. Intersectionality theory offers insight and tools to bridge philosophical gaps between global feminists.


Unity and solidarity are crucial organizational components in order for transnational feminism to achieve the goal of equality and for all. The ancient Greek tactic for successful opposition to a more powerful opposing force was use of the phalanx formation. As a theoretical metaphor, this tactic is useful. The Greek soldiers formed a unified, coordinated group which marched in unison. The effect was to magnify and reinforce effectiveness of a smaller number of troops. There is safety in numbers; but there is also enhanced power to create change. The task for leadership, in terms of contemporary social change leadership theory, is to create change for the better – even though change naturally evokes fear in those who experience it (Crawford C.B , Brungardt, Curtis L., and Maughan, 2005). Feminists must overcome fear of change in order to move forward and claim our rightful positions locally and globally.

What is transnational feminism? It is freedom for women enslaved in Mali; it is hope for the Maquiladora workers in Mexico; it is justice for our battered mothers and healing for our violated sisters; and it is a better future for our daughters.


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