Book review

Building feminist movements and organizations, global perspectives

Building Feminist Movements and Organizations
Global Perspectives
Edited by Lydia Alpízar Durán, Noel D. Payne and Anahi Russo
Zed Books / Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), 2007

Much recent writing on feminism and the women’s movement focuses on new or divisive trends and labels—third-wave, girl power, pro-Hillary or anti-Hillary. But this coverage misses some of the most promising examples of feminist organizing nowadays: the most promising approaches are happening beyond North America, where local groups are increasingly well-connected with each other and to international structures. More than a decade after the 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing—a milestone in defining an agenda for a global feminist movement—a book like Building Feminist Movements and Organizations, which calls for taking stock and reflecting on tactics and strategies for organizing, is welcome indeed.

Building Feminist Movements and Organizations speaks primarily to long-term feminist activists, but its depiction of the day-to-day struggles of women’s movements the world over will also resonate with activists from other, similarly dispersed movements.

The main achievement of the collection is that it shows how diverse types of groups—from a women’s writing collective in Zimbabwe to a Korean women’s trade union to women’s shelters in Quebec—are grappling with common struggles and similar questions in very different contexts. All are navigating issues of power and empowerment, democracy and participation, the personal and the political (and, now in many organizations, the professional), and the dilemmas of competing for ever-diminishing funds. The fact that the book’s editors do not propose a single definition of feminist goals or identity allows for a more “bottom-up” approach to understanding the potential for international organizing.

The book is arranged by theme, with sections on leadership, organizational practices, resources, outreach, working in conflict zones, and campaigning. The inclusion of some outside, academic profiles of organizations adds an important comparative perspective. For example, Canadian scholar Leona English notes that hidden hierarchies and exclusions can develop in organizations when “good feminist practices” like consensus decision-making and public solidarity campaigns do not acknowledge the power dynamics within and among small organizations. English’s suggestion that giving up the pursuit of total and unconditional unity among feminists can strengthen the movement overall makes sense—and the other chapters illustrate how acknowledging and overcoming such tensions can be a long and messy process, but remains entirely achievable.

At the other end of the organizational spectrum, policies for what has become known as “gender mainstreaming” are becoming more widespread in large and well-funded international development organizations. Recognizing that women’s concerns and voices were absent from major development policy frames, the 1995 Beijing Conference Platform for Action formally promoted gender mainstreaming as a way to integrate feminist analysis into every aspect of policy-making. While many organizations’ acceptance of this challenge is a testament to the impact of international feminist lobbying efforts, the partial and superficial implementation of gender mainstreaming policies has had mixed results. Technocratic lip service to gender analysis, feminists have seen, can easily replace the long-term work of raising feminist questions and consciousness among staff, participants and donors. As organizations of all sizes debate the boundaries of their political advocacy work, the belief that the problem of gender inequality is solved—or is being solved by someone else—should be understood as a significant obstacle.

While these snapshots of organizations are rich in detail, some further summarizing or comparative pieces would have been useful, particularly regarding the implications of these insights for international campaigns. Given the evident importance of high-profile events like the 1995 Beijing Conference or the more recent UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (on “women, peace and security”) as catalysts for organizing, a detailed critique of one such event would have been worthwhile. Also, the current and potential roles of men in feminist organizing remains an unspoken question that merits substantial discussion, beyond just identifying “strategic” male allies.

Overall, this collection is optimistic, for most of the writers agree that with more thoughtful implementation and development of feminist practices, much can be achieved. As the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, the book’s publisher, builds toward an international conference on movement-building in Cape Town, South Africa, in November 2008, the lessons shared in Building Feminist Movements and Organizations should both inspire and challenge social movements in general, showing the liveliness and creativity of grassroots work as well as its tendency to paper over power relations, burnout and drift from founding principles. And these tales from the trenches remind us that the struggle for gender equality is far from over and that strategic, compassionate organizing will be necessary for further advances.

With the aftershocks of the Harper government’s 2006 cutbacks to Status of Women Canada continuing to reverberate, feminist movements in this country are facing tough options. This book provides concrete tools and inspiration for the long-haul work of building movements that can bring issues of gender equality and empowerment to the mainstream while remaining true to feminist principles.

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