Global organizing gone awry: why international neo-liberal feminist movements are bad for women and bad for feminism

Feminists organizing for women’s rights in 2011 face a unique challenge: as community organizers, just what defines “our” community? Anyone reading this blog can likely recognize the oft-repeated mantras: we live in a borderless society; we are a global community.

The phrases “global feminism” and “transnational feminism” have surfaced in recent decades, and are now thrown around (often interchangeably) when discussing international feminist movements, gatherings or alliances.  But there is a big difference between global feminism and transnational feminism.  It boils down to whether we are committed to wide-reaching, yet locally sensitive organizing, or if we prefer to promote a one-size-fits-all, please-all-the-world diluted pseudo-feminist politic.

Margaretha Geertsma, an associate professor at Butler University’s Faculty of Journalism and Communication, has written extensively on this topic in recent years.  She describes global feminism as a white, hegemonic US-based feminism, blind to difference and unique global contexts in the pursuit of a movement that “unites” all women (“Look! We all did a Slutwalk! My signs are in English, yours in Tagalog, we are one.  Success!”).  Other critics of the concept of a “global sisterhood” go even further, describing them as homogenizing, narrow, Eurocentric and imperialist.

Transnational feminism, on the other hand, treats difference – in experience, location, context, and identity – not as a challenge to be overcome, but rather as invaluable wisdom that should inform our activism.   Acknowledging these differences can only make international feminist organizing, and of course, the lives of real women around the world, better.

At the recent Women’s Worlds 2011 conference, held in Ottawa from July 3-7, the partnership of Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter and la Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle presented Flesh Mapping: Prostitution in a globalized world/La Resistencia de las mujeres/Les draps parlent.  It was an interactive multimedia installation that featured video shot in both Vancouver and Montreal, and 70 bed-sheet art canvasses, demonstrating the connections between global trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women.  On display for three whole days, the exhibit was accompanied by both spontaneous dialogue among viewers, as well as structured roundtable discussions among Canadian women (women of colour, Aboriginal women, Quebecois women, white women), as well as women from Norway, Haiti, Nigeria, Morocco, Bangladesh, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Denmark, Israel and Australia.  These speakers included women who have left prostitution, front-line workers, and community organizers.  Ninety-minute roundtable discussions were simultaneously translated into French, English and Spanish.

While the women involved were united in their recognition of the root of women’s inequality and sexual exploitation worldwide (patriarchy and capitalism, a mutually reinforcing, toxic dyad), their unique local experiences and contexts were honoured and highlighted, not glossed over for the sake of letting Western experiences and approaches prevail.  From all appearances each participant was an equal contributor to the knowledge that was shared – no one woman’s wisdom was privileged over another.

Twelve countries, three languages, countless unique voices and experiences, all coming together in a powerful display of feminist organizing.  This is transnational feminism at its finest.

It succeeded at being transnational, I argue, because organizers refused to depart from their radical approach.  They did exactly what Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan prescribe in their book, Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and transnational feminist practices; instead of operating on some pretense of “global sisterhood,” these women created true solidarity by forming alliances with women from all over world, who, while differing in their experiences and local contexts, were united in their efforts to examine, work against, and bring down patriarchy.  For the transnational feminist, the only universal is patriarchy.  Ergo, transnational feminism is, and can only be, radical in nature.

In the debates over how and when to take a transnational approach, some have argued it should be treated as an alternative between two extremes popular in international mobilization.  On the one side is religious dogma of all stripes, undermining women’s rights outright, and on the other, universalist, liberal feminism, which undermines women’s loyalties, local contexts, and unique experiences.  According to some feminist writers, transnational feminism offers a safe route between the two.

But can we really treat transnational feminism simply as an “alternative”?  There is no denying the real threat from religious fundamentalists who continue to spread their messages worldwide, whether in the form of a viral sermon or a horrifying act of domestic terrorism.  Feminists of all leans would agree these groups pose an immediate threat to women worldwide.  But is universalist, liberal ‘feminism’ – pole-dance if it makes him happy, I’m radical if I say I am ‘feminism’ – really that meek by comparison?  Keep in mind this approach is often influenced by what others have referred to as the Congo effect: “Sure Canadian men still get away with battery and harassment on a daily basis and earn 20% more than women do, but hey, at least this ain’t Congo; as long as we’re not living in the rape capital of the world we should just shut up and say thank you.  In the meantime, let’s march in, save these women, and show them how equality is really achieved!” Can we really afford to say this kind of global feminism is one way, but transitional feminism is better?  We cannot, and we should not.

When we allow Canadian, American or Western European-born ‘feminist’ movements that place individual ‘freedom’ and ‘empowerment’ at their centre (of course within a Canadian, American or Western European context) we let centuries of feminist energy dedicated to dismantling patriarchy fizzle into marches and legal battles focused on very privileged women remaking age-old sexist practices (prostitution, sexual assault victim-blaming) into ways for them to profit; both literally, as profiteers in this capitalist system they seem happy to continue to perpetuate;  or metaphorically, as the women who gain worldwide fame for making ‘feminist’ activism fun, sexy and enjoyable by all.

The de-radicalization of feminist organizing worldwide makes it easy to pretend we’re fostering some magical global sisterhood.  But feminism ain’t about what’s easy.  It’s time to think, act and organize transnationally, for the good of all women on their terms,  not just the good of women like “us,” on ours.


Natalie Hill is an MA student in the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies. She graduated from the School of Journalism at Carleton University, is a core organizing member of WAM! Vancouver (Women, Action and the Media). She is interested in effective transnational activism to end violence against women.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.