An Open Letter to the Global Women’s Movement

How Does Change Happen?


This piece was given out as a leaflet at the biannual conference of AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development) in Bangkok, October 27-30, 2005 and reprinted in AWID's pamphlet, How Does Change Happen?


            Ten years ago, Women’s WORLD (Women’s World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development), a newly-formed international group of feminist writers, published a manifesto, The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship, and Voice, in which we analyzed the world political situation, pointed to the importance of women’s voices in finding new solutions, and described the systemic obstacles to our voices being heard.    

            In 1995, we saw multiple causes for concern: the accelerating destruction of the environment; the growing global dominance of transnational corporations; the catastrophic subsistence crises in the Global South; the local wars that were creating vast numbers of refugees and migrants.  Along with all these went the rise of fundamentalisms—religious, nationalist, ethnic—in which we saw the potential for a worldwide movement similar to fascism in the Twenties and Thirties.  Our main hope for the future was the potential alliance between the global women’s movement and other progressive movements, but we feared that, in such an alliance, women’s concerns would always come last, as they had so often before.

            Ten years later, our worst fears have been confirmed.  The South Asian tsnunami, the melting of the glaciers, the floods on the Gulf Coast of North America, the increasingly warm temperatures around the world, all indicate rapid climate change, yet the political will to control pollution and shift away from fossil fuels does not seem to be there.  Our political leaders do not seem to be able to focus on the survival of their own grandchildren.  Meanwhile, the devastating effects of free market absolutism have become so clear that they have prompted a worldwide anti-globalization struggle.  And nationalist, religious, and ethnic fundamentalisms continue to tear Africa, Europe, and Asia apart, while the Islamic fundamentalists of Al Qaeda and the Christian fundamentalists whose ideology shaped the Bush administration’s “crusade” in Iraq are locked in a struggle to remake the world on terms unacceptable to everyone else. 

            In this world crisis, could the global women’s movement play a leading role in generating new ideas and creative methods of struggle?  We have been under such sharp attack in recent years that it has been hard even to hold the ground we won at the UN conferences of the early Nineties—Rio, Vienna, Cairo, Beijing.  The Vatican, the Christian fundamentalists of the Bush administration, and the Islamic fundamentalists who influence many governments in the Global South may oppose one another on issues of war and peace, but they are always willing to unite against women’s rights, particularly in the areas of health and reproduction.  Nor do we have steadfast allies on the left; our demands and issues remain ghettoized, while some members of the anti-globalization and anti-war movements go so far as to support fundamentalist groups because they are fighting U.S. imperialism.  Besieged on every side, our movement is in danger of sinking into depression or developing a bunker mentality, when what we need is a fresh analysis and vision.

            Some of the greatest challenges that face us today are in the realm of culture.  On the one hand, we are inundated by the products of a commercial global monoculture, dominated by US media, that uses up the space we need for local and alternative expression; on the other, we are under constant attack by movements of racists, fundamentalists, and extreme nationalists.  And how have we responded to these threats in the last ten years?  We have emphasized work in the UN and collaboration with governments, while our movements in many places grew weaker.  We have carried on what we were doing in the Nineties, focusing upon economic development, legal and political rights, violence against women and women’s health and reproductive rights, even as the political and economic climate to support our goals was transformed.  Did we think globalization and fascism would go away if we could only get more women elected, have progressive covenants passed at the UN, raise consciousness about violence against women, defend abortion rights, and start more micro-enterprises?

             In short, our movement has failed to comprehend and address dangers in the cultural sphere until they have reached crisis proportions and now threaten all the gains we have made.  In our focus on specific program areas, often in obedience to the guidelines of major foundations, we did not develop what we needed most—a clear and compelling holistic vision that could unite our programs, build our movement, and help us form alliances with other movements for social change.

            The cultural forces we are up against are growing because they have a clear vision and they communicate it much better than we do ours.  Today, as during the Cold War, two narratives are fighting for the hearts and minds of the world.  The globalization/free market narrative says every country can become as rich as the U.S. if they only cut back on government intervention and social benefits, modernize, and open their economies to giant Northern corporations.  The fundamentalist narrative takes many forms but is essentially a right wing version of the national liberation narratives of thirty years ago.  It says that We (our people, religion, nation, or ethnic group, as represented by its male leaders) have been oppressed for centuries and now we will rise up and destroy our enemies and rule ourselves (and our women) according to our ancient traditions.  The ethnic fundamentalists of the former Yugoslavia, the Islamic fundamentalists of Al Qaeda, the Jewish fundamentalist settlers in the West Bank, the Hindu fundamentalists of Shiv Sena, and the Christian fundamentalists of the American South each have their own version of this narrative.  The American crusader narrative is particularly dangerous because it is coupled with unparalleled military power, but none of these visions is likely to bring the world anything but war.

            The global women’s movement will not be able to fight off these cultural offensives unless we can construct a persuasive, compelling narrative of our own.  We have outgrown our earlier narratives.  “Women have always been oppressed and now we will unite to end our oppression!” was fine in 1968 but it included no strategy, and when we looked for a more strategic narrative, what we came up with was limited by our vision of what was possible.  For many, the narrative become, “Women have always been oppressed and therefore we are going to persuade our governments to make laws to decrease our oppression a little bit.”  When we found we couldn’t get very far with most governments, we came up with another narrative: “Women have always been oppressed so we will work in the UN to pass covenants to put pressure on member states.”  But those member states were the very governments we weren’t getting very far with, and the situation has only become worse in the last five years, with the US playing such a destructive role.

            None of these strategies are sufficient to our purposes.  It is fine for some of us to keep working on governments and in the UN; this is a reasonable division of labor; but our impact in high places will not last without continued pressure from below, and this pressure will not grow unless we can renew our vision and express it in memorable language and images.  We need a new narrative that combines an analysis of what we think is wrong in the world with a solution that has broad appeal and staying power, and that unites women with other groups who need change.  In short, we are at one of those points in history where we can go no father until we make an intellectual breakthrough.  What stands in the way of our meeting this challenge?

            Because we are writers, Women’s WORLD has always stressed the importance of using the language of the people rather than academic post-structural jargon or the bureaucratic technicalities of UN documents.  Particularly in the North, our movement’s ability to do cultural and intellectual work has been seriously hampered by the gulf between academic women, with their often arcane language and purely theoretical concerns, and people doing the practical work of the movement.  We need to overcome this gulf between activists and theoreticians and develop a style of intellectual work that grows out of practice and informs practice.  We did this in the Seventies when we explored the ways that personal life is political.  We did it in the Eighties when we developed a vision of reproductive rights.  We did it in the Nineties when we redefined the oppression of women in terms of a human rights analysis.  Now we need a practical kind of theory that can help us overcome our isolation and unite our issues and strengths with those of other movements for social justice.  We need a new narrative that puts women‘s liberation at the center of the struggle to save the planet and find collaborative, sustainable ways of being human.

            Social change begins with ideas.  When a new narrative—a critique of existing arrangements and a vision of a more just society—takes hold among masses of people and is embodied in organization and program, social change becomes possible.  But change around issues of gender is extremely slow at the bedrock level of culture.  The irreversible emancipation of women requires a shift in perception on the part of men that will enable them to recognize that women are as fully human as they are themselves.  This shift has begun to happen in some places but it takes more than one generation to achieve, and literature and voice are key to the process.

            We call upon the global women’s movement to do the intellectual and creative work necessary to develop a new holistic vision that unites our purposes with those of other groups who struggle for justice and a sustainable future.  We call upon our movement to use its collective intelligence to learn how to challenge and eventually change the bedrock ways of thinking about gender, rooted in culture, that deny the full humanity of women.  We call upon our movement to figure out the ways culture interacts with politics and economics, on the local and world scale.  We call upon our movement to become more skilled at expressing its vision and ideas, so we can compete effectively in cultural arenas, and to make better use of our artists and writers to help us evolve and express a holistic vision.  We call upon our movement to develop feminist networks and institutions that can provide training in expressive skills and nurture women’s independent political thought.

              We call upon donors to rethink development funding patterns that support only low level practical work or work with governments and international bodies; to fund collaborative projects between writers, artists, and activists that can experiment with ways to reach out and change hearts and minds; and to give more support to our movement’s cultural actors and institutions—writers, musicians, theater groups, publishers, film companies.  Even the most effective organizing projects are ephemeral; twenty years after they are finished, they are seldom remembered, but a strong narrative can last hundreds of years.  Thus, though support for cultural and intellectual work may not produce “measurable outcomes,” it is nonetheless a good investment if the goal is long term, permanent cultural change.

            Only when the global women’s movement recognizes the importance of cultural and intellectual work, and begins to integrate such work into a general strategy and program, can we move forward with renewed energy and develop a visionary narrative that will help us find the allies and resources we need.