One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.
This month, to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th, we asked a number of women academics:
What is the biggest challenge facing women today?
The response has been huge. Overall we have received 25 answers, and as such have split them into two parts. Part two can be found here. Please take the time to read through both.
Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research and one of the national organisers of the 2017 and 2018 International Women’s Strike in the United States. She is author of Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism (Merlin Press, 2013) and of A Wolf in the City: Tyranny and the Tyrant in Plato’s Republic (Oxford University Press, 2018).
If I had to summarise in a slogan the greatest challenge women face today, I would say that ‘taking feminism back’ is the one. From the 1990s onwards, contrary to the past, in a number of countries formal gender equality and the recognition of formal rights for LGBTQ people has ceased to be a taboo. Even right-wing political forces have started to adopt some form of ‘feminist’ discourse to justify their policies. The most notable phenomena in this sense are those recently labelled as ‘homonationalism’ and ‘femonationalism’, that is, the mobilisation of ideas of gender and sexual equality stemming from feminism and gay liberation struggles in order to justify military aggressions.
This, of course, is not a novel phenomenon as women’s bodies and ‘liberation’ have been instrumentalised by colonial forces already before. But neoliberal capitalism has managed to both exhume and greatly expand this practice. Besides this adoption of feminist slogans by nationalist and neoliberal forces, we have also witnessed an increasing capacity of right-wing or conservative parties to endorse women’s leadership: Sarah Palin, Marine Le Pen, Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Giorgia Meloni are only some examples of this phenomenon, which shows all the limits of a formalistic approach to gender equality and the representation of women in elected institutions.
The candidature of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election of 2016 also marked the impasse of the liberal feminist approach to gender equality. Hillary Clinton, in fact, embodied the kind of lean-in feminism that privileges the experience and aspirations of upper middle class women, while leaving the rest behind. Her candidature also symbolised the disconnection between women’s representation in elected institutions and the improvement of the large majority of women’s lives.
The challenge we face today is, therefore, to retrieve feminism as a force of social transformation for all women – starting from the liberation of working class, migrant, trans women and women of colour – and as a form of critique of social relations in their complexity, starting from capitalism and its effects on women’s lives. Together with other feminist authors and activists I have labelled this anticapitalist and antiracist feminism as ‘feminism for the 99%’, by which we understand a class-based feminism capable of being a force of transformation not just for women, but also for what we understand by class struggle, and for the life on this planet as a whole.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Distinguished Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Dean’s Professor of the Humanities at Syracuse University. She is author of Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Duke University Press, 2003), and co-editor of Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Indiana University Press, 1991), Feminism and War: Confronting U.S. Imperialism (Zed Books, 2008), and Feminist Freedom Warriors (Haymarket Books, 2018).
It is impossible to answer this question in the singular. Given multiple colonial/capitalist genealogies, racist, ableist, misogynist landscapes, and heteronormative/patriarchal gender regimes, as well as increasingly militarised, carceral national State projects, women around the world face both specific and multiple challenges. Fundamentally however, all these challenges stem from the systemic violences women face daily, and the complexities of organising and building solidarities across borders and divides.
A woman refugee from Syria or South Sudan faces forcible displacement as a result of persecution, conflict, and human rights violations. A Rohinga Muslim woman in Myanmar faces new types of violence and torture, worse than anything human rights agencies have recorded before. Palestinian women in the West Bank face the daily psychic and physical violence of Israeli occupation and the resulting loss of home, access to healthcare, education, and social services. Black mothers in the USA face the prospect of the loss, criminalisation or incarceration of their sons (and daughters) by a racist, white supremacist US State. Trans women of colour in Europe and the USA face the daily violence of a gender conformist, Christian fundamentalist governing apparatus and heteronormative cultural ideologies. Dalit women in rural India confront Brahminical patriarchy and caste prejudice that puts their bodies, lives and livelihoods at risk every day. Women working in factories, offices, the service industry, and on farms face sexual harassment, wage inequities, and (sometimes) glass ceilings.
Thus while the challenges facing women are specific and multiple, there are interconnected global structures and processes that an anti-capitalist, anti-racist feminist analysis helps us understand. What women in different geopolitical spaces and classes all confront are the violences of the extractive, dehumanising, and exploitative systems of rule and patriarchal/heteronormative ideologies.
Acknowledging and analysing explicitly carceral regimes, geopolitical climate destruction, militarised national borders, massive displacement of peoples (war, climate, and economic refugees), proliferation of corporatist, racist, misogynist cultures, decimation of labour movements, and the rise of right-wing, proto-fascist governments around the world (e.g., Modi in India, Erdoğan in Turkey, Trump in the USA) helps us map the urgent and interconnected challenges facing women. On the other hand, ignoring the profoundly gendered nature of the violent consequences of these systems of exploitation and rule leads to a truncated analysis, and social justice movements that erase half of humanity.
Charles F. Adams Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, President of the American Political Science Association 2012-13, has been an active feminist since 1968. She is the author of Beyond Adversary Democracy (Chicago University Press, 1980) and Why We Lost the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) (Chicago University Press, 1986), as well as editor/co-editor of Beyond Self-Interest (Chicago University Press, 1990) and Political Negotiation: A Handbook (Brookings Institution, 2015).
The biggest challenge is to HANG ON IN THERE.
Backlash: The #MeToo movement is spreading around the globe, triggering backlash everywhere it goes. As we stress proportionality and due process, we need to stand by our sisters. It’s usually hard to go public with these accusations, because they bring up vividly moments that are often suffused with self-doubt, remembered fear, horror, embarrassment, physical revulsion, and even shame. Reliving those moments is tough. Dealing with the revived anger, which one has usually tried to get beyond, is also tough. The new website Callisto provides a site on which women can register their experiences privately until another person writes in about the same perpetrator. Then those who have registered their experiences can compare notes and decide whether to go public together. Tools like this strengthen us and help fight predictable backlash.
Internal dissension: Whether because of different politics in other realms, different interpretations of women’s needs, different cultures and interpretations of identity, or other sources, conflict will always arise in any movement for change. We need to be as generous as we can and as disciplined as possible in keeping our eyes on the goal, taking conflict and dissent in our stride, avoiding personal attacks, and not getting distracted. It’s worth it to face and clarify real conflicts, in order to help everyone understand the content of the challenges, even if the result is to decide to work separately. (Social movements are hydra-headed; they don’t require unity.) But getting angry at the self-interested or problematic behaviour of others pulls us from the goal. They may have reasons that we don’t know for acting badly; the movement benefits when we redirect our attention and move on.
Facing failure: Times change; good ideas don’t work out. But keep swimming. Another wave will come. Look back; the direction is toward equality.
Professor of Politics and Development at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK. Her books include: Resistance, Revolt, and Gender Justice in Egypt (Syracuse University Press, 2016), The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy redefined or confined? (Routledge Press, 2012) and Copts at the Crossroads: The challenges of building an inclusive democracy in contemporary Egypt (American University in Cairo Press, 2013). She is also editor of Women in Politics: Gender, Power and Development (Zed books, 2014).
Irrespective of whether you think there is an almost universal awakening to the necessity of assuming a zero tolerance stance on discrimination against women or whether you think we are experiencing gender fatigue (people sick and tired of the gender police), gender inequality is not going away – whether as a reality or a theme around which people mobilise. For example, feminism was the most searched for word on the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017. We are also not short of excellent up to date research on the issues and priorities to achieve gender equality.
However, in order to influence or create the political will to put policies into practices without dilution, without window dressing and without irregularities, we need to take the identity and interests of those shaping the gender agenda seriously. It is time we stop assuming that being a woman is a proxy for the advancement of women’s rights. The reasons are at least twofold.
First, the anti-feminist movement has a strong female constituency (and sometimes leadership too) and is successfully mobilising in online and offline spaces. By anti-feminist, I mean the forms of political organisation that are specifically created to counter any and all claims-making made in national and international platforms for gender equality. This is not about women and men who may normatively differ on whether the quota is a good thing or not, or whether the minimum age of marriage should be 16 or 18. In other words, it is not about diversity in perspectives about what is a locally sensitive pro-equality policy or what would globally be most effective as a strategy of promoting gender equality. Rather, it is about an ideologically-driven political agenda to counter gender equality. And women are very active in it, be it in Reddit Red Pill blogosphere so popular in the West, or more national level movements such as the Hindutva movement in India or the Salafi movement in Egypt.
The second reason we should disentangle identity from the gender equality agenda is that it closes opportunities for the recognition of the important mobilisational role that some men assume as partners to women in challenging patriarchal orders. In Egypt, the most successful groups in popularising the notion that women have the right not to be sexually harassed independently of what they are wearing or where they are have been the youth-led initiatives comprised of women and men formed in 2011. Through graffiti, songs, slogans, online activism and awareness raising efforts on the streets of Cairo in particular, men’s involvement in anti-sexual harassment activism helped bring it out of the gender ghetto.
Whether we are talking about women’s activism against or men’s activism for women’s rights, the intention here is simply to say that our strategy for influencing political will, whether at a global or national level, needs to be more mindful of the wide array of allies and opponents at hand, and that will require a focus on interests and agenda, not identity.
Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of California Riverside, where she teaches courses in feminist, queer, and heterosexuality studies. She is the author of Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (New York University Press, 2015) and Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008). She is currently working on a book titled The Tragedy of Heterosexuality: How Misogyny Doomed the World’s Most Cherished Union and Hid the Wreckage (forthcoming with NYU Press).
The greatest challenge facing anyone who has experienced gender oppression, including and especially women, is the gender binary itself. The gender binary refers not only to the idea that humans exist in two distinct, biologically-determined forms (male and female), but also to the cultural, economic and legal practices that reinforce this idea.
Sex assignment at birth, inequitable distribution of power and resources and responsibilities based on this sex assignment, compulsory heterosexuality (the idealisation of sexual partnership based on presumed gender difference), and the policing of violations to gender and heterosexual norms (policing directed most harshly at people of colour) are all part of the gender binary apparatus. Yes, patriarchy is the system that sustains and naturalises men’s power over women, but the gender binary is patriarchy’s necessary precondition – one that does not receive nearly enough attention, whether the subject at hand is rape culture or the glass ceiling.
All too often during feminist flashpoints, like the current #MeToo movement or the rising resistance against mass shootings committed by white men in the United States, commentators point to the need for healthier expressions of masculinity. But this proposal is strikingly uneven; we know that the path toward justice for girls and women is not healthier femininity, but undoing the assumption that girls and women need to be feminine in the first place. Still, the attachment to masculinity as a necessary and inevitable feature of men’s lives persists, and many people seem only able to imagine improving masculinity rather than unmasking it as an outmoded historical invention that has caused more damage than good.
Women’s problems – namely, their global and centuries-long subjection to dehumanisation, control, and violence at the hands of people we call ‘men’ – require an undoing of the very categories that mark our so-called difference.
Visiting Professor in Culture, Philosophy & Environment, Nelson Mandela University, South Africa; Senior Fellow in Post-Growth Societies, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany; and Research Associate in Political Economy, University of Sydney, Australia. Her website is at: www.arielsalleh.info
Literally our ‘biggest challenge’ is the military-industrial-cyber-media complex, whose global structure has evolved historically to protect Eurocentric patriarchal power. Liberal capitalist values and government institutions are part of the same complex. Other increasingly ambivalent instruments of masculinist entitlement include the law, state bureaucracies, banks, the Vatican, universities, and even development aid organisations. This complex rhizome-like political structure not only affects women’s lives, and men’s lives, it could extinguish all life-on-Earth at any moment.
Patriarchal domination began some 10,000 years ago, and since women’s embodied fertility is prerequisite to the survival of any civilisation, their bodies have always been controlled. This explains the often culturally sanctioned violence enacted on women by men – deprivation of economic resources; unpaid domestic labour; unequal wages; prostitution; pornography; stalking; harassment; animal labels; silencing; restricted mobility; polygamy; clitoral excision; honour killing; suttee; domestic abuse; marital rape; criminalised abortion; youth gang rape; kidnapping; genocidal rape; dismemberment; and witch-hunting of widows. Today, a combination of female foeticide, one-on-one violence, and militarised collateral damage is reducing the international demographic ratio of women vis a vis men.
Not all men ‘perform masculinity’ in the same way, of course; nor are all women subject to the same social pressures (a woman’s class position or ethnicity will affect such exposures). But feminists and others striving for women’s ‘difference’ to be translated into an ‘equal’ community partnership meet deep sub-conscious resistance from many men uneasy about the loss of existing social privileges. The political point is that in order to achieve a fair and participatory global future, we will all have to deal with existing patriarchal practices and the masculinist subconscious that sustains them. To quote the late Petra Kelly: moving from violence to civility will mean a kind of ‘intimate disarmament’.
Today, the #MeToo campaign is stirring a new generation of feminist consciousness, although the collective denial strategies of capitalist patriarchalism have turned questions of principle into ‘the sexual sell’. The effect is that courageous women whistle-blowers generate profits for media moguls and middle class lawyers. And given the prevalence of identity politics, all sorts of ‘intersecting’ #MeToo claims will likely follow.
The media focus on sexual harassment also serves the status quo by distracting attention from the economic brutalisation of women. Fact 1: capitalist profits would collapse without the unwaged care labour of housewives. Fact 2: after 30 years of feminism, women still earn 20% less than men in the same jobs. Fact 3: whereas the patriarchal divide and rule once set women against each other in competition for husbands, now women must compete in the workplace to join the ranks of masculinist privilege.
As the pioneering ecological feminist Ynestra King put it, way back in the 80s: ‘Who wants an equal piece of the pie, when the pie is toxic?’
Judging by the last several decades of feminist politics, women’s revolution could easily take another 300 years. This is because ‘the biggest challenge’ for patriarchally raised men, most men, is to rediscover and learn to love the ‘feminine’ part inside themselves.
Professor of Philosophy Emerita from Rutgers U-Newark, co-author of Capitalism For & Against: A Feminist Debate, editor of The Socialist Feminist Project (Cambridge University, 2011) and numerous articles on core philosophical subjects including freedom, rationality, exploitation, human/women’s nature (see academia.edu). She is on the editorial Board of New Politics and has been a lifelong activist.
It would be mistaken to focus solely on gender-specific issues, i.e. ones that exclusively or primarily affect women, such as gender violence or threats to reproductive rights, as crucial as these are. Women are not only women, but first and foremost they are human beings, as well as having a specific nationality, class, race and sexuality. Thus we need to consider challenges facing them in all their dimensions. It is difficult to explain this without being overly-complicated or simplistic but I will try.
The biggest threat facing all humankind (as well as non-humans) are the multiple ecological crises that are fast making life on this planet unsustainable. These have already led to millions of deaths per year due to drought, resource wars and forced migration, all of which disproportionally affect women. Throughout history the exploitation of working people and of the Earth has always been gendered and racialized.
And the really inconvenient truth is that these problems are fundamentally caused by capitalism. Its inherent need to maximise profit leads to blind, endless quantitative growth. Even if we switch to renewable sources of energy, the need to grow which is endemic to capitalism is outstripping the resources of the planet.
The biggest challenge facing women today is to figure out strategies and tactics that integrate women’s issues of all kinds into struggles against the ecological crises facing us, always recognising the centrality of capitalism. Women have been leaders of environmental struggles around the world, for example Berta Caceres of Honduras, often presenting themselves as caretakers of the earth. An inspiring example of this approach is the MST (Landless Peasants Movement), a movement of millions around the globe who fight for land reform, agro-ecological farming methods and women’s rights.
So my answer to the ONE question becomes many but with a common core.
Professor of Education and Women’s Studies at the University of Toronto and activist. Her most recent publications include Revolutionary Learning: Marxism, Feminism and Knowledge, co-authored with Sara Carpenter (2017); Marxism and Feminism, editor (Zed Books, 2015); Educating from Marx: Race, Gender and Learning, co-edited with Sara Carpenter (Palgrave, 2012) and Women, War, Violence, and Learning, editor (Routledge, 2010).
There is a ‘war-on-women’ today which begs a forceful revolutionary feminist (re)theorisation and praxis. The starting point is not problems of identity, ethnicity, nativism, authenticity, indigeneity, or the body. Fascism, Fundamentalism and Imperialism are the biggest challenges facing us all. They are interconnected forms of political, ideological and economic relations targeting women globally and indiscriminately.
We should ask why after more than a century of women’s struggle for freedom, equality and secularism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, women there continue to suffer, probably more than they did in the last century? Why patriarchal and racialized forms of occupation, militarisation, and securitisation are spreading into all aspects of private and public life? The entanglement of the imperialist and Islamic fundamentalist forces in the region is a key factor in creating these conditions of extreme misery, war, destruction and violence against women.
Amin Omar, known as Barin Kobani, a 23-year-old Kurdish woman fighter was killed three times on January 30, 2018:
- First, she was killed in a military action around the village of Qarnah near Bulbul, north of the city of Afrin;
- Second, her uniform was stripped apart to expose her body because she was fighting as a member of the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ), an all-women force that fights alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG);
- Third, her body was mutilated as a sign of the ultimate punishment for a woman fighter.
It is this brutality that challenges us all. For decades now, the machinery of theocratic patriarchal capitalist imperialism in alliance with the regional state and Islamist forces has ravaged the region; death is becoming the only option. Women and girls are sold as slaves and purchased as prostitutes; they are raped, forced to take virginity tests; they are widowed; they are becoming the sole providers and care givers to hundreds of thousands of wounded and disabled; and are arrested and imprisoned en masse. In short, the majority of the people in the Middle East and North Africa are on the verge of total expulsion from life.
Barin’s death is a call for War No More! It is a call to join the vast struggle of women in the region, exemplified by the brave act of the 16-year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi, who resisted the aggression of the occupier; or the women of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran and Turkey who daily resist the violence of imperialist powers, regional states and Islamist warlords and demand safety, security, freedom and secularism.
Barin died as a Kurdish woman fighting for equality, freedom, democracy, peace and justice. Let’s make her struggle ours by:
- Reclaiming the MENA region not through an imperialist peace, but through a radical people’s uprising for peace, bread and jobs;
- Stopping the global ‘war-on-women’, from #MeToo to the rape of women in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, the refugee camps, Africa and Latin America;
- Organising a global feminist coalition against both imperialism and patriarchal theocratic fascism;
- And making our schools, campuses, or union halls the site of revolutionary feminist learning.
Philipp Schwartz fellow at the Diversity and Social Conflict Department of Humboldt University in Berlin. Until February 2016, she was the Head of Sociology Department at Nişantaşı University, Istanbul, but after she signed the Peace Petition titled ‘We Will Not Be Party to this Crime’ the university administration fired her from position. She has edited books and written scholarly and non-scholarly articles on gender, nationalism, faith and urbanisation in various journals and newspapers.
In Turkey, today’s biggest challenge is the backlash of misogynist male domination, which, hand in hand with neo-liberal policies and values undermines feminist gains and demands. The last decade has witnessed this backlash in a very visible and audible way.
First the gains: during the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the wind of the EU accession process and more crucially with the insistence of the women’s movement, laws such as the Civil Code and Penal Law were amended in favour of women. Women started to be regarded as equal heads of the household in marriage and ‘honour’ ceased to be an extenuating factor to decrease the perpetrator’s sentence in cases where women were murdered. Also, Law 6284 for the Protection of the Family and Prevention of Violence against Women was passed in 2012, representing the culmination of the women’s movement’s struggles and efforts since the 1980s.
Such legal changes were obviously important gains for the movement, but in order for real gender equality to develop, and the struggle against discrimination and violence against women to be effective, what is desperately needed is sustained political support at the level of public policy making. Unfortunately, however, what the AKP and its indisputable leader, Erdoğan himself, have been doing for a while is quite the opposite. More specifically they adopt a political stance and use a discursive style which position women as second class citizens and normalise everyday violence against women, children, and indeed anyone whom the mainstream sees as different or vulnerable.
Perhaps the clearest symbolic expression of this backlash was the renaming and restructuring of the so-called ‘Ministry of State Responsible for Women’ as ‘The Ministry of Family and Social Policies’. This change was indicative of an outlook which reduces woman to her stereotypical role as a mother and care giver in the family. More recently this outlook also found expression in the way that women’s attire and behaviour are blamed for the violence perpetrated against them – and this not only by political, but also, in a disturbingly high number of cases, by judicial authorities. An even more disturbing move that has contributed to the normalisation of violence against women and children was the attempt by the AKP government to reduce the legal age of consent in sexual harassment and violence cases to twelve.
Finally, the rise of nationalistic and militaristic discourses as a result of the ongoing operations in the Kurdish regions of the country and now the war in Afrin, Syria must also be mentioned as challenges that feed into this misogynistic backlash against women.
Chair of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University in The Hague. She has written and edited 12 books and is series editor of the Palgrave Gender, Development and Social Change Series and the ISS-Routledge Series on Gender, Development and Sexuality.
The term ‘women’ covers a huge category of people – 50% of humanity. We have to recognise there are as many differences among women as among men – due to class, culture, race, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation and age. Perhaps the biggest challenge is for women to overcome the continuing definition of themselves as somehow a homogeneous category just because they are women.
As French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir famously said in 1949 – ‘one is not born but rather becomes a woman’. The conditioning to be the second sex, rather than people in their own right, continues to determine women’s actions, and peoples’ (women and men’s) responses to them, even if individuals have all the ability and confidence to succeed or just to be themselves.
Beyond that general, observation, I would say that for many women like myself (white, middle class, employed, educated, with family and living in a rich country) there continues to be the challenge of how to balance paid and unpaid work, care in the home and success in the work place. Women are still expected to be the principle ones engaging in care in the home. It is not only about who pays for the kids, as US economist Nancy Folbre has pointed out in her research. Women and men also need to share the care for children and for the elderly.
The assumption that because of their biology women should be naturally the carers continues to be the dominant motif. This is limiting to both women and men. The challenge is that we need to change those fundamental gender biases so that both men and women can experience the joy as well as the burdens of care giving.
Wangari Maathai Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is author of several award winning books, including Women and Power in Postconflict Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2015); Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in a Hybrid Regime (Lynne Rienner, 2010); and African Women’s Movements: Transforming Political Landscapes (Cambridge University Press, 2008) with Isabel Casimiro, Joy Kwesiga, and Alice Mungwa.
The biggest challenge facing women today is how to increase women’s political leadership globally. While women face many challenges, including lower pay than men, sexual harassment, violence, and other forms of marginalisation, access to political power is key. It is the means by which many other issues confronting women can be addressed. While it cannot be assumed that all women leaders will advance women’s rights, the more women in power, the more likely it is that these issues will be addressed.
The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum finds that the gender gap in educational attainment (95%) and health outcomes (96%) has nearly closed globally, while in the area of economic participation and opportunity the gender gap stands at 58%. However, it is in the area of political empowerment where the gap has closed the least, at 23%. The gap is there even in post-industrial countries like the United States, which ranks 100th in female Congressional representation. This may change in upcoming elections as significantly larger numbers of women say they will vie for office in reaction to President Trump’s policies and behaviour. Women, on average, hold 23% of the legislative seats globally. There are only 28 female heads of government and state out of 195 countries in the world. Only 18% of the government ministers in the world are women.
Equity in political leadership is a question of fairness since women make up half the population. Women also bring different perspectives and expertise to bear and may represent different interests based on their life experiences. Women tend to have leadership styles that are more inclusive and collaborative. Having more women in power can also shape and redefine the qualities that we value in leaders. Numerous studies have found higher rates of female leadership are correlated with less conflict and corruption in a country, higher levels of economic competitiveness, greater public trust in government, and more attention to social concerns.
What keeps women from attaining power? In the past, studies pointed to the constraints of childrearing and other forms of care work, along with cultural views and socialisation. These days, with the global emphasis on gender quotas for legislatures and other governmental bodies, institutional factors feature more prominently in explanations for why women succeed in political leadership.
The fact that countries like Rwanda, where women hold 61% of the legislative seats, have been able to overcome cultural and social hurdles to give women political power means that other countries can follow their lead. But we also know that it takes conscious effort by women’s movements, parties, legislators and top political leaders to make it happen. We have learned over the past two decades that women’s rise to positions of political power does not happen on its own.
Assistant Professor and the chair of Social Philosophy and Philosophy of Gender at the Faculty for Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb. She is currently finishing her book on the social history of capitalism, Hobbes and Locke. She is a socialist and feminist activist.
The biggest challenge for women today is the struggle for the preservation of the rights they have achieved in history. This would mean that today’s women’s struggle is reduced to efforts at maintaining existing rights, and less oriented towards the progress or ‘conquest’ of political fields that were unavailable to women in the past.
The attack on acquired women’s rights is carried out – conditionally speaking – on two levels. On the one hand, conservative neoliberal procedures systematically and continuously attack women’s social and material rights, whether we are talking about reproductive or labour rights. And, on the other hand, with the global rise of the far right in the last few years, we can observe the ever-increasing re-traditionalisation of the role of women in households and families, the formalisation of misogyny and the deepening of oppression (be it in context of gender, race or sexuality).
It would be highly inaccurate for these two conservative processes to be considered separately, because oppression and exploitation are elements of the same ‘unitary’ capitalist logic and are mutually conditioned. It is important to emphasise that the slowdown or, to be more precise, halt of progress towards equality led by conservative forces is pushing society back to a political climate strongly reminiscent of the period before the Russian Revolution. What is even worse, along with these processes another very problematic one is simultaneously taking place: the appropriation of feminism for reactionary purposes, whether for nationalist and racist agendas or lean-in feminism.
In short: the biggest challenge for women today will be the preservation of historically gained social-material rights, but also pushing feminist demands in the socialist direction, both in workplaces and in households. This challenge necessarily involves the fight against the reactionary instrumentalisation of feminism.
Laura J. Shepherd
ARC Future Fellow and Professor of International Relations at The University of Sydney, Australia, and Visiting Senior Fellow at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security in London, UK. She is author/editor of nine books and her research has been published in such journals as European Journal of International Relations, International Feminist Journal of Politics, and International Affairs.
I have a typical academic answer to this question, and that is: it’s complicated. This response is not intended to be facetious, though. I actually think the biggest challenge facing women today is the failure by society and its institutions to recognise the heterogeneity of women’s identities, embodiment, and experiences.
This is, of course, not a new challenge for women, nor for feminist theory and praxis. From Sojourner Truth to Judith Butler, feminist philosophers have often questioned the integrity and coherence of the subject of ‘woman’. Contestation over who counts as a woman, and on whose behalf rights as a woman can therefore be claimed, has been a feature of the landscape in feminist theory for over two centuries; as Lisa Tilley recently wrote, ‘within white feminism the category of “woman” has always been a tightly bordered one’.
Transgressing those borders and thinking about women in an inclusive, intersectional way that is respectful of all modes of self-identification can form the basis of a renewed feminist politics. Until we recognise the instability and mutability of the subject of ‘woman’, however, I think we will carry with us a residual essentialism that reproduces particular configurations of overlapping and interconnected white, cis, hetero and male privilege.
The demand for a coherent subject on whose behalf rights are claimed can be a way of undermining a political movement, while celebrating diversity and at times incoherence can be a way of finding unity in difference. Diverse need not mean divided, and the acknowledgement of women’s differences is a necessary pre-condition for the meaningful participation of women in politics, the support of women in industry, and the representation of women in all societal institutions and roles. Assuming homogeneity of ‘women’ limits the possibilities available to women, to the detriment of women themselves and to society as a whole.