Global Feminist in a Conservative Age: Possibilities and Pieties Since 1980

Global Feminist in a Conservative Age: Possibilities and Pieties Since 1980

In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s election brought the New Right to Washington. For feminists, it was the culmination of a series of devastating setbacks. The new administration gave the green light to an anti-feminist agenda that the Moral Majority, the Hyde Amendment, and Phyllis Schlafly’s Stop-ERA had already advanced. In the drastically altered climate, with the rightward turn affecting states and municipalities as well, feminist legislative and policy initiatives collapsed. Who truly spoke for the masses of women? Anti-feminists now insisted that they did.

Faced with blockage at home, one response of American feminists was to reorient their political ambitions to women’s movements abroad. A flourishing international women’s movement looked to be a hospitable venue for American energies and ideas. The turn to international work—newly termed “global feminism’’ –was enthusiastically endorsed and underwritten by U.S. foundations and women’s groups from across the political spectrum, from Left to center—and eventually the New Right. It became from the American point of view a triumph in an otherwise vexed and clouded period.

The importance given to the subject of violence against women was the Americans’ signal contribution to expanding international discussions in the period after 1980. Revelations about violence against women as a central component of oppression—whether rape, domestic abuse, or sexual harassment—had surfaced early in feminist consciousness-raising groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The new activism against violence yielded victories, or planted the seeds of future victories, in the otherwise dismaying period of the backlash against Roe v. Wade and the Equal Rights Amendment. Through the decade, police adopted revised procedures for rape victims; state and local governments provided funding for hot lines and shelters; universities set up counseling centers and educational programs; mental health professionals learned to attend to the role of incest, sexual abuse, and domestic violence in patients’ lives.

In the 1980s, Americans injected this perspective into international circles. The subject of violence was not even raised at the first United Nations World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1976. But at the third UN conference in 1985 in Nairobi, the topic generated scores of workshops and thousands of pamphlets. A decade later, at the World Conference in Beijing, sexual violence was a staple of discussion. It was one set of issues that generated unity, even as so many other fault lines developed. Sexual violence “transcended race, class and cultures, and united women worldwide in a common cause,” reported one delighted American participant at the Beijing conference. “There were so many different workshops on violence….that one could not have attended them all in nine days.”

For feminists from the third world, the spotlight on violence illuminated j...