Checking in on feminism overseas

Look beyond feminism in the West -- is the real action going on in developing nations and emerging powers? Click here to read previous installments from this week’s Dust-Up.

Why other nations depend on us
Point: Amanda Marcotte

One of the most remarkable shifts in human consciousness in the history of the world happened in the last few decades, with feminism moving from its status as a joke or annoyance to a moral imperative. Of course, it’s more a woman-centric than a “dismantle the concept of gender” form of feminism, especially with the United Nations and other organizations that hope to improve life in developing countries believing that if you improve the lives of women, you improve the community.

The breadth and width of feminist struggles around the world is pretty hard to digest. In many developing nations, feminism is inextricably linked up with anti-imperialism, which causes some tension. Obviously, demanding a seat for women in struggles for national autonomy will give some men an opportunity to lecture feminists about priorities. But women push forward. Some of the feminist reforms pushed through make me wish American feminists would adopt those on our platforms. Katha, you and I discussed Tuesday the paltry representation of women in our elected leadership, but many nations -- including Uganda, India, Pakistan and Costa Rica -- have laws mandating that women hold a certain number of seats in some of their lawmaking bodies.

A plateful of issues get classified as feminist issues globally, from the struggle against child marriage to establishing the rights of women to entrepreneurship. The subject that’s near and dear to my heart, and the focus of much of my feminist writing, is reproductive rights, and as such, the struggle for reproductive justice south of the U.S. border has been heartening. Mexico, of course, recently legalized abortion (at least in Mexico City), and feminists across Latin America struggle for legalized abortion and better access to contraception so that fewer women need abortion.

The idea that the “real action” is in developing nations does draw out a problem with the longing for a movement, which is that movements develop around positive goals. Whether feminists are struggling for girls’ right to education or for women’s right to free contraception, they have movement because they’re trying to effect change. American feminism seems scattershot in no small part because we’re playing defense against a reactionary movement to take away rights already won.

Of course, the first victims of the American anti-feminist movement were really women in developing countries, particularly those who rely on U.S. aid to improve access to reproductive healthcare. Between budgetary cuts to international family-planning organizations, the dreaded global gag rule and a preference for HIV prevention funds to be attached to abstinence-only programs, the U.S. in the last eight years has delivered a setback to women worldwide that will be hard to overcome. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing a reversal of fortunes after the November election.

Amanda Marcotte is the executive editor and writer for the blog Her first book, “It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environment,” is published by Seal Press.

The U.S. is no standard-bearer
Counterpoint: Katha Pollitt

Quick, what country has the highest representation of women in its legislature? (Hint: The U.S. is definitely not No. 1.) It’s Rwanda, with 49%. Name some countries led by women -- and women who are NOT the daughters, wives or widows of male leaders. Well, Chile, Germany, New Zealand and Liberia are four that come to mind.

The United States is way behind the global curve on women in elected office, for numerous reasons: Incumbency is a powerful inertial force in our political system; we don’t have gender quotas, like the ones we urged on, um, Afghanistan and Iraq; voters here choose candidates individually, not by slate; and much of the country insists on conservative family values for politicians. It’s hard to imagine a never-married single mother, such as Chilean President Michelle Bachelet or 2007 French presidential candidate Segolene Royal, occupying the White House -- or even, in many parts of the country, a state legislator’s seat -- any time soon. Other countries surpass us on other feminist goals as well: paid maternity leave and parental leave, national healthcare, affordable child care, pay equity, fact-based sex education and access to free contraception. Of course, in a lot of those countries, a woman has a hard time buying an assault rifle, so chalk one up for us.

For decades, anti-feminists dismissed the movement for women’s rights as a “western” or “American” frivolity. But over the last generation or so, we’ve seen the growth of a truly global feminism -- or, more properly, feminisms plural -- adapted to local cultures and possessing strong grass roots. The courage and dedication of feminists in the Middle East, the former Soviet bloc, Latin America, Africa and Asia fill me with awe. We could learn a lot from them, for example, about the connections between economic empowerment and political rights and between government support and individual development.

It’s true as you say, Amanda, that in this country the women’s movement has to battle a powerful movement bent on turning back the clock. But that’s not our only problem. We also have to deal with the fact that women’s equality takes money -- for healthcare, day care, legal aid, women’s shelters and even the processing of rape kits -- and large numbers of Americans don’t want to pay taxes and hate “big government.” The countries where women have come the farthest toward equality are social-welfare states such as the Scandinavian countries, where it would be unthinkable for rational people to argue that because they had no children they shouldn’t have to pay for public schools, or that religious charity can abolish poverty. Maybe not so coincidentally, you don’t find many Swedes or Norwegians who think teenagers should be kept in the dark about sex and if they get pregnant, too bad for them.

Unfortunately, in the U.S. it’s practically verboten to suggest that we have anything to learn from any other country -- especially France! But somehow, those cheese-eating surrender monkeys have figured out how to have great day care and a national health service that provides the best care in the world. Maybe now that red wine turns out to lengthen your life span, we’ll take another look at their curious folkways.

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation magazine. Her volume of personal essays, “Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories,” was published last fall by Random House.

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