Think globally, teach locally.
That Beijing could represent an emerging global feminism partly depended on an awareness that other dimensions of globalization - economic, cultural and political - affect all women's lives. In addition to developing a Platform for Action that doubles as a manifesto of global feminism, Beijing gave a new mandate to women's studies in the US: become more consistently inclusive by integrating the experiences, voices and strategies for change of women around the world.
Institutional change in higher education has been supported and to some extent shaped by the allocation of foundation funds, particularly from the Ford Foundation. In 1988, for example, Ford developed an initiative on "Mainstreaming Minority Women's Studies" that funded collaborative efforts between women's studies research centers and scholars of color; Liza Fiol-Matta's and Mariam K. Chamberlain's Women of Color and the Multicultural Curriculum (The Feminist Press, 1994) details the processes and fruits of this project.
For quite different historical reasons, rooted in reconfigurations of power and Cold War politics after World War Two, Ford has also long supported international and area studies, especially in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe - programs not known for their sensitivity to gender issues. In 1995, Ford, working with the National Council for Research on Women, launched a new initiative, the "Women's Studies, Area and International Studies Curriculum Integration Project" (WSAIS), designed to link programs in these three areas, encouraging the curricular inclusion of materials concerning women and gender especially in the non-Western world.
In the past three years, faculty at thirteen institutions funded by this initiative have been wrestling with tough but productive conceptual and strategic questions.(1) How will disciplines have to change to accommodate the experiences of women and the diversity of gender arrangements around the world? What teaching strategies best explore the implications for women of global processes like the spread and interdependency of free market economies, migration and immigration, or the proliferation of new electronic technologies, as they intersect with national, regional, and local policies and cultures? How are different feminisms historically constructed in different places, and how have they constructed one another across national boundaries? How do teachers in US universities name and understand the connections among an emergent global feminism and local women's movements, without assuming Western feminism as normative? How do teachers here negotiate between the shoals of cultural relativism on the one hand and ethnocentrism on the other in classes about women of other cultures, particularly with regard to "culturally challenging practices" like veiling, clitoridectomy, arranged marriage? Is it possible to "internationalize" a women's studies course without genuine expertise about a range of different countries and cultures? How might faculty immersed in the politics and cultures of one particular area think and teach comparatively?
The participating universities have devised various formats for exploring these issues. At the University of Arizona, where the Southwest Institute for Research on Women (SIROW) pioneered projects for change in the international/women's studies curriculum years ago, faculty and graduate students have attended intensive summer institutes that include collaborative efforts with colleagues across the Mexican border. At Spelman College, the project has focused on Women and African Diaspora Studies, fostering the development of a new major in Comparative Women's Studies. At SUNY-Albany conferences and faculty development seminars have featured presentations by and dialogue among guest scholars from Africa, Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe as well as the US. The University of Maryland, focusing on "Women and Gender in an Era of Global Change," offered three summer institutes for faculty from campuses throughout the state university system, sponsored "polyseminars" - lecture series combined with faculty study groups and course offerings - during the academic year, and offered stipends to support curriculum development. At New York University, faculty developed a course for the core curriculum on "Gender and Power in Global Perspective" and designed residencies for scholars working on gender from regions represented in the campus' area studies: Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East.
The titles of some of the seminars, lecture series and theme years associated with the initiative suggest the range and differing emphases of the projects: "Encuentro Feminista: Defining a Feminist Research and Teaching Agenda for the 21st Century" (SUNY-Albany); "Curricular Crossings in Women's Studies: Women's Health and Welfare in a Global Perspective" (Five College Women's Studies Research Center); "Genders, Bodies, Borders" (University of Michigan); "The Meanings of Feminisms in the Reconfigured Public/Private Space of Central and Eastern Europe" (Rutgers); "Gender and Migrations" (Tulane).
Virtually all of the projects considered economic issues: how have structural adjustment policies for "third world" countries differentially affected women and men? is "development" a gendered process, and how are women working to redefine it to include environmental, cultural and educational concerns? How do the various realities of women's work experiences challenge current assumptions in economics, particularly those used by funding agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? How has the rise of tourism as a global industry - including, but not limited to, sex tourism- depended on women's labor and women's bodies?
"Borderlands" and "diasporas" became generative images in some projects, describing both literally and figuratively the complicated allegiances and alienations of women as immigrants, as refugees, as political exiles, as activists, as citizens in reconfiguring nation-states, as allies with interdependent histories crossing national boundaries. Some projects explored the ways both new nationalisms and rising religious fundamentalisms have represented "women's nature" and "women's roles" to advance their agendas.
These questions of representation became critical in other ways as well. Analyzing "Eurocentrism" in a globalizing mass media with an increasing hold over the imaginations of women and men in many parts of the world were central to several projects. Works of literature and film by women offered probably the most powerful way to integrate many voices and perceptions into faculty seminars and classrooms, but using them raises further questions: How "representative" are they? How can faculty use these materials without turning them into overly simple social-science generalizations, or without reducing them to decontextualized "examples" in order to demonstrate some larger point?
Debates about women's citizenship, political representation, legal rights and human rights were key in many of the projects. How have feminist rights activists redefined "human rights" to include a wide range of newly-articulated women's rights, including the right to recourse against gender-based violence? Should assertions of women's rights be framed in uncompromisingly universalist terms, as rights discourse usually is, or can they and should they take account of cultural differences? How have women in Central and Eastern Europe fared as political actors in the transitions from socialism to ostensibly more democratic forms of government - and how do their experiences compare with those of women in other moments of transition, for example in post-apartheid South Africa?
All the projects examined women's agency and activism, exploring especially the connections among local and global organizing efforts and the various shifting meanings of feminism. At Maryland, we found ourselves noting again and again the interventions of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) on a whole range of women's issues, from women's economic well-being to women's access to appropriate media. One of our sessions juxtaposed three readings (among others): one by a foreign policy specialist, Jessica Mathews, argued that an international realignment of power was occurring partly as a result of the proliferation of and communication among NGOs; one, by Richard Falk, outlined the dimensions of "global citizenship" from the perspective of a liberal political scientist; and one, a feminist classic by Gloria Anzaldua, defined "the nueva mestiza," the mixed-breed woman who thinks and acts across borders, as the source for a generative new social vision. Though probably none of these writers was aware of one another's work, to us their essays spoke to one another of the emergence of new forms of power and political commitment, largely driven - in ways not yet acknowledged in political theory - by the energies of women.
Parallel dilemmas arose at many of the participating campuses. Accessible materials about women and gender in other countries, or about gendered dimensions of economic and political processes of change, or even about women and human rights issues, are often written in English by Western scholars, yet the projects were in principle committed to decentering precisely that structure of privilege. At most campuses, the great diversity in national origin of the speakers and seminar participants - whatever their current affiliations - helped at least to enact a model of nonhierarchical intellectual exchange. But how to carry that dialogue among different voices, different bodies, into the classroom? As Rutgers' Barbara Balliet put it, how do we build "sustained dialogues with people from the regions we study as we internationalize"?
Women's studies faculty at most campuses were more deeply invested in the projects than international and area studies faculty. The most well-intentioned teachers found it difficult to venture not only into new geographic territories but often into new disciplinary and topical areas as well. Old tensions between empirical and interpretive disciplines and methodologies simmered and occasionally exploded; at several campuses, some social scientists rebelled against "postmodernist" feminist analyses of discursive forms of power, finding them both abstruse and devoid of supporting evidence; conversely, some of the faculty well-versed in postmodernist theory found empirically-based essays "uninteresting" and "insufficiently theorized." Often, though not always, these contending parties eventually learned from one another.
A central challenge for almost all of the projects was to rethink the meanings of "difference" in contexts outside of and not necessarily in dialogue with Western feminism. Western feminism has provided a sometimes grudging but increasingly nuanced understanding of certain categories of difference: gender, race, class, sexuality, physical ability. But the meaning, the content, of these categories shifts in different localities. Nor are these necessarily always the most salient forms of difference. Ethnicity and religion, for example, emerged as crucial dimensions of identity and conflict in many parts of the world.
The projects explored ways to turn difficulties to pedagogical advantage. Cindy Gissendanner, a faculty participant in the Maryland project, overwhelmed by the sheer proliferation of new and shifting terms, gives her students in a new core women's studies course, "International Perspectives on Women," lists of related terms - international, global, national, regional, local; clitoridectomy, female circumcision, female genital surgeries, genital mutilation; north-south, east-west; underdeveloped, developing, developed, third world, industrial, post-industrial. She and her students spend at least a full class session at an appropriate point in the course discussing the valences of such terms.
Some faculty, acknowledging the impossibility of knowing "enough" about several different areas of the world, developed assignments that required students, often working in groups, to focus their papers and presentations on gender issues in particular national or regional settings, enabling the class as a whole to work comparatively. For example, students in one course on "Globalization, Gender, and Culture" divided into research groups on key topics like the commodification of women's bodies, women's arts activism and women's responses to religious fundamentalism. Each group limited its research to a single country, but class presentations enabled cross-cultural comparisons and insights. Many courses encourage and train students to use the Internet to track women's activism around the world, to engage in dialogue with peers in other locations and to conduct research.
For this (North) Americanist, directing one of these projects has conferred a sharp sense of obligation to represent a more internationally inclusive account of women's lives in my classes. It has also altered my understandings of gender, culture and politics in the United States.
For example, I now read much contemporary American women's fiction differently, not just in terms of its affiliations with a tradition of social concern in the US, but as part of an international conversation about women's, and human, well-being in a world shaped by the processes of colonization and decolonization, the increasingly unfettered quests of capital for cheap labor and free markets, and the dreams and struggles of women and men beyond and across national borders. Once afflicted by a certain political despair born in the Reagan years and only briefly relieved by Clinton's first term in office, I have come to see the activism of women's NGOs globally as an immensely important and influential locus of power and social change, and to explore links between our curricular change work on campus and the work of NGOs in the Washington, DC area.
These are "small changes," but perhaps suggestive of new insights and commitments inspired by projects like these. Clearly, the WSAIS project has enabled a first step in the re-education necessary in a world fraught with new dangers, and new possibilities.
1 The institutions are the University of Albany, SUNY: the University of Arizona; the University of California at Berkeley; The Five Colleges Women's Studies Research Center; the University of Maryland, College Park; the University of Michigan; the University of Minnesota; New York University; Princeton University: Rutgers, State University of New Jersey; Spelman College; the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Tulane University.
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|Title Annotation:||international aspect of women's studies|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1998|
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