This is the introduction to a series of articles on Global Feminisms which will be coming out across 2022-2023.
I sat down to write this on the day that abortion before the 24th week of pregnancy was decriminalised in Colombia. The chant of ‘ya es ley’ (now it’s law) echoed outside the Constitutional Court and ‘Aborto Libre’ was painted on the streets in large green letters. One campaigner remarked: “Finally we have achieved what women through history fought for. This is historic.”
While this campaign was ostensibly about changing abortion laws in a specific national context, this was a moment of global feminism. Columbia’s victory was part of what is known as the ‘Green Wave,’ which has swept across Colombia, Mexico and Argentina with little regard for national borders. Campaigners have also set their sights beyond the nation, seeking to make regional change. As lawyer and activist Catalina Martinez Coral told the New York Times: ‘It’s now an inspiration going south to north.’ As women in the US face attacks on abortion rights, feminists across the Americas ‘are going to inspire people in the United States to defend the rights set out in Roe v. Wade.’
Unravelling the threads
The ‘Green Wave’ refers to the green triangular scarves (pañuelos verdes) worn by campaigners across the region. If we dwell for a moment on these small, cheaply produced items of clothing we will find that they contain histories of global feminism that we might unravel. These scarves were popularised by the movement against gendered violence across Latin America – Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) – which began in Argentina. As journalist and activist María Florencia Alcaraz notes, Ni Una Menos ‘massified feminism.’ As hundreds of thousands of women began to meet, the campaign coalesced around the demand of abortion. Writer Margaux Barbier speaks of the importance of the green scarf as a tool aiding organising: The pañuelo verde is ‘offered from women to women: offered to a friend that is not part of the organisation or that is discovering the mobilization; offered from committed girls in the mobilizations to their mothers that sometimes have gone through an abortion but were not until now, joining the movement.’ These green scarves have moved across borders in Latin America, but also beyond them; worn, for instance, by activists agitating for abortion in Poland.
The pañuelos verdes also reference a longer feminist history, reaching back fifty years. On the green scarf there is a picture of a small, white head scarf. This is a rendering of the white scarves that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo wore when protesting the disappearance of their children during the Argentine military dictatorship. These scarves were often embroidered with the names of those who had been disappeared by a regime which hunted down dissidents.
This memorialising practice of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is specific. But it chimes with the practices feminists engage in globally to keep alive the names and stories of those who have died at the hands of violent partners or the state. In the UK, after Sarah Everard was murdered by a police officer, a placard at the London vigil read, simply, ‘her name was Sarah.’ Feminists remember where others want to forget. And sometimes, as in the context of the Argentinian dictatorship, the full force of the state is enrolled to aid this ‘forgetting’. A feminism that remembers is like a stone in the shoe of a very violent giant.
The inclusion of the white scarf in the green also speaks to the wide range of campaigns that have historically fallen under the banner of reproductive justice. Certainly, this has involved feminist agitation for abortion rights, including women learning to do their own abortions and running their own clinics, on their own terms. But in the case of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, it also meant mothers’ rights to know what had happened to their children. It has manifested in demands for free 24-hour nurseries and for sex education. But it has also meant campaigns against forced sterilisation; which linked the demands of First Nations women in Australia to Puerto Rican women in the US. More broadly, reproductive justice can mean freedom for children to live lives free from terror, pollution, or poverty. Indigenous Pacific women agitated for access to fresh food and clean water that was not contaminated with nuclear waste, in their own communities and globally, when they visited Greenham Common women’s peace camp in Berkshire, in 1985. Of course, historical feminist agitation around abortion and contraception has also contained elements that from where we stand today, are counterposed to the project of contemporary feminism. This includes the complex, entangled history of feminism, racism and eugenics.
Global feminist history
Perhaps it is easy for contemporary feminism to be inflected with the global. Certainly, we have access to more information than ever before. My Twitter feed lit up with pictures of feminists partying on the streets of Bogotá after the recent abortion victory, technology helped to close the geographic distance between us. But the global exchange of tactics and ideas, objects and texts across borders, and the impact of global politics and migration flows has shaped historic agitation for gender justice.
In my own work, I consider how global elements impacted on the women’s liberation movement in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century. I have found that East Asian communism had a palpable impact on the movement, as feminists from Australia visited China and Vietnam, and vice versa. As well as in person visits, I also trace the global intellectual history of the movement. I consider consciousness raising which is often identified as the distinctive tactic of the women’s liberation movement. Here, women sat around in small groups and discussed their lives, doing the important work of making the personal, political. Usually this important technique is historicised through the proliferation of psychoanalytic discourse and the spread of Freudian ideas after the Second World War. Highlighting alternative roots in the Chinese Communist tactic of ‘speaking bitterness’, I argue for a braided methodology.
What the presence of Maoism in the women’s liberation movement reveals, and what the story of the pañuelos verde also indicates, is that a history of feminism is not a history that begins in the Global North and spreads to the Global South. Tactics, philosophy, ideas and techniques also move from the Global South to the Global North – from Beijing to Sydney and London – or they may not go through the centres of the Global North at all, they might spread from Bogotá to Warsaw.
The remaking of the spatial terrain of feminism has been an important provocation. It has resulted in global feminist history that does not take North America or Britain as its starting point. As historian Lucy Delap suggests, perhaps we might instead begin our histories of feminism not in Washington or London or Sydney but in Valparaíso or Accra. Perhaps if we do begin in Washington, we might look to African-American women like Johnnie Tillmon who agitated for welfare rights. Or, maybe if we start in Sydney, we might pick up the thread with the Black Women’s Action Group, Redfern. We might initially consider their periodical Koori-bina, which – as I heard in a recent oral history interview – was laid out by the First Nations academic and public intellectual Marcia Langton in a little room above the Aboriginal Medical Service.
Down with romance!
You’ll forgive me, I hope, if so far this account of global feminism has been a little romantic. If you are – as I am – committed to justice, you might wish to find in the archives, accounts of perfectly smooth solidarity and frictionless sisterhood across borders. But it is rare to find these in the archives, as it is in life.
Black feminist Audre Lorde warned us against writing romantic histories. In 1976, Lorde visited what was then the USSR as the American observer for the African-Asian Writers Conference, sponsored by the Union of Soviet Writers. On her return to the United States she cautioned against writing about Russia as ‘a mythic representation of socialism which does not yet exist anywhere I have been’, but which she dreamed about often. What she was saying, I think, is that we ought not distort, flatten, or mangle our experiences or our research into what we hoped to find.
Lorde’s ‘Notes from a Trip to Russia’ offers a less smooth, less celebratory and so more interesting account. Sometimes, she recalled that the solidarity she was offered by communists as a Black lesbian feminist was little more than empty gestures and lip service. She wrote that she had ‘no reason to believe Russia is a free society…Russia does not even appear to be a strictly egalitarian society,’ and she noted that ‘she did not see Siberia, nor a prison camp, nor a mental hospital’. But she did note that everyone seemed to have enough bread to eat and ‘if you conquer the bread problem, that gives you at least a chance to look around at the others.’ At times on her travels she was inspired by the people she met; like Toni, an Indigenous Russian woman whose presentation at the conference moved Lorde. She wrote of this encounter:
‘Toni did not speak English and I didn’t speak Russian, but it felt as if we were making love that last night through our interpreters. I still don’t know if she knew what was going on or not, but I suspect that she did.’
Lorde’s account helps us to see that in the global history of feminism, there is solidarity certainly, but it is complicated and sticky. It is shot through with global inequalities, with racial and language differences. At the important level of the interpersonal, sometimes there was romance. At other times, as my research has found, there were clashing personalities or nail-biting silences or very awkward laughter, or all three. We can include it all in our accounts of global feminism; it is all revealing.
Global feminism and white feminism
Global feminist history might also productively speak to, or better with, the very present critique of ‘white feminism’. As scholars such as Koa Beck, Therese Jonsson, Ruby Hamad and Rafia Zakaria have discussed, this is a feminism that presumes the political subject is a white woman. This is a feminism that sees women of colour as an aberration, an afterthought, as Beck puts it: ‘an asterisk in a wage gap statistic.’ White feminism does not think through how gender is made through other identity categories like race and class for all women. Further, white feminism does not consider how white women have been the beneficiaries of the oppression of women of colour. As these scholars discuss, white feminists have often responded defensively to criticisms of racism, claiming innocence.
The critique of white feminism offers lessons, practical and theoretical, to white women who seek to make change. It offers lessons to those who seek to write global feminist history, too. It suggests historians should not use a global framework to underplay the power that wealthier white women have internationally nor should the global be used to write histories of feminism that are solely celebratory or restorative. But this important critique rarely reveals the parallel histories of feminism that did not circle around the sun of whiteness, but instead created different constellations on our unevenly shared planet. Global feminist history, however, does do this. It reveals many unexpected and counter-intuitive stories and connections which rarely feature in this critique. Global feminist history can dislodge the primacy of white women from the history of feminism.
Histories of global feminism are instructive for those seeking to make change. Of course, the past is not a rule book, a recipe or prescription pad. It cannot solve our problems. But within global feminist histories are lessons, certainly, for how we might face the perplexing dilemmas and deep inequalities of our time, and how we might write the history of those who courageously faced theirs, too.
Rosa Campbell is an Editorial Fellow at History Workshop Online and a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Cambridge. Her work explores the global history of Australian Women’s Liberation and she is interested in oral history, global intellectual history, and the way that histories inform and ‘press upon’ contemporary activism. She is also an Associate Research Fellow at Birkbeck and Fellow of the Raphael Samuel History Centre. Outside of academic work, she writes for adults and children on a range of platforms and is a proud member of the London Renters Union.
If you would like to write for the Global Feminisms series, you can get in touch with us at HWOeditors@historyworkshop.org.uk.