Wellesley is a liberal arts college, and as such, preaches to incoming students about connections: making connections between people, between courses, between departments. But never have I experienced two classes that so strongly complement each other as two I’m taking this semester – one of them being this class, and the other being a history course taught by Lidwien Kapteijns called “The Changing Construction of Gender in the Modern Middle East.” The latter is very heavy. We discuss the concept of discourse, delve into dense critiques of Orientalism, etc. etc. Recently, though, we had a class focusing on an analysis of problems among the feminist movement concerning so-called “third-world women,” and I felt that it really emphasized what we’ve been discussing in our class.
Personally, I tend to think of hierarchal polarization as being white man vs. everyone else. (It is easy, you must admit, to use that example endlessly.) However the reading we did for this history class (1) harshly re-examined the ‘white women different from and above non-white women’ hierarchy. The author, Chandra Mohanty, offers an insightful critique of feminist writing in response to a scholarly field that was mostly dominated by white, affluent women for the latter half of the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until around two decades ago that women who had been formerly shoved into one sweeping category – ‘third-world women’ – and dubbed universally oppressed came forward to debunk this generalization.
At first I was partially opposed to what she was saying – that as feminists, we ‘Western women’ can’t assume to speak for all women – only because it seemed to support a divisiveness that was counteractive to a movement that (especially back then) needed all the strength in numbers it could muster. She kept reiterating the importance of examining historical context for each group of oppressed women, in my mind suggesting that these should all be separate groups fighting for different goals. But how could that possibly get anything done?
The discussion that day in class offered a historical context of which I had been unaware – that Mohanty was reacting to a feminist conference held in Europe that invited ‘third-world’ women, then refused to touch on the political issues that were a huge factor in the devices used to oppress them.(2) With closer examination of the reading, we discerned that Mohanty was really only warning against the isolationism that comes from being unaware of the myriad of issues (social, economic, political) surrounding those for whom you speak, especially in the literary world.
It was just such a concrete, in-depth example of what we’ve been talking about for these past two weeks. I had never before considered the technicalities and benefits of an alliance of movements over a single, monolithic movement in terms of accommodating for the different needs of different women. Without much background knowledge, I had previously viewed the feminist movement as a one-dimensional series of events, but these two classes have really opened my eyes to the complexity, flexibility and strength of the contemporary feminist movement with all its emerging ‘third-world’ factions. I’m not normally one for cheesy declarations, but I just wanted to express how amazing it is to be here and to be realizing the depth of the opportunities that the world has to offer. I haven’t considered myself a particularly naive person, but as a privileged white woman, these are the things I simply haven’t thought to ask. Well, before now.
Before, I could have told you that yes (of course) we can’t generalize and we can’t assume we know everything about women from different historical contexts, but now I get it. Now I understand how feminist alliances can encompass so many diverse backgrounds while still being considerate of these women, and still moving towards common goals, and still allowing for goals that may not apply to every woman. Now I can apply this concept to movements other than feminism, even to movements that encompass feminism (why hello there, solidarity).
I don’t mean to be agonizingly bubbly here, but I’m kind of having one of those bursting-with-optimism moments. Thanks for bearing with me. I’m done now.
p.s. Also, sorry this is so long. A lot of it is summarizing, so I felt I had to compensate for that.
(1) “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” by Chandra Talpade Mohanty
(2) I have to look into the details on this conference – I hadn’t written it down in my notes. Will get back to you on that.