Global organizing gone awry: why international neo-liberal feminist movements are bad for women and bad for feminism

By Natalie Hill

Natalie Hill is an MA student in the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies. She graduated from the School of Journalism at Carleton University, is a core organizing member of WAM! Vancouver (Women, Action and the Media). She is interested in effective transnational activism to end violence against women.


Feminists organizing for women’s rights in 2011 face a unique challenge: as community organizers, just what defines “our” community? Anyone reading this blog can likely recognize the oft-repeated mantras: we live in a borderless society; we are a global community.

The phrases “global feminism” and “transnational feminism” have surfaced in recent decades, and are now thrown around (often interchangeably) when discussing international feminist movements, gatherings or alliances.  But there is a big difference between global feminism and transnational feminism.  It boils down to whether we are committed to wide-reaching, yet locally sensitive organizing, or if we prefer to promote a one-size-fits-all, please-all-the-world diluted pseudo-feminist politic.

Margaretha Geertsma, an associate professor at Butler University’s Faculty of Journalism and Communication, has written extensively on this topic in recent years.  She describes global feminism as a white, hegemonic US-based feminism, blind to difference and unique global contexts in the pursuit of a movement that “unites” all women (“Look! We all did a Slutwalk! My signs are in English, yours in Tagalog, we are one.  Success!”).  Other critics of the concept of a “global sisterhood” go even further, describing them as homogenizing, narrow, Eurocentric and imperialist.

Transnational feminism, on the other hand, treats difference – in experience, location, context, and identity – not as a challenge to be overcome, but rather as invaluable wisdom that should inform our activism.   Acknowledging these differences can only make international feminist organizing, and of course, the lives of real women around the world, better.

At the recent Women’s Worlds 2011 conference, held in Ottawa from July 3-7, the partnership of Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter and la Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle presented Flesh Mapping: Prostitution in a globalized world/La Resistencia de las mujeres/Les draps parlent.  It was an interactive multimedia installation that featured video shot in both Vancouver and Montreal, and 70 bed-sheet art canvasses, demonstrating the connections between global trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women.  On display for three whole days, the exhibit was accompanied by both spontaneous dialogue among viewers, as well as structured roundtable discussions among Canadian women (women of colour, Aboriginal women, Quebecois women, white women), as well as women from Norway, Haiti, Nigeria, Morocco, Bangladesh, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Denmark, Israel and Australia.  These speakers included women who have left prostitution, front-line workers, and community organizers.  Ninety-minute roundtable discussions were simultaneously translated into French, English and Spanish.

While the women involved were united in their recognition of the root of women’s inequality and sexual exploitation worldwide (patriarchy and capitalism, a mutually reinforcing, toxic dyad), their unique local experiences and contexts were honoured and highlighted, not glossed over for the sake of letting Western experiences and approaches prevail.  From all appearances each participant was an equal contributor to the knowledge that was shared – no one woman’s wisdom was privileged over another.

Twelve countries, three languages, countless unique voices and experiences, all coming together in a powerful display of feminist organizing.  This is transnational feminism at its finest.

It succeeded at being transnational, I argue, because organizers refused to depart from their radical approach.  They did exactly what Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan prescribe in their book, Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and transnational feminist practices; instead of operating on some pretense of “global sisterhood,” these women created true solidarity by forming alliances with women from all over world, who, while differing in their experiences and local contexts, were united in their efforts to examine, work against, and bring down patriarchy.  For the transnational feminist, the only universal is patriarchy.  Ergo, transnational feminism is, and can only be, radical in nature.

In the debates over how and when to take a transnational approach, some have argued it should be treated as an alternative between two extremes popular in international mobilization.  On the one side is religious dogma of all stripes, undermining women’s rights outright, and on the other, universalist, liberal feminism, which undermines women’s loyalties, local contexts, and unique experiences.  According to some feminist writers, transnational feminism offers a safe route between the two.

But can we really treat transnational feminism simply as an “alternative”?  There is no denying the real threat from religious fundamentalists who continue to spread their messages worldwide, whether in the form of a viral sermon or a horrifying act of domestic terrorism.  Feminists of all leans would agree these groups pose an immediate threat to women worldwide.  But is universalist, liberal ‘feminism’ – pole-dance if it makes him happy, I’m radical if I say I am ‘feminism’ – really that meek by comparison?  Keep in mind this approach is often influenced by what others have referred to as the Congo effect: “Sure Canadian men still get away with battery and harassment on a daily basis and earn 20% more than women do, but hey, at least this ain’t Congo; as long as we’re not living in the rape capital of the world we should just shut up and say thank you.  In the meantime, let’s march in, save these women, and show them how equality is really achieved!” Can we really afford to say this kind of global feminism is one way, but transitional feminism is better?  We cannot, and we should not.

When we allow Canadian, American or Western European-born ‘feminist’ movements that place individual ‘freedom’ and ‘empowerment’ at their centre (of course within a Canadian, American or Western European context) we let centuries of feminist energy dedicated to dismantling patriarchy fizzle into marches and legal battles focused on very privileged women remaking age-old sexist practices (prostitution, sexual assault victim-blaming) into ways for them to profit; both literally, as profiteers in this capitalist system they seem happy to continue to perpetuate;  or metaphorically, as the women who gain worldwide fame for making ‘feminist’ activism fun, sexy and enjoyable by all.

The de-radicalization of feminist organizing worldwide makes it easy to pretend we’re fostering some magical global sisterhood.  But feminism ain’t about what’s easy.  It’s time to think, act and organize transnationally, for the good of all women on their terms,  not just the good of women like “us,” on ours.

7 Comments on “Global organizing gone awry: why international neo-liberal feminist movements are bad for women and bad for feminism”

  • Thanks for sharing, Natalie.
    I appreciate your analysis of global vs. transnational feminism.
    I was wondering if it is fair to say that ‘bringing down patriarchy’ is the goal of feminists across nationalities? I want to offer that women perceive patriarchy in different ways in different parts of the world. (As an extension to your essay above, not in opposition to it.)

    • Natalie

      Thanks for reading, Farida.

      You are right – of course patriarchy manifests itself in different ways all over the world. Of course women’s experiences of it, and perceptions of it, will be different. Though patriarchy is universal in its reach on this world, it is certainly not homogeneous.

      This is exactly my thesis: we need to stop pretending that it is. Empathizing with women in other parts of the world because of our shared oppression is necessary, but treating that oppression as the same, and thus requiring one solution (which inevitably becomes the solution of the feminists with the most power and privilege in that international relationship) is very dangerous.

      Listening (and I mean truly listening) to each other articulate our own unique contexts is crucial, as opposed to parachuting in campaigns and slogans designed in one, small part of the world, by one, small subset of feminists, for the benefit of that one, small subset, not all women, as they would have us believe.

      • jenny heineman

        Your argument is somewhat confused to me. You seem to be congratulating yourself and the conference for allowing the voices of different women from different contexts while simultaneously arguing against the notion of individual emancipation (as you say, ‘freedom’ and ‘empowerment’).

        I am unclear how you can argue from this perspective yet assume an homogenous experience in prostitution. I think it’s important to critique patriarchy as an overarching structure, as you obviously do, but to assume prostitution operates in the same way is, in fact, NOT “listening…to each other articulate our own unique contexts…” I understand that there are global effects of patriarchy, which we can articulate and critique, but these effects–pole dancing, maquiladoras, rape, poverty, etc–are not themselves global systems. They are indeed global occurrences, but they are also contextual. That is not to take a relativistic approach to injustice. It is to say, however, that your argument misses some important points about agency in favor of structure, and that kind of silencing is the antithesis of what you actually claim to do. To miss that is, I believe, to miss a very crucial aspect of what feminism does. And no matter how vehemently you accuse others of pseudo-feminism, you will not succeed in organizing “for the good of all women” by using this approach.

        • Natalie Hill

          Thanks for reading, Jenny.

          First, two points of clarification:

          1) I was not involved in any way in the Flesh Mapping project at Women’s Worlds 2011 (my praise of this project was for the organizers, not myself, since I had nothing to do with it).

          2) I do not assume a homogenous experience in prostitution. The only description of prostitution within this piece is that it is an “age-old sexist practice.” No where in this piece do I make the claim that all women experience it in the same way. I think this is quite a leap on your part.

          Lastly, to address another element of your response, my post describes how gender inequalities and systemic forms of violence against women *must* be considered contextually within the local regions in which they occur. This is something we indeed agree on. Where we seem to go in different directions is the differentiation between worldwide phenomena and “global occurrences”. If I am understanding you correctly you are saying that forms of sexist violence or more subtle sexist practices are specific – isolated even – from similar practices around the world. Your phrase “global occurrences” implies that they are coincidental. I contest that, and would argue that centuries of Western imperialism and colonialism, as one mega example, demand that we see the connectedness between patriarchal practices on one side of the world and on another. To ignore such histories would be to not only downplay the damage done by colonizers, but also to assign exclusive blame to the colonized.

          I realize I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here with the example of colonization but I hope my point is clear: local solutions and knowledge are crucial, but the solutions they inspire cannot be effective without recognition of how the problems they are designed to resolve are connected to similar problems in the rest of the world.

          • jenny heineman

            Thanks for your response! Very enlightening. I hope to continue this important dialogue and look forward to reading more of your work.

  • I too appreciate this analysis of global vs transnational feminism. Though I have to say, I am not very clear on what either means. Perhaps because this is the first time that I encounter the concepts. I may have to go and read more about them.

  • Cara Gorman


    I have a few questions as I am doing more research into this issue. My questions concern the “Who”, of who is still promoting global feminism?

    Are they specific authors, educators, or agencies that continue to promote the “global sisterhood” position? I am writing a research paper, and appreciate your insight into this issue.

    Is this a Feminists issue or a women’s issue? How does the affect of global feminism effect the way women in other cultures are organizing, educating, and learning about activism/feminism?

    Can you help me contrast solidarity with women challenging patriarchy to the “global sisterhood” brand.

    I think I need a breakdown of what is preventing the support of localized culturally specific women’s movements.

    Thank you!

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