Feminism: Third World U.S. Movement

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Feminism: Third World U.S. Movement

Historically, women's participation in revolutionary struggles or mass sociopolitical movements has been linked with the development of a feminist consciousness. Studies of women involved in revolutionary movements, such as the Chinese, Cuban, Mexican, and Nicaraguan revolutions, document the origins of feminist movements within the context of male-dominated nationalist struggles. Women may develop a feminist consciousness as a result of their experiences with sexism in revolutionary struggles or mass social protest movements. Such feminist consciousness represents a response to patriarchal dynamics in their respective struggles within the context of resistance to oppressive societal conditions.

Similarly, case studies of the white feminist movement in the United States during the 1960s reveal the tensions, constraints, and struggles experienced by women both in the New Left movement and in the civil rights movement. Male domination within each of these sociopolitical protest movements contributed directly to the rise of a feminist movement among white women during this time period.

African-American feminists have also traced the origins of their feminist movement to their experiences with sexism within the Black Nationalist movement. Although cultural, political, and economic constraints limited the development of a feminist consciousness and movement among Asian-American women during the early 1960s, the cross-pressures resulting from the demands of a nationalist and feminist struggle led Asian-American women in time to organize feminist organizations. Native American women also voiced their feminist agenda as they clashed with sexism demonstrated by their male counterparts in the American Indian Movement. Similarly Latina women, particularly Mexican-American women who were activists during the Chicano social protest movement El Movimiento of the 1960s and 1970s, traced the emergence of their feminist "awakening" to the internal struggles within their respective cultural nationalist movements.

Defining feminism and feminist movements represents a critical question within feminist discourse. A persistent lack of consensus reflects divergent racial/ethnic, class, sexual orientation, and other critical variables that shape the lives of women. African-American, Asian-American, Latina, and Native American women all shared the task of defining their own group's feminist ideology and political strategies. Several common themes and issues emerged over the pivotal years of the 1960s and 1970s. Women of color struggled to gain equal treatment as political activists and gain access to leadership positions within the various organizations of which they were members. Through their writings and speeches, women of color called for an end to male domination, stressing the importance of understanding the multidimensionality of oppression. They identified the multiple sources of their oppression, primarily race/ethnicity, class, and gender.

For women of color, feminism represented a movement to end sexist oppression within their own communities, political organizations, and American society in general. They understood that their feminist movement needed to go beyond women's rights to include the men of their groups, with whom they shared the experience of racial/ethnic subordination and, perhaps even more important, a commitment to build resistant movements against such oppression. Political movements among women of color in the United States represented both a cultural-nationalist and a feminist orientation.

The history of these separate political movements documents the intensity of these "feminist wars." Their male counterparts, exhibiting varying degrees of a sexist brand of cultural nationalism, challenged feminist women of color to validate their feminist political stands. For example, many Mexican-American women activists experienced dramatic ostracism. Cultural nationalists, both men and women, developed a political discourse that equated feminism with antinationalism, seeing feminism as a "white" ideology and therefore a divisive one. Feminists were labeled as "sellouts" and infiltrators whose aim was to sabotage the Chicano cultural-nationalist protest movement.

Similarly, African-American feminist women were cast as interlopers whose feminist critiques of African-American male dominance represented a dangerous departure for the civil rights and Black Power movements. Cultural nationalists argued that a feminist ideology and separatist feminist movement incited internal strife that would jeopardize the advancement of the general movement for equality and self-determination. Cultural nationalists further argued that the "woman problem" could not take center stage in the nationalist agenda; as in the Cuban revolution, the feminist agenda would be taken up once the movements succeeded in their contestation of discrimination based on race and ethnicity. Racism superseded feminism, and anyone, specifically women, who pushed for consideration of feminist concerns was labeled a traitor to the cause.

For example, Mexican-American feminist women experienced virulent attacks for adopting a so-called foreign ideology that had been introduced from the larger American society in an attempt to attack the Mexican-American community's struggle for equality and self-determination. Feminism became identified as an ideology devised to undermine the flourishing cultural renaissance emerging within Latino communities throughout the Southwest. Mexican-American feminists, like their Puerto Rican counterparts, represented a threat to their male colleagues, who argued that the attacks on male domination and sexism served only to demoralize men. Men of color developed a counterdiscourse to the emergence of a feminist one among women of color. Men of color viewed male domination or "machismo" as less an exaggerated or pernicious form of sexism and more a rational response to what they called a racist and internal colonial hegemonic control of men of color. Attacks on their manhood by all feministsbut most seriously by feminist women of colorserved to reinforce the subordinate position of African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native American communities and others that had existed under siege by the dominant white society. Thus women of color who embraced a feminist ideology were seen as having "bought into" a dominant ideology used to suppress movements for self-determination.

Feminist women of color developed various strategies to answer these antifeminist attacks. African-American women, for example, addressed this issue by pointing to African-American history to illustrate that feminist movements had a long-standing history within their communities. They pointed to the participation of their foremothers in the antislavery movement and the role of women such as Sojourner Truth in raising women's issues within the antislavery discourse.

Similarly, Native American women relied on their specific tribal histories and traditions to underscore the vital role that their female ancestors played in resistance struggles against the tribal land encroachments and genocidal practices their communities were forced to endure. Asian-American feminists also used history to establish a link between their racial struggles and feminist struggles. Mexican-American women linked their feminist agenda to that of the Mexican women who participated in the Mexican Revolution. Puerto Rican women also fought against claims that feminism was a "foreign" ideology by stressing the critical role that women had played in nationalist struggles that had long been an issue in the territorial relations between Puerto Rico and the United States.

Interestingly, feminist women of color also reacted to their respective cultural-nationalist attacks by distancing themselves from the white feminist movement. Although women of color criticized white feminists for both subtle and overt acts of racism, they often exaggerated their separation from white feminism as a survival strategy that would lessen the impact of antifeminist attacks. Perhaps the most significant and successful technique was the argument that feminism among women of color actually strengthened the cultural-nationalist struggle by stressing the importance of women and men joining ranks in a united front to battle racism and sexism. In sum, feminist women of color struggled against the cultural-nationalist attacks but were not always successful. Nevertheless, their concerted efforts to put feminism on the agenda became a long-lasting legacy for future generations of women of color battling against multiple sources of oppression.

Not all the feminist organizations started by women of color survived, but a few continued into the twenty-first century to serve as advocacy groups for all women of color. Issues of reproductive rights, community health care delivery, immigration, poverty, and welfare policies continued to represent targets for feminist action. The decline of the cultural-nationalist period lessened but did not obliterate attacks against feminist women of color. Feminism continues to produce tensions and unresolved conflicts within communities of color in the United States; however, African-American, Asian-American, Latina, and Native American women persist in their efforts to achieve equality and social justice for themselves as women and for their communities in general.

See also Feminism: Africa and African Diaspora ; Feminism: Chicana Feminisms ; Philosophies: Feminist, Twentieth-Century .


Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Chow, Esther Nagan-Ling. "The Development of Feminist Consciousness among Asian American Women." Gender and Society 1 (1987): 284299.

Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Garcia, Alma M. "The Development of Chicana Feminist Discourse: 19701980." Gender and Society 3 (1989): 217238.

Alma M. Garcia

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