Introduction – Gender and Globalization: Marxist-Feminist Perspectives

The issue of gender and globalization has received increasing attention in recent years, as courses, books and articles have proliferated. But most of the literature on globalization continues to be androcentric, ignoring the centrality of women to the economic restructuring of the years since the mid-1970s. Even excellent, invaluable texts from a left perspective like those by William K. Tabb and Michel Chossudovsky either overlook gender, or mention it only in passing (Tabb 2001, Chossudovsky 2003), although-to be fair-Chossudovsky added a short chapter on “The World Bank and Women’s Rights” to the second edition of his book (2003: 65-68). There is some justification, then, for publishing more material on this subject.

For the purposes of this section, we define globalization as the contemporary form of the capitalist world system, produced by the restructuring of the U.S. and the world economies in the years since the economic slowdown of the mid-1970s. The term globalization, introduced in celebratory mode by the bourgeois press after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the years after 1989, refers to the neo- liberal “Washington consensus” being imposed around the world, rolling back social gains in the rich countries, and restructuring the economies of developing countries for unlimited exploitation by capital.

The impact of these changes on women is particularly intense, and there is now a considerable literature on this phenomenon: women as the workers of choice in free trade zones for their cheaper labor and “nimble fingers,” women as major participants in the growing “informal” sector, women as victims of the downsizing of government services, both as employees and as primarily responsible for the health and well-being of families, and last but not least, women as activists in the struggle for global justice.

The globalization of the world economy coincides with the expansion of feminism in the 1970s. Both these forces have drawn women into public life around the world. This is a mixed blessing. As the processes of “enclosure” and proletarianization spread inexorably to new parts of the globe, women are drawn from peasant agriculture into industrial production, although under extremely exploitative conditions. Some feminist writers argue that the integration of women into market economies is an inevitability, and, indeed, represents a form of liberation from traditional patriarchal constraints (for more on this point, see Eisenstein, 2004). We are left to conclude that the task of the left should be merely to ameliorate the worst effects of these changes. But is corporate globalization in its current incarnation inevitable? I want to suggest that this is too timid an approach, and that those of us who are committed to socialism and democracy should be actively supporting struggles that seek, not simply to curb the power of corporations and governments, but to change the direction of the process fundamentally.

The articles in this section lay out some of the issues in this debate, and we hope that this will contribute to an ongoing dialogue.

In her article, Jennifer Disney compares the 1970s revolutions in Mozambique and Nicaragua, and their legacies for women in the 1990s. She examines the land reforms and other agricultural policies that were intended to overcome the harmful effects of colonialist and imperialist regimes in the two countries. Both governments- Frelimo and the Sandinistas-were conscious of the need to incorporate women in their process of social change and economic development. They both placed the issue of women’s emancipation high on their revolutionary agendas. But in practice, the agricultural changes they instituted ignored the realities of women’s work in subsistence agriculture, and resulted in an overall in increase in women’s responsibilities for labor, paid and unpaid. This was a form of liberation that left women stuck in both productive and reproductive labor, with men increasingly underemployed. She suggests that attempts at social change, whether implemented by revolutionary regimes or by neo-liberal globalization strategies, will fail as long as they ignore the age-old divisions of labor between men and women.

Tammy Findlay’s article criticizes the literature of the left on globalization that assumes the growing irrelevance of the nation-state. On the contrary, she argues, it is the nation-state that fundamentally carries out the process of globalization, on behalf of corporate interests. She shows that much of contemporary international feminist organizing makes this same mistake, as happened in two international conferences she describes, where the expansion of globalization was assumed by many speakers to be both inevitable and an opportunity for feminist international organizing. (In a case of internal dialogue, Findlay criticizes Disney’s work in this context.) Findlay sees the appropriate locus for political organizing at the level of the nation-state. She focuses on Canada, a state where neo-liberalism has begun to erode many of the democratic gains of past decades. She points to the literature on democratic administration and, more recently, “femocratic” administration, as a form of politics that moves us away from globalization and toward greater economic justice. She concludes with an example of what she calls, following Angela Miles, “feminist local globalism.”

Martha Gimenez enters the debate over global feminism, with a call for a new Marxist feminism of working women. Rejecting the now widespread “trilogy” of race, class and gender as a conceptual tool, she points instead to the universality of women’s impoverishment under globalization. This common experience at the macro- economic level has different effects on the ground, as it encounters the particularities of local and national traditions that make up the texture of women’s lives. The relevance of Marx to globalization is that in the zero-sum game of the capitalist world system, the operations of corporate capitalism at the macro level encounter the manifold elements of social formations-political, social, cultural and ideological-at the micro level, and it is within this dialectic that women respond and organize. She shows that the call by Western feminists for universal human rights is the product of advanced Western capitalist societies, and that the realization of such rights for the world’s women is impossible within the framework of the current world-system.

Kimberly Earles examines the case of the Swedish welfare state, long considered to be the leader in providing universal social services and high employment within a capitalist framework. Some argue that this system is now being eroded, by a process of deregulation. But Earles prefers the term “reregulation,” arguing that the shifts to privatized childcare, the cuts to the welfare sector, and the abandonment of a commitment to full employment are all decisions taken and implemented by the state itself. Thus the application of neo-liberal doctrine in Sweden, under pressure from the European Union, multinational corporations, the political right, and local manufacturers, is the work of the state, rather than a product of the “hollowing out” of the state as some have argued. The turn away from universal welfare provisions particularly affects women, as receivers of services and as public sector employees. Earles raises the question of whether these erosions can be reversed through political struggle, by feminist activists and their male allies.

Bina Srinivasan contributes an interpretation of religious fundamentalism, based on her searing experiences of the communal violence in the state of Gujarat, India. She argues that religious fundamentalists are reacting to the ravages of globalization, as an extension of colonialism, by creating an imagined past in which the disruption to kinship and community systems is repaired. For this, they need an “us” and a “them,” with the “them” in the role of dangerous disrupters who must be defeated. In this imaginary but powerful scenario, women have a central role as the defenders of cultural norms. Their purity guarantees the integrity of “us,” and the impurity of the women of the “other” represents part of the danger. In this context, Indian and other Third World feminists find their struggles for women’s human rights interpreted as dangerous, foreign intrusions, with fundamentalists outbidding them for the loyalties of women, who are given an important role with the forces of reaction.

Finally, Carol Barton offers an overview of the dilemmas confronting feminist activists who participate in the global feminist movement, in an era in which mass-based revolutionary movements have been largely replaced by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by the rich countries of the North. Women placing their energies with NGO-led projects run the danger of collaborating with the strategy of downsizing government services and pacifying local populations by offering poor women micro credit and the chance to become entrepreneurs in the informal sector. Focusing on the United Nations-as many feminist activists did during the decades that followed the first UN conference on women in 1975-now seems futile, as events under the Bush administration have sidetracked the United Nations in favor of U.S. unilateralism. And feminists continue to struggle within the World Social Forum, a major voice of the global justice movement, to make women’s issues central rather than marginal. But Barton sees encouraging signs in the strength of women’s organizing, in the acknowledgement of gender issues on the world stage, and in the increasing attention by women’s groups to issues of economic justice for women.


Aguilar, Delia D., & Anne E. Lacsamana, eds. 2004. Women and Globalization. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Beneria, Lourdes. 2003. Gender, Development, and Globalization: Economics as if All People Mattered. New York & London: Routledge.

Chow, Esther Ngan-Ling, ed, 2003. “Gender, Globalization, and Social Change in the 21st Century.” International Sociology, special issue, Vol.18, No. 3 (September).

Chossudovsky, Michel. 2003. The Globalisation of Poverty and the New World Order. 2nd ed. Shanty Bay, Ontario: Global Outlook.

Eisenstein, Hester. 2004. “Feminism and Corporate Globalization: A Dangerous Liaison?” Science & Society (forthcoming).

Rowbotham, Sheila, & Stephanie Linkogle, eds. 2001. Women Resist Globalization: Mobilising for Livelihood and Rights. London & New York: Zed Books.

Tabb, William K. 2001. The Amoral Elephant. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Wichterich, Christa. 2000. The Globalized Woman: Reports from a Future of Inequality. London & New York: Zed Books.

I thank George Snedeker, Sociology Department, SUNY/College at Old Westbury, and member of the Editorial Board of Socialism and Democracy , for his gracious assistance in gathering material for this section. My sincerest thanks also to Patricia Ticineto Clough, Director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society and the Women’s Studies Certificate Program, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York; Linda Basch, Director, The National Council for Research on Women; and Kristen Timothy, Research Scholar at NCRW, who organized the seminar in which Carol Barton, Bina Srinivasan and I participated (the Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship Program, 2002-2004: “Facing Global Capital, Finding Human Security: A Gendered Critique”). Finally, my thanks and appreciation to Victor Wallis, General Education, Berklee College of Music, and co-managing editor of Socialism and Democracy, for his meticulous editing and his enthusiastic support for this special section.

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