Some Strategies for Left Feminists (and Their Male Allies) in the Age of Obama1


The election of Barack Obama in November 2008 gave rise to passionate celebrations, at least in some parts of the country. Here is one account (by the President of Barnard College):

Outside the gates of Barnard, a huge crowd had… formed. People were screaming and crying, hugging strangers, and dancing along the pavement. Without a leader, without a destination or plan, an impromptu parade started marching –- running, skipping, cartwheeling -– south of 116th Street. Police officers entered the crowd and gave high fives to all who passed; night cleaning crews at Tom’s Restaurant literally put down their brooms and started to dance along. When security crews hastily closed off patches of the street, taxi drivers got out of their cars and gleefully joined right in. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. (Spar 2009: 2)

While the president of an elite women’s college welcomes the election of Obama, a feminist Chavista from Venezuela paints a more sobering picture. For journalist and activist Vanessa Davies,

We must understand Obama as a necessity of the US establishment. Obama was the necessary figurehead for the moment in which the US was living, in order to calm the waters and change without really changing. He is a figure who can generate the illusion of change, but without producing that change.2

What are we to make of the election of this brilliant, erudite, charming, funny, athletic, sexy, basketball-playing Black American President, with his beautiful and powerful wife, Michelle, and their adorable daughters Sasha and Malia? On the one hand President Obama has named an activist Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, the daughter of Hispanic immigrants and a champion of labor and environmentalism. He has told the AFL-CIO that labor has a seat at the table in his administration, and that he looks forward to passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. He has repealed the “global gag rule” on US aid to overseas agencies providing reproductive health care, and he has reversed the ban on federal funding for stem cell research.

On the other hand President Obama has retained Robert M. Gates, Bush’s appointee and a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, as his Secretary of Defense.3 He has named the notorious Larry Summers to head his National Council of Economic Advisers.4 In his first military action, on January 23, he authorized missile strikes by unmanned Predator drones against rural Waziristan, Pakistan, killing at least 18 villagers. And President Obama has agreed to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, pending a comprehensive review of US policy there.

So, some gestures to the left, to feminists, labor and civil rights activists; but strong actions that reinforce imperialist business as usual. Obama came to power just after the massive meltdown of financial institutions in 2007-08. With the passage of his stimulus package by Congress in early 2009, and with the continuation of multibillion dollar bailouts to major financial institutions, this administration has clearly committed itself to a policy of massive government intervention into the economy.

What is the role of the Left in this scenario? I would say we have at least three duties. (1) To develop a clear assessment of the historic role of Obama. There is no doubt that Obama’s victory contains within it a signal defeat for racism. It is the product of decades – indeed, centuries -– of struggle: against slavery, against lynching and Jim Crow, and for equal access in housing, credit, education, and political participation. Contra the euphoric pronouncements by many mainstream commentators, one Black president does not represent the end of racism in the United States (see Wise 2008). But it is undoubtedly a remarkable step forward.

On the other hand, as Vanessa Davies notes, the Obama victory -– bringing a person of color to the White House –- also indicates a volte-face by ruling elites of the United States. They are seeking a friendlier image for US imperial ambitions, in the wake of the destructive foreign policy of the neo-cons under George W. Bush that left the international image of the United States tarnished with torture, secret renditions, and unprovoked wars of aggression. Obama’s biracial identity, his international background, his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his understanding of how global capitalism works, all make him a brilliant choice to refurbish the face of US hegemony (see Obama 2004).

This, then, is a moment of contradictions and paradoxes. Both the racial progress signaled by Obama’s election, and the dangers of a re-legitimized imperialist presidency, must be acknowledged and held in mind.

(2) Given this, it is imperative to develop a series of demands on the President and the new Congress that will pull the government leftward to the degree possible, given the configuration of forces confronting us. On each of the issues the President has tackled, from “ending” the war in Iraq to escalating the war in Afghanistan; from seeking a reform of the health care system to bailing out the financial institutions that presided over the economic debacle; the Left needs to make its voice heard loud and clear, and to present alternative scenarios.

(3) In doing this, left activists and writers must maintain a steady voice for alternatives to capitalism: another world is not only possible, but necessary. It would be a dangerous mistake to be co-opted by the idea that Obama represents fundamental economic, social, and political change. The Obama administration represents capitalist interests in crisis, in the face of the unprecedented world economic meltdown. We must therefore put socialism back on the table.

For left feminists in particular, this is an important moment to reinforce those elements of the women’s movement that actively contest capitalist domination, rather than those elements that strengthen it. What will be involved in such a project?

First, feminists need to put the critique of capitalism and the possibility of socialism back on the agenda. But what does this mean in practical terms? Alternatives to capitalism do not seem within reach in the current US situation, although they are under active discussion in some parts of the globe (in Venezuela, Bolivia, and elsewhere in Latin America) and even at home in The Nation (Ehrenreich & Fletcher et al. 2009). Even if large-scale social change does not seem to be forthcoming in the near term, this is no reason not to talk about it. The World Social Forum slogan “Another world is possible” is an invitation to think about this other world.

How can one go about ultimately replacing the present system with an economic framework that would really meet all people’s needs for food, shelter, environmental sustainability, intimacy, sexual self-determination, children, education, employment, leisure, and political participation (I’m sure readers will add to this list with their own priorities)? This process needs to begin, I think, with a full and detailed understanding of how capitalism –- globalized capitalism -– actually works now, especially in relation to women and women’s labor. Feminist scholarship shows the centrality of gender and, in particular, of women’s labor and feminist ideology to the political economy of the neoliberal era. We need to develop a political economy of gender.

Second, we need to heal the breach between feminism and the Left. In the process of selling globalization, corporate leaders and other elites have been systematically trying to seduce women into embracing the expansion of capitalism. International financial institutions such as the World Bank have accepted the idea that gender is central to economic development, and corporate media publicize the achievements of women in high places. All of this seems to me to be an effort to smoothly fold feminism and feminist ideas into the corporate orbit.

In sharp contrast, the male Left has seemed historically to be hostile or indifferent to women’s issues, as encapsulated in the “unhappy marriage” concept coined by Heidi Hartmann (1981), which referred then primarily to the failure of the Marxist tradition to take adequate account of women’s issues.5 Metaphorically speaking, though, has capitalism been a better husband for women than socialism? If we revisit the unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism in the early 21st century, we can perhaps see this problem with new eyes. On the one hand, there is a need for a gendered, feminist perspective to correct the failures of Marxism/communism as a political experiment. On the other, there is a need to avoid the tendency within much of contemporary feminism to dismiss revolutions, socialism, and Marxism as no longer relevant, as passé, and, indeed, as useless traditions, due to their slighting of women’s concerns.

Even though the Marxist tradition did tackle the issue of women, labeled the woman question, both in theory and practice Marxism responded to women’s oppression by calling for their inclusion in industrial production. Drawing on the doctrines of Marx and Engels, male revolutionaries assumed that “both the evolution of women’s consciousness and the material bases for its transformation would be the direct result of the massive entry of women into the world of waged work and workers’ struggles” (Kruks et al. 1989: 9). All of the issues surrounding sexuality, reproduction, patriarchal relations, and the myriad of other questions raised by first- and second-wave feminism were either ignored or inadequately incorporated into the successive Marxist revolutions of the 20th century, although the more recent the revolution, the more women’s issues have been addressed by national policy (ibid.).

There is no doubt that revolutionary governments in the 20th century contributed substantially to women’s emancipation, although this was not an end in itself, but part of a broad project of modernization as Communist states competed with their capitalist rivals. “Formulated as responses to the perceived need to realize the potential of modernity and to pursue and win an international rivalry against the antagonistic capitalist world beyond, such states [as China, Albania, Yemen, and Afghanistan] sought to mobilize women and transform their social position as part of the planned reorganization of society” (Molyneux 2001b: 125).

But a rigid adherence to Marxist doctrine often undermined these attempts. Jennifer Disney’s analysis of the revolutionary governments in Mozambique and Nicaragua shows in detail how male revolutionary leaders designed programs that were incapable of succeeding, precisely because the leadership was ignorant of the lived reality of women’s dual roles in economic production and family-based reproduction: “the emphasis both FRELIMO and the FSLN placed on large-scale state farms, the subsequent devaluation of subsistence and family farming, the gendered access to paid agricultural labor on state farms and to full cooperative membership, and the perpetuation of the sexual division of labor in the sphere of reproduction all reveal the limitations of a productivist, economistic model of emancipation that does not consider the reality of the intersections of production and reproduction in women’s lives.”6

But healing the breach is a two-way street. The feminist divorce from the Left leaves feminists in the camp of the reformers rather than the revolutionaries.7 Ideologically, this position feeds into the campaign by ruling international elites to dismiss or invalidate any proposed alternatives to globalized capitalism. So there is much work to be done on both sides of the fence.

Third, there is a need to strengthen the current of anti-imperialist feminism. Many triumphalist accounts of feminism point to the rise of women’s influence and access in the last few decades as a matter for unqualified celebration. In contrast, there is an increasing awareness, at least among women of color, that the international feminist movement must pay attention to the fundamental divide in the world between the rich North and the impoverished Global South. As globalization has incorporated the giant economies of China and India, the coexistence of glittering, rich capitalist enclaves with Third World shantytowns increasingly characterizes the situation within countries as well as in the great North-South divide.

What does this mean in practical terms for feminist activists? I maintain that it means a rethink of how we allocate our energies. What is feminism’s vision for the future? Surely, this is not an era when the be-all and end-all of feminist organizing is to simply get a bigger piece of the pie for women. Or to put this another way, the concept of organizing only on behalf of gender oppression is bankrupt, since, other things being equal, the system proceeds unimpeded. The great successes of this mode of feminist organizing turn out to be the appointment of Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, avidly pursuing the global war on terror, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, from her perch in the academy, endorsing as national policy certain forms of “light” torture (see Lazreg 2008: 245ff). In this context, the role of Hillary Clinton as Obama’s Secretary of State will bear watching.

It is instructive to reconsider the rise of women’s liberation from its origins in the civil rights movement and the anti–Vietnam War movement. Although women’s liberationists of the time were rebelling against the hopeless sexism of their brothers in the movement, they nonetheless retained the ideological framework of their erstwhile allies. They were clear that the United States was an imperialist power, and that their radicalism as women was connected to antiracist struggles at home and to anti-imperialist struggles around the world. They then proceeded to the necessary work of analyzing patriarchy and the role of women, which led to the incredibly rich body of literature that has transformed our thinking about women, gender, sex roles, and social reproduction.

Now, with the tragic wars raging in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps we have come full circle, and it is time to go back to conceptualizing what real women’s liberation would mean in the current conjuncture. I am not so naive as to think that feminism is one big thing, rather than the myriad of currents, eddies, and whirlpools that make up the fast-flowing river of women’s movement activism around the world. But a touchstone, for me, of a newly radical form of feminism would be the consciousness of our location within the capitalist world system, and a linkage with the various forms of current opposition to it.

I want to suggest that for a whole range of issues, the experience of women of color and of working-class women needs to become the basis for agenda-setting in future activism. In a discussion of black feminism, historian Barbara Ransby points to the linkages among economic, sexual, and racial issues:

Radicals within the feminist, lesbi-gay-trans, and people of color communities generally see fighting against economic exploitation as intimately related to, and inseparable from, the fight against racism, sexism, and heterosexism as a critical component of their political agenda. Thus, these forces are potentially the connective tissue between various social change movements and constituencies, rather than the wedge that divides them.… (Ransby 2000: 1219)

In this perspective, issues of gender are not isolated, but are linked to other crucial issues related to how class and race impinge on the experience of women of color.

A further point: in the years of the growth of the international women’s movement, leadership has come from women in the Global South, who reinterpreted Northern women’s movement goals in light of their own experiences in the Third World. This has broadened the agenda of what feminism is about, and points toward a link between feminism and anti-imperialism. In saying this, I fully acknowledge the ideological and political contributions of the second wave on key issues such as domestic violence, incest, rape, women’s right to paid work, access to political power, and sexual harassment. But the cross-pollination of these ideas from the Global North with the experiences and knowledge of feminists from the Global South gave rise to an understanding that a women’s movement agenda is necessarily linked to the larger political and economic structures governing the world economy.

This awareness points to the responsibility of those of us in the midst of the global US empire to learn about and to oppose the policies of our own government. An anti-imperial feminism means in the first instance a clear knowledge of how US-led global capitalism works, and then an effort to educate others about this powerful and dangerous system. As Pakistani feminist Nighat Said Khan points out: “The onus of a global movement, including a global women’s movement, lies with the North since even the combined struggle of the South will not, and cannot, be successful in bringing about global change in what is called the new world order, since this ordering is determined by a handful of countries and significantly by the United States. We in the South can do our best but until the women’s movement and feminist academics in the North are also against their respective states and the international world order, we will never see a global women’s movement” (Khan 2004: 86).

For academic feminists, this means turning away from postmodern analyses that focus on individual and private acts of resistance, and back toward a structural analysis of global capitalism. There has been, in Delia Aguilar’s words (2006: 3), “a domestication or taming of feminism” that has “rendered it unable to come to grips” with the realities of global capitalism. Thus, for example, the body of recent academic work on the experiences of domestic workers in relation to their overseas employers focuses, for the most part, on the alleged “agency” of workers who are able to manipulate the authority of their bosses, rather than on the “complex dynamics of class, race, and nation in mistress/housemaid relationships.” As she further points out,

The current state of feminist theorizing… not only severely limits our understanding of how the global market works but also circumscribes the field of feminist action. That it is unequal to the task of explaining how globalization is built on the backs of Third World women, as it allows a few to move up the class ladder, is an understatement. This task ought to be paramount if feminism is to restore its emancipatory project…. (2006: 4)

If feminist researchers were to turn away from their “current preoccupation with nuance and complexity” and move toward “illuminat[ing] the ways in which gender, race, and nationality are ultimately grounded in production relations, the resulting findings would likely depart radically from those of current studies, for these would unavoidably recognize the necessity of mass political mobilization, not merely the celebration of individual oppositional acts. It would be a theoretical enterprise that could open up the possibility of collective action, with social justice as the primary item on the feminist agenda once again” (2006: 5).

Fourth, we need to ask how the women’s movement can address class issues effectively. One aspect of the co-optation of feminism within the United States is the success of corporations in encouraging some women to enter management, thereby in effect creating a form of “managerial feminism.” Indeed, Karen Nussbaum argues that the acceptance of some women into management was a maneuver by employers to derail the increasing demands of working women:

To contain the growing demands of working women, employers created opportunities for some women, opening up professional and managerial jobs for college graduates while resisting the demands for institutional changes that would improve jobs for all women. Women at both ends of the workforce continued to share common concerns of equal pay and work-family policies, but the intensity of the issues differed as the conditions of the two groups changed. Employers had created a safety valve. College-educated women who had been bank tellers were becoming branch managers; clericals in publishing companies were becoming editors. The percentage of women who were managers or professionals doubled between 1970 and 2004, from 19 to 38 percent. (Nussbaum 2007: 165)

To counter this division of women by class, I want to argue for a new class consciousness, something that is essential to the success of the women’s movement. A cross-class alliance helped strengthen the women’s movement in the Progressive Era, and is equally necessary now. In the current era, middle-class women’s issues are closer to working-class issues (longer hours, the conflict between work and parenting, and lack of social support for caregiving work). But as Dorothy Sue Cobble argues, the US women’s movement “has a ‘class’ problem.” This is “a failure to incorporate ‘class’ as a continuing and central category of analysis. What is needed is a more class-conscious approach, one that acknowledges class as a still salient, lived experience that shapes the needs and perspectives of all women. For left unaddressed, class reproduces itself in social relations and in social policy. And without such a class-conscious approach, the problems of one group of women end up being solved at the expense of another” (Cobble 2004: 227; emphasis in original). As Stephanie Luce and Mark Brenner point out, even though many individual women have gained access to higher education, economic independence, and meaningful work,

It isn’t enough for a few women, or even a lot of women, to succeed. Because under capitalism, their success in leaving the [working] class only means others are left behind. Under capitalism, you can’t have a manager without the managed, and you can’t have a winner without a loser. And who is losing? It remains primarily women and people of color who lose the most under capitalism, overrepresented among the working class and the poor. In addition, many of those women who are “winners” by virtue of their new degrees and higher-paying jobs aren’t really winning, either. They may have more money and more power, but because of our privatized system of social reproduction, capitalism still constrains their options for caring for others and being cared for. In this way, the women who “win” under capitalism, as well as those who lose, have an incentive to build a cross-class women’s movement to fight for a different model of production and social reproduction that allows us to construct our lives around human needs. (Luce & Brenner 2007: 130)

It is arguable that the divisions between women of color and poor women, on the one hand, and mainstream feminists, on the other, come down to an issue of class. In a well-known formulation, Maxine Molyneux distinguishes between strategic gender interests and practical gender interests. Strategic interests are those that seek “to overcome women’s subordination, such as the abolition of the sexual division of labor, the alleviation of the burden of domestic labour and childcare, the removal of institutionalized forms of discrimination, the attainment of political equality, the establishment of freedom of choice over childbearing and the adoption of adequate measures against male violence and control over women (Molyneux 2001a [1985]: 43). Practical gender interests are formulated by women “by virtue of their place within the sexual division of labour as those primarily responsible for their household’s daily welfare… When governments fail to provide these basic needs, women withdraw their support; when the livelihood of their families -- especially their children -- is threatened, it is women who form the phalanxes of bread rioters, demonstrators and petitioners” (44). Molyneux goes on to note that “gender and class are closely intertwined; it is, for obvious reasons, usually poor women who are so readily mobilized by economic necessity. Practical interests, therefore, cannot be assumed to be innocent of class effects. Moreover, these practical interests do not in themselves challenge the prevailing forms of gender subordination, even though they arise directly out of them” (44).

This distinction between practical and strategic interests has entered the literature (see, for example, Peterson & Runyan 1999: 177ff.). But it is not always identified as a class issue, and scholars have spilled much ink trying to decide which campaigns by women around the world are genuinely feminist, as opposed to those that are “merely” representing the interests of poor women in defending their families. Thus, for example, are the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, seeking information about their disappeared loved ones in Argentina, acting as feminists or “just” as mothers?8 This line of inquiry presupposes the intrinsic superiority of a Western feminist viewpoint and is therefore suspect from the outset!

But I suggest that this debate go back to basics and look again at the issue of class. Rather than using the term feminist as a term of approbation, and implicitly blaming poor women for being more interested in the welfare of their families than in their own self-advancement as women, we need to acknowledge that the goals laid out by liberal feminism in the context of the developed industrial countries represent, in part, the “strategic interests” of those women who have the resources, education, and wherewithal to conceive of themselves as independent economic actors. The tensions and political disagreements that have characterized feminist debates in the United States and around the world are in part due to a reluctance on the part of some writers and activists to let go of the romantic view that the experience of being female automatically unites all women. The level of economic development of a society and the class position of women within it dictate the degree to which they can seek to be independent actors without relying on the protections of kinship and marriage.

Women in Third World situations, whether located in advanced industrial countries or in countries of the Global South, are forced to focus on what the late Bina Srinivasan called survival struggles (Srinivasan 2004). It requires a certain level of education and political consciousness, not to mention economic security, to begin to consider issues of the kind laid out by mainstream feminism. But it may be that, in the contemporary scene, these streams of practical versus strategic interests have begun to flow together, since so many activists around the world have incorporated feminist ideas into their local struggles (see Rowbotham & Linkogle 1994a.) The ongoing battles taking place in Oaxaca, Mexico, for example, in defense of public education, led by schoolteachers of indigenous peasant background, have seen extraordinary leadership by women, who incorporate many forms of what we might think of as feminist consciousness into what is essentially a class struggle. As Lynn Stephen notes, the presence of women working to

remove a governor from power, running barricades and neighborhood committees, taking over radio and TV stations and then defending them on security duty—these are not traditional “female” tasks. What was striking—both to participants and to observers—was the number of women who were involved and who acted in coordination, creating a very strong female, public political presence that severely challenged the Oaxacan political elite. This presence of the “short, the fat and the brown” was evident not only in the public spaces in the center of the city but also on television and radio. (Stephen 2007: 110)

Long-standing activist teachers were here allied with working-class and middle-class housewives having their first experience of political activism. In this configuration, the streams of strategic gender interests (seeking equality of women with men) and practical gender interests (survival struggles) flowed together into one larger river: “The ways in which women activists … presented themselves and their demands suggests that their organizing is consistent with other hybrid contemporary social movements that combine the strategic demands of achieving women’s equality with the practical demands of access to food, healthcare, housing, democratic representation, respect, and simply the right to speak in public” (Stephen 2007, 110).

One way for the women’s movement to address class issues effectively is through the infusion of energy that women activists have brought into union organizing. Traditionally, unions have been an important counterweight to corporate power.9 In the period since the 1970s, corporate leaders have carried on an unremitting campaign to weaken unions. Manufacturing unions, in particular, have felt the effects of deindustrialization and this concerted corporate assault, both of which have seriously reduced union membership and union political power.

But an unexpected result of the shift to a service economy is the expansion of a female workforce that is increasingly union-friendly. Public sector unionism grew rapidly in the 1960s and ‘70s and peaked in the early ‘80s, with two-fifths of government workers organized. This growth continues for large public sector unions such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Teachers. “With close to 7 million women covered by union contracts, organized labor arguably is the largest working women’s movement in the country” (Cobble 2007: 6). As Ruth Milkman notes: “Even as the nation’s overall unionization rate has declined, the female share of union membership has expanded rapidly. In 2004, 43 percent of all the nation’s union members were women -- a record high, up from 34 percent only twenty years earlier, and just slightly below the 48 percent female share of the nations’ wage and salary workforce.”10

Service sector women represent a different kind of workforce from the old blue-collar model of unionism. In response, new kinds of organizing have been emerging, both inside and outside of organized labor. In 1999 in Los Angeles County, 74,000 home care workers, predominantly Latina, black, and immigrant women, joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 434B in the largest single increase of union membership since the 1930s (Boris & Klein 2007: 177). The rapid growth of unionism among home care workers in recent years depended on unions such as 1199 and the SEIU recognizing that the predominantly female workforce carrying out home care could not be approached in the manner of traditionally male industrial workers. Instead, these women first needed to develop a sense of identity as workers. At the same time, the public and governmental agencies paying their wages had to be made aware that home care work was not identical with the unpaid caring work of women everywhere, but rather that this work deserved recognition for employees, with entitlements to health care, social security, workers compensation, and other benefits.

The Los Angeles victory, and others like it, depended on a mode of organizing that drew in a coalition of interests, including the elderly and disabled who were “consumers” of home health care. It also developed techniques that drew on the role of women workers as community members.11 Thus, SEIU 880 in Chicago “cultivated rank and file leaders from among female home attendant members, who were drawn in through tens of thousands of house visits. The women created a social world around the union, with regular meetings, parties, barbeques, recognition ceremonies, letter-writing campaigns, marches, and neighborhood alliances. They held ‘speak outs’ and ‘honk-ins,’ stopping traffic… The ACORN model enabled the union to address women’s whole lives as workers, kin, caregivers, and community members.” Drawing on the experience of welfare reform organizing, this “new social movement unionism” allowed the low-wage immigrant and black workers a leadership role by acknowledging their complex identities as women doing care work in individual homes.

Other avenues of organizing -- including attempts to organize welfare-to-work recipients -- have served to expand the horizons of traditional union activities:

The ideals embodied in workfare and welfare organizing – the right to a decent job at livable wages, support for children and families, and gender and racial equality—are crucial to the labor movement’s revival and growth. They create possibilities for a compelling vision of social justice at a time when the labor movement most desperately needs to reframe its beliefs and goals, and they capture the high ground in the national debate about economic and social justice. For trade unions, organizing that takes into account workers’ issues outside of purely employment-based concerns offers a way to join with other movements for social justice. For community-based groups working for welfare rights, women’s rights, and racial/ethnic justice, putting their energies into labor organizing builds bridges with those unions whose work has centered on traditional employment-based organizing. (Tait 2007: 208)

The influence of feminist leadership is visible in the style of organizing, and the creative use of gender consciousness, in the highly successful campaigns being waged by the California Nurses Association (CNA). The leader of the CNA, Rose Ann DeMoro, “an earthy, fifty-seven-year-old, Teamster-trained, water-skiing grandmother,” is a women’s studies graduate who abandoned her graduate studies in sociology when her professors told her that her heart was in organizing (Breslau 2006: 2). After thirteen years under her leadership, the union tripled in size, to 70,000 members, most of them female, and has become a major political force within California. Now the CNA is seeking to organize registered nurses in forty states and is pushing for campaign finance reform along with universal health care.

I don’t want to romanticize the role of women in unions or the political impact of unions more broadly. Indeed, in 2008 a bitter dispute between the CNA and the SEIU roiled the service sector union movement and brought to light so many of the ugly power struggles and compromises that have made many turn away from unions altogether.12 The union movement has a long way to go in incorporating and accepting leadership not only from women but also from the many new actors in the immigrant community who have been creating workers’ centers and other alternative institutions as part of the struggle for labor rights as well as for citizenship (see Moody 2008). Welcoming innovative strategies by groups traditionally excluded from union organizing must be part of the agenda, as when the June 2008 National Domestic Workers Congress, held in New York City, threw its support behind a proposed New York State domestic workers’ bill of rights, which if passed would be the first in the country (Buckley & Correal 2008). Nonetheless, I would argue that the revival of unions, both domestically and internationally, is one of the most significant sites of resistance to corporate power, and the infusion of women’s energy and feminist consciousness into labor unions is a hopeful aspect of an otherwise bleak picture.

Fifth, we need to disentangle the project of women’s emancipation from its tight embrace with capitalist modernization. The germ of this idea came to me in the wake of one of the passionate discussions in a seminar entitled “Facing Global Capital, Finding Human Security: A Gendered Critique,” held at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York between 2002 and 2005. This was a group of some thirty to forty people, primarily academics (faculty and graduate students), but with a sprinkling of activists. The discussion was lively to the point of active verbal hostilities. The disputes stemmed from ideological differences among the participants, whom I mentally divided into three categories.13

First were the liberal feminists, who happily envisaged the spread of hegemonic US feminism to the rest of the world and who uncritically believed that the ideas of US feminism would genuinely benefit the lives of other women, if only they had access to them. Second were the postmodernists, whose governing ideological mode was active despair about the ravages of contemporary globalization, along with a skepticism about feminism as being simply another hollow “grand narrative,” and a conviction that there was no “outside” of capitalism to repair to. Third were the Marxist feminists, who continued to insist that another world was possible. This group (including myself) shared the despair of the postmodernists about the contemporary ravages of globalization -– the increasing immiseration of the majority of the world, along with the decline in health, life expectancy, and access to education and a viable future for so many millions of the world’s population. But we did not agree with the premise that there was no “outside” of capitalism, that is, no alternative way of organizing society. Indeed, I felt that the postmodernists in a curious way were ideologically wedded to their worst enemies in that they saw continued globalization as inevitable.

This set of disagreements came to a head (not for the only time) at a meeting of the seminar on November 21 2002, devoted to the theme “cultures of violence.” As it happened, we had read one piece on the abject situation of people with AIDS in Brazil, who are subjected to the bureaucratic rigidities of the state health system (Biehl 2001). And we had read another piece on female genital cutting among one of the indigenous peoples of the Sudan (Abusharaf 2001). What I observed in the discussion that followed was that speakers pointed either to the misery and abjection of the people being spit out by the bureaucracies of modernity or to the cruelty of the traditional tribal requirements toward young girls.

We seemed to be facing a stark set of choices. On the one hand, there was the choice of leaving unaltered the harshness of a traditional culture toward its female children on the theory that indigenous cultures had their own integrity. On the other hand, the choice was to intervene in this system through modernization, via the structures of globalization, and thus bring to bear the new ultra-cruel violence of bureaucratized capitalism. In other words, one was forced to choose between a respect for traditional patriarchy, with so many of its costs born by young women and girls, and an uncritical acceptance of corporate globalization, with its modern ideas of female empowerment and all of the accompanying baggage of consumerism, individualism, and radical inequalities of life chances, not to mention environmental degradation.

What was missing from the discussion was a third choice, namely, a renewed dream of an alternative world in which health care would not be rationed and in which indigenous wisdoms would be preserved in tandem with modern knowledge. The example that came to my mind during this discussion was an instance of combining indigenous knowledge and practices with the knowledge provided by modern science: the practice of midwifery in Nunavik, the Inuit region of the Quebec Arctic. The procedure of the Quebec government had been to fly pregnant mothers out of their community all the way to Montreal, where they received medical care in total isolation from their family and community. “Inspired by community organizing by Inuit women and growing activism for Inuit cultural revival and self-government,” a health care center, the Inuulitsivik Health Centre, established a midwifery service in 1986 to train Inuit midwives. “The community expressed a strong desire to reclaim midwifery skills and traditional knowledge about birth and to combine both traditional and modern approaches” (Epoo & Wagner 2005: 1, 2).

These Inuit midwives in northern Quebec apply modern medical training, along with their knowledge of traditional practices, to deliver babies. If all goes well, the babies are born uneventfully, immersed in the language of their traditional culture. If they are endangered, they get modern medical care on the spot, rather than having to be flown four to eight hours to Montreal, although this is still the case for severe emergency procedures:

Birth in the community is seen as part of restoring skills and pride and building capacity in the community. Participating in birth builds family and community relationships and intergenerational support and learning. It can be part of both “re-Inuitization,” through promoting respect for traditional knowledge, and of teaching transcultural skills both within the local community and with nonlocal health care providers. The Inuit midwives play a vital role in promoting healthy behavior and in health education and can be effective in this role in ways that health care workers who do not speak the language or know the culture could not hope to be. (Epoo & Wagner 2005: 4)

This project, which combined modern feminist ideas about health care and the proper role of women as midwives with the language and wisdom of an ancient indigenous culture, encapsulated for me a way to escape from the either/or trap of tradition versus modernity. The global war on terror relies on a stark dichotomy between modernity and tradition, where the first encapsulates the values of Western civilization, equated with market democracies, while the second encapsulates “our” terrorist enemies, who are mired in patriarchal traditions that lead them inexorably to become Western-hating terrorists. Beyond this grotesque caricature of the world, there is the reality that Western feminism carries with it the liberal ideas of individual autonomy and self-determination that grow from the Enlightenment traditions of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. But as many have pointed out, these traditions of human rights, enshrined in UN documents and national constitutions around the world, are no longer the exclusive patrimony [sic!] of the West.

Is it not possible, now, to decouple the cluster of ideas that constitute contemporary feminisms from the battering ram of US imperialism? One goal, then, for a newly radical feminism would be the achievement of self-determination for peoples, with women’s rights encapsulated in that process. Despite the ravages of globalization, there is also a positive side. The globalization of information has produced an interpenetration of ideas and concepts that renders the old dichotomy of tradition versus modernity, if not utterly obsolete, at least an inadequate descriptor of the present reality. Certainly, the ideas of feminism have become so widespread and so universally familiar that we can imagine the creation of as many feminisms as there are languages and cultures. The Zapatista struggle for indigenous rights now incorporates a sophisticated set of claims for women’s rights that has become part and parcel of the revolutionary goals of this movement.14

So instead of assuming that one has to choose between capitalist modernity and patriarchal traditionalism, we can think of a third option, which would represent community autonomy and self-determination, where people are free to choose what elements of tradition and what elements of modernity will make up their own vision of the future. In this project those cultures that were ravaged by colonialism can look back into their own past to resurrect the elements of women’s autonomy that were suppressed or destroyed by colonial regimes.

Finally, I would urge a rethinking of attitudes toward the state and state-led economic development. In the current crisis, the Left in the United States and around the world is divided as to strategy and goals and uncertain about a path to the future. While acknowledging the brave achievements of the Cuban revolution, most Left writers see the blueprint of Soviet-model economic development as discredited and agree that the only possible socialism for the future is one that is deeply democratic.

But how do we build this new socialism? Some writers have been arguing that it is possible to create a new world within the structures of the old. John Holloway, a student and advocate of the Zapatista movement, argues against the idea that seizing state power can ever create social justice, advocating instead a myriad of individual and collective acts that reject capitalism. Similarly, J. K. Gibson-Graham argue for a “postcapitalist politics,” encouraging feminist economic alternatives to capitalism, such as cooperatives, that spring up within the system. In other words, these writers are skeptical of the traditional idea that one has to seize and hold state power to create workable alternatives to capitalism.15

But if we take seriously the analyses of writers such as Vincent Navarro, Jeff Faux, and Edward Herman, which suggest that the current period has been characterized by a counterrevolution against the working class and the poor by the elites of a globalized world, then the process of reversing this inevitably means the development of solidarity against the elites. In other words, we are looking at a return to class struggle or, rather, to the reversal of the class struggle that is now being waged against the poor. Navarro puts it this way: “The left-wing alternative must be centered in alliances among the dominated classes and other dominated groups, with a political movement that must be built upon the process of class struggle that takes place in each country. As Hugo Chávez of Venezuela said, ‘It cannot be a mere movement of protest and celebration like Woodstock.’ It is an enormous struggle, an endeavor in which organization and coordination are key, calling for a Fifth International. This is the challenge to the international left today.”16

Whether or not one is convinced by Navarro’s proposal for a Fifth International, are there places in the world today where the class struggle against the poor is in the process of being reversed? I suggest that in the current political and economic scene, the Bolivarian revolution of Hugo Chávez merits our attention.

If we cut through the fog of disinformation and bias produced by the US media, we can see that the work being carried out by the government of Chávez in creating state-led development as an alternative to neoliberalism has enormous significance for feminism. The influence of the Chávez experiment is magnified through the Venezuelan President’s links with a cluster of left-leaning leaders, including Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, and even Michelle Bachelet in Chile (not to mention his close ties to Fidel and Raúl Castro in Cuba).17

The historical juncture that brought Hugo Chávez to power through a series of intensely democratic processes, including at this writing nine separate elections where he received about 60 percent of the vote, has created a new opening for state-led development, defined in the broadest possible way (Ellner 2006: 103). In the “missions” that Chávez’s government has established in the poorest neighborhoods, providing jobs, health care, housing, subsidized foodstuffs, and education, he is using the state to create a newly expansive kind of development where human needs are given priority.

Although not evident from most media coverage, the role of poor women in the Bolivarian revolution has been crucial. When an attempted coup against Chávez was launched in April 2002 by a coalition of right-wing forces with the tacit consent and encouragement of the US government, it was reversed through massive street organizing. In Nora Castañeda’s account, “Women were the first to mobilize: not just at Fort Tiuna and Miraflores but right across the country. In Venezuela there is a Plaza Bolivar in each town and village, and this is where people gathered, with women at the forefront.” As millions took to the streets, “women had a great presence across the country, making calls, organizing, forming a chain of information which replaced the disinformation of the private media.” Why women? “Because they were the ones with the most to lose, I think. Men were deeply affected by the coup, but it was the women who were most affected. Grassroots women have managed to survive conditions of terrible poverty and with the revolution they have gained so much that to lose it would be truly unbearable. It was like the loss of a precious loved one; we were in mourning, but ready to fight at the same time” (Castañeda quoted in Lopez 2006: 37).

It was the organized women’s movement that persuaded the Chávez government to incorporate into the revised constitution of 1999 a provision, Article 88, that requires housewives to receive a government pension as a reward for their household labor. The article reads: “The State will guarantee equality between men and women in exercising the right to work. The State will recognize housework as an economic activity that creates added value and produces wealth and social welfare. Housewives are entitled to social security in accordance with the law” (cited in Lopez 2006: 53). The decades-long campaign of activists in the worldwide Wages for Housework movement has thus borne perhaps its first real fruit in the Bolivarian revolution.

In addition, the Chávez government has created the Women’s Development Bank, the Banmujer, a public microfinancial system financed by the state. The first president of the bank, appointed in March 2001, Nora Castañeda, is an economist and longtime feminist activist who was a lecturer at Venezuela’s Central University for more than thirty years. Bank representatives conduct grassroots economic training workshops, and then set up organized women’s groups within individual communities, assist them with preparing their projects (including a budget that calculates the value of women’s unpaid labor), and then grant credit for an enterprise to be carried out by women in the community.

The women are organized into cooperatives (Unidades Económicas Asociativas), and they monitor their progress in cooperation with the bank through a network of Banmujer users (Red de Usuarias de Banmujer). Instead of the bank setting up regional offices, bank representatives travel to remote rural regions to assist women, including indigenous women, offering small loans but also workshops on basic business principles and on broader issues such as health, community organizing, leadership, and the prevention of domestic violence (Walker 2008: 2). The goal of establishing these cooperatives is to begin the process of bringing women out of poverty. As Nora Castañeda remarks: “The purpose of credit is not to grant it to people who may or may not spend it, so they end up indebted to the Bank and therefore not only in poverty, but in debt.… The purpose is to improve the quality of life of women and their families” (Lopez 2005: 59). The microcredit scheme is publicly funded and is intended as an antipoverty measure, not a profit-making enterprise, as is the case with most microcredit programs.

The Banmujer model encapsulates the goals of Chávez’s Bolivarian project, which is, in Castañeda’s words, “creating a caring economy, an economy at the service of human beings, not human beings at the service of the economy” (quoted in Walker 2008: 3). It could be that this difference in philosophy is what engenders so much hostility. As Kristen Walker notes:

Perhaps what the United States so intensely dislikes about Venezuela is not so much its political system (which is, after all, democratic -- Chávez won 56 percent of the popular vote in 1998, compared to Bush’s 48 percent in 2000), but rather its rejection of free-market capitalism as the ruling economic paradigm. Instead, Chávez is using programs like the Women’s Development Bank to encourage the formulation of what Castañeda terms a “popular economy.” This economy is intended to serve average people instead of large corporations by mirroring on a larger scale the cooperative work that Banmujer encourages for the groups of women with whom it collaborates. Just as the individual women work together to run their business or workshop, the “popular economy” promotes larger economic actors to work together, complementing each other instead of competing for resources. An article in The Guardian commented that “the mini-entrepreneurs [given loans by Banmujer] are encouraged to cooperate with other small businesses rather than competing with them. If one group is given money to rear chickens, another nearby will be given a loan to slaughter the chickens.” Thus, Banmujer uses financial and nonfinancial services to empower women, enabling them to overcome poverty sustainably, while also promoting Venezuela’s vision of a “popular” or “caring” economy. (Walker 2008, 3; brackets in original)

The Chávez model of state-led development insists on national sovereignty in economic decisionmaking. But it goes well beyond this, toward an expanded concept of human development. Under this model, Venezuela uses state power to create the conditions of welfare and education necessary to help build a new socialism, a goal Chávez has publicly embraced on many occasions. To be sure, the Venezuelan experience is built on oil wealth and is not easily replicable in countries lacking such a plentiful and profitable natural resource. But the contrast with other oil-rich countries is noteworthy: unlike for example Angola and Nigeria, where the presence of oil has been diagnosed as the “resource curse,” keeping these countries more impoverished on average than comparable countries that lack oil, the government of Venezuela under Chávez has consciously and deliberately turned substantial proportions of its oil wealth into the basis for social programs in education, health, subsidized consumption, and housing (see Hammond 2008).

As one US expert on Venezuelan events notes, “Chávez’s six and a half years in power demonstrate that third-world governments can forcefully uphold national sovereignty and at the same time promote a nationalist, progressive agenda in opposition to powerful economic interests” (Ellner 2006: 101). Little wonder that The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and other business outlets fulminate about the ways in which Chávez’s antineoliberal policies challenge the dominant paradigm of decisionmaking by, for, and to the profit of international corporate interests. In the debate, then, about building another world, the case of Venezuela is extremely important, worthy of attention, close study, and international solidarity.18


1. The bulk of this article is excerpted from my book, Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers 2009.

2. Davies & Suggett 2009: 8. As Davies notes earlier in the interview, “[E]ven if Obama had… the best intention of profoundly transforming US foreign policy toward Latin America and in particular Venezuela, the superior interests of the transnationals, the military industrial complex, and the giant corporations that have always benefited from the aggressive, criminal, genocidal policies of the United States will impose their agenda on top of whatever he says.”

3. Gates joined the CIA in 1966 and served six presidents as an intelligence professional. Director of the CIA from 1991 until 1993, he is the only career officer in the history of the agency who rose from an entry-level employee to the position of Director. His memoir is entitled From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insiders Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (1996).

4. Lawrence Summers, chief economist at the World Bank 1991-93, US secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, president of Harvard 2001-06, was named in 2008 to head Obama’s National Council of Economic Advisers. He famously was forced out of his position at Harvard after his unfortunate remarks suggesting that women were innately less talented than men in mathematics and the sciences.

5. See Gimenez & Vogel 2005; Sargent 1981.

6. Disney 2004: 11. See also Disney 2008. FRELIMO is the acronym for the Liberation Front of Mozambique; FSLN stands for the Sandinista Liberation Front of Nicaragua.

7. This has turned out to be a long-lasting separation, one which I deplored early on (Eisenstein 1983: 125ff.).

8. On this point, see Stephen 1997. Stephen cites the well-known article by Temma Kaplan, which set forth a theory of “female consciousness” in her discussion of women’s collective action in early-20th-century Barcelona: “When women who have internalized their designated roles as domestic providers and caretakers are unable to carry out their duties, they will be moved to take action in order to fulfill their social roles as females. This may even include taking on the state when it impedes their day-to-day activities. Kaplan has extended this analysis to women’s participation in grassroots movements within contemporary Latin America” (Stephen 1997, 10–11; see also Kaplan 1982 1990).

9. The other counterweight is government, in periods such as the New Deal when leaders accepted the need to curb corporate power.

10. Milkman 2007: 68. Of female union members, 70.9 percent are in three industry groups: education, health care, and public administration.

11. Boris & Klein 2007: 189. ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform NOW) is “the largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, working together for social justice and stronger communities” (

12. See Gluckman 2008; Kaplan 2008. Gluckman analyzes the conflict as being, in part, over “density versus democracy” (2008: 8). The SEIU has been negotiating deals directly with the employer, often in secret and without consultation with members, in order to increase labor density by bringing in more and more worksites, whereas De Moro and other critics of the SEIU believe in direct organizing of the rank and file.

13. The seminar was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellowship Program. I beg the indulgence of any former seminar members who happen to read these words if I have turned your ideas into too much of a caricature.

14. On the cosmology and activism of the indigenous women’s movement among the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, see Marcos 2005.

15. Gibson-Graham 2006a 2006b; Holloway 2005. See also Gibson-Graham responding to Eisenstein 2006: “A postcapitalist politics involves working collaboratively to produce alternative economic organizations and spaces in place.… We can foster the growth of a feminist political economy by enrolling women in actively practicing ‘noncapitalism’ rather than primarily opposing capitalism” (Gibson-Graham 2006c: 77).

16. Navarro 2007: 34. In proposing a Fifth International Navarro is referring to the history of international organizations established to spread socialism and then communism throughout the world. The First or International Workingman’s Association was founded in London in 1864. The Second International , an association of socialist and labor parties, was founded in Paris in 1889 and dissolved in 1916 over the issue of supporting or opposing World War I. The Third International refers to the international Communist organization founded in Moscow in 1919 following the Russian Revolution. The Fourth International was established by Leon Trotsky in 1938 to oppose both capitalism and Stalinism.

17. Although these leaders vary in their approach to neoliberalism, they are united in refusing to oppose the reforms of Chávez and Morales. Furthermore, they are cooperating on various joint projects. For example, the proposed creation of a Latin American pipeline system for oil and gas may signal the beginning of a new economic and political union.

18. For informed and sympathetic updates on the Bolivarian revolution, see For vivid illustrations of the multiple roles of women, see the videos available from, especially Venezuela: A 21st-Century Revolution (2003) and Journey with the Revolution (2006).


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