Feminism and the Future of Revolution
In my earlier work on gender and revolutions (Moghadam 1997), I developed a model of gendered revolutionary processes and outcomes, by which bourgeois, socialist and populist revolutions are classified as either egalitarian (“the women's emancipation model”) or patriarchal (“the women in the family model”). I used this model to analyze the gender dynamics of, inter alia, the French revolution of 1789, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the East European revolutions of 1989. In the new century, I revisited that model in light of the multifaceted process of globalization, the end of the Cold War, the global spread of feminist discourses, and the emergence of women's movements and organizations across countries and regions (Moghadam 2003). I hypothesized that if any future revolution or oppositional movement did not incorporate women and feminism, it would be to their disadvantage. Such movements, I argued, would be less likely to gain either national or international support, and I pointed to the worldwide condemnation of the Taliban’s “gender apartheid” regime as an example. I hypothesized, too, that revolutions would continue to occur because neoliberal globalization – the present stage of capitalism – was resulting in increased inequalities globally and within societies, as numerous publications have now documented (Bornschier 2010; Oxfam 2014; Milanovic 2016; Piketty 2014; UNDP 1999).
Oppositional movements did emerge and mobilize at both national and global levels, as we saw with the anti-globalization protests of 1999-2001, the Latin American “pink tide” in the new century, the formation of the World Social Forum (WSF) in 2001, the 2011 Arab Spring protests, the anti-austerity protests in Europe and Chile, and Occupy Wall Street. Organization and mobilization was facilitated by new civil-society mobilizing structures and by the expanding global infrastructure created by transnational social movements associated with labor, women, human rights, and the environment. Women and feminist organizations were strongly represented in that new global infrastructure, and many of them had analyses, critiques, and demands that echoed the socialist-feminist narratives of the early days of second-wave feminism. A spate of publications on the “global justice movement” (Della Porta 2007; Starr 2000), the WSF process (Smith et al 2008), and “the world revolution of 20xx” (Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000; Chase-Dunn et al 2009) seemed to confirm my proposition that future revolutions would have features associated with socialism and feminism alike (Moghadam 2003).
I now want to explore that proposition further in light of the disappointing outcomes of the Arab Spring, the receding of the Latin American pink tide, the waning away of Occupy Wall Street, the continued austerity measures in Europe, and the rise of right-wing populist movements, parties, and governments across the globe. I make four arguments:
The nature of and prospects for revolution may be changing; the post-Cold War and neoliberal world order limits the opportunity structure for individual cases of successful social or even political revolutions;
The world revolution of 20xx (to be discussed below) will not be successful unless women and their organizations are fully integrated at all levels, and especially within leadership;
Feminists must fully integrate socio-economic and class concerns in their agendas if they are to weaken the base of right-wing populist movements;
There needs to be an effective mechanism to coordinate disparate mass protests across the globe. The WSF could become that mechanism if it changed its charter and formulated a platform and program of action based on a broad coalition that includes progressive political parties and governments.
Gender and Revolutions: Before and After Feminism and Globalization
My early work on gender and revolution was an attempt to bridge the divide between the feminist scholarship on women and revolutions and the more mainstream study of revolutions. In the former, women's roles in revolutions were recovered from historiographical obscurity and emphasized as important to the course and outcome of the revolution. Still, many feminist scholars had argued that revolutionary movements subordinated women's interests to “broader” or “basic” revolutionary goals, and that revolutionary states often marginalized or excluded women from power and enacted legislation that emphasized women's family roles. In contrast to the feminist scholarship, mainstream studies of revolution had tended to neglect women and gender issues. Their description and analyses of revolutionary causes and outcomes focused on class, state, and international conflicts as key factors. Thus in Skocpol’s (1979) well-known definition, a social revolution entailed a fast-paced foundational transformation of a society's state and class structures, including institutions and property relations.1 What I sought to do was to combine the attention to “structure” that had been characteristic of the third generation of scholarship on revolution, including Marxist studies, and the more recent focus on “agency” and of “culture” that was said to be a defining feature of the “fourth generation” of revolutionary studies (Foran 1993; Goldstone 2001).
My work on gender and revolution was thus an attempt to integrate gender analysis in the broader study of revolution and to differentiate revolutions by their gendered outcomes. It grew from the simple observation that almost all revolutions had involved the participation of women in ways that disrupted pre-existing social relations of gender, and that revolutionary states were preoccupied with policies and laws pertaining to women and the family. In my review of the great social revolutions and various Third World populist revolutions, I found two types of revolution and their implications for women and gender relations. One group of revolutions falls into the “women in the family” or patriarchal model of revolution; while others illustrate the women's emancipation, or egalitarian model of revolution. These are ideal-types, and it should be noted that in each case there have been differential effects upon women, based on social class, race/ethnicity and ideological divisions among women. Nevertheless, and thus far, revolutionary discourses and policies pertaining to women, the family and citizenship seem to fall into these two categories.
The women's emancipation model links women’s liberation and rights to the revolution’s goals, modernity, or the project of social transformation. It constructs Woman as part of the productive forces and the citizenry, to be mobilized for economic and political purposes; she is to be liberated from patriarchal controls expressly for that purpose and for her own liberation. Here the discourse is more strongly that of gender equality than gender difference. The first example, historically, of such a revolution is the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which, especially with respect to its early years, remains the avant-garde revolution par excellence, in part due to its audacious and unprecedented approach to raising the legal status and social positions of women. For working class and peasant women, the right to divorce and to own land, to receive schooling, and to take part in political activities were novel forms of participation and rights (see Kruks, Rapp, and Young 1989). Other revolutions that conform to this model - in some cases explicitly - include those of China, Cuba, Vietnam, Democratic Yemen, Democratic Afghanistan and Nicaragua (socialist or populist revolutions) and the Kemalist revolution in Turkey (a bourgeois revolution). In more recent years, examples of revolutionary movements or states that have incorporated feminist or women's rights goals are South Africa's ANC (Meintjes 1998), the Zapatista movement in Mexico (Marcos 1995; Ponce de Leon 2001), Northern Ireland's republican movement (McWilliams 1995), and Tunisia’s 2011 political revolution.2
The women-in-the-family model of revolution excludes women from definitions and constructions of independence, liberation and liberty, and sometimes expressly designates women as second-class citizens or legal minors. It frequently constructs an ideological linkage between patriarchal values, nationalism, and the religious order. It assigns women the role of wife and mother, and associates women not only with family but also with tradition, culture and religion. The historical precursor of the patriarchal model was the French revolution. Despite its many progressive features and the strong presence of women in its first few years, the French revolution had an extremely conservative outcome for women. The woman's chief responsibility in the Republic was biological reproduction and the socialization of children in republican virtues (Darnton 1989: 4). In twentieth-century revolutions that had similarly patriarchal outcomes for women – notably Mexico, Algeria and Iran – women were relegated to the private sphere despite the important roles they had played in the revolutionary movements. In these cases, men took over the reins of power and enacted legislation to codify patriarchal gender relations. Feminist studies on postcommunist Russia and East Central Europe in the 1990s (e.g., Einhorn 1993; Moghadam 1993; Paxton and Hughes 2014: 223-228) would confirm that the political and economic changes there, too, conformed to the patriarchal model of revolution, as women lost political power and many economic rights, and religious institutions resumed influence. The Arab Spring cases of revolutionary uprisings where women were sidelined and the patriarchal model prevailed include Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
Inspired by feminist research on “engendering transitions” (Viterna and Fallon 2008; Waylen 2007), I later applied my framework to democratic transitions.3 Note that in Table 1, democratic transitions are distinguished from revolutions. (See Table 1.) We will question that distinction presently.
Table 1. Gender outcomes of revolutions and democratic transitions: A typology
Type of revolution or democratic transition
Kemalism in Turkey
Argentina, Brazil, Chile (1980s);
South Africa (1990s);
Northern Ireland (1998)
Revolutions: new legal rights and forms of social participation for women; integration in the body politic;
Democracies: gender quotas, gender budgeting, visibility of feminist organizations
American colonies (1776)
Eastern Europe (1989)
Eastern Europe (1989)
Russia (1991 -)
Turkey (1991/2001; 2010 -)
Egypt (2011 -)
Revolutions: women and their groups are marginalized, politics are male-dominated;
Democracies: men dominate political power, family and religion emphasized
What determines each type of revolution or democratic transition and its gender outcomes? Here ideology and social structure are equally salient. In general, where revolutionaries or the leadership of the democratic transition are guided by a modernizing and socialist ideology and left parties are influential, and especially where women and their organizations have had a strong presence, the outcome is more likely to be emancipatory in gender terms. Where those conditions are not present, and especially where revolutions or political movements have been guided predominantly by religious or nationalist ideology, patriarchal outcomes are more likely to occur. Despite temporary disruptions in the course of the revolution as women take part in protests and struggles, pre-existing patriarchal gender relations are often carried over in the post-revolutionary situation. This is less likely to happen, however, when a “critical mass” of women has entered the public sphere in the pre-revolutionary situation, and when large numbers of women take part in the revolution and assume decision-making and leadership roles. In the Arab Spring cases, these conditions were present in Tunisia but not in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen (see Moghadam 2017). Thus, structural determinants of gendered revolutionary outcomes and transitions seem to be: (1) the pre-existing social structure and the nature of gender relations; (2) the movement ideology and goals; and (3) the extent of women's participation in the movement and leadership.
Let us apply this model to the 1979 Iranian case, among the last of the Third World revolutions of the 20th century. The immediate gender outcome of the Iranian revolution was a patriarchal and regressive one, in part due to the pre-existing social structure and the nature of gender relations. In the 1970s Iran was a modernizing society, but a very dualistic one, characterized by a growing modern middle class and working class alongside the older, more traditional and larger urban petty bourgeoisie and rural population. The modernizing efforts of the Pahlavi state had increased women's access to education, employment and political participation, but these social changes, and the legal reforms that accompanied them, had affected a relatively small proportion of the female population, mainly in the major cities (Moghadam 1999b; Sedghi 2007; Tohidi 1994), and such women often faced persistent sexual harassment on the streets. The backlash continued after the revolution, in the form of an Islamist regime that overturned the Pahlavi-era legal reforms, instituted gender-discriminatory policies and sex segregation, and emphasized women's maternal roles. Opposition to the new gender regime was courageous but demographically limited, emanating mainly from women leftists and liberals of the small urban upper-middle class.
A major determinant of this outcome was the ideology of the revolutionaries. Although left-wing organizations and movements were part of the anti-Shah revolutionary coalition and in the early days of the post-revolutionary period appeared popular and influential, the Islamic revolutionaries were the dominant force and went on to build an Islamic state. Theirs was a religious and cultural-nationalist ideology that called for the re-establishment of the traditional Muslim family and codified a patriarchal gender contract premised upon the male breadwinner and female homemaker ideal. Although Iranian women had taken part in the massive street demonstrations of 1978 and early 1979, their slogans had been those of the broader revolutionary coalition, and not those that might be more typical of women's interests (e.g. equality of women and men, women's self-determination, full political and social citizenship rights, etc.) – at least not until March 1979. Most importantly, women were nowhere in the revolutionary coalition’s leadership, which was dominated by clerics (exclusively men), male nationalist leaders and male leftists.4
Many Iranian feminists have raised the question of why the left forces were so ambivalent on the woman question after the revolution, and why they were so hostile to feminism (Moghissi 1999; Paidar 1995; Sanasarian 1983; Sedghi 2007; Shahidian 1994; Yeganeh 1982). I submit that it had to do first with the novelty of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, as well as the distinctions that were being made throughout the world between bourgeois or radical feminism versus working-class or socialist feminism, and between “Western feminism” versus “Third World feminism” (see Moghadam 2005). Second, it can be explained by participation and representation: the overwhelming presence of men in left-wing organizations versus the limited presence of women. There were, of course, some well-known communist women among the fallen guerrillas5 as well as in the left parties that emerged during and after the revolution. And in the immediate post-revolutionary period, the National Union of Women was formed – but this occurred in the absence of a mass social movement of women. The novelty of feminism as an ideology, the novelty of autonomous women's organizing and, perhaps most significantly, the absence of a sizable female working class precluded any real influence on the politics and positions of the Left organizations, let alone the Islamists.6
In contrast, in the case of the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks, especially Alexandra Kollontai, were organizing women workers as early as 1905. Even earlier, Nadezhda Krupskaya had offered evening classes to workers and wrote a political article entitled “The Woman Worker.” With the onset of World War I, women entered production in large numbers, and by 1917 one-third of Petrograd’s factory workers were women. The Bolsheviks published a paper for women workers, Rabonitsa, and encouraged women to join factory committees and unions (see Goldman 1989: 59-81). Another contrast with the Iranian case takes place much later. In Tunisia’s political revolution of 2011 and subsequent democratic transition, the presence of longstanding feminist organizations in coalition with secular and left-wing allies, bolstered by rallies attended by numerous ordinary women of various generations, prevented the backsliding on women’s rights that many Tunisian Islamists were calling for (see, e.g., Charrad and Zarrugh 2014; Moghadam 2017; Tchaicha and Arfaoui 2017).
Globalization and Globalizing Feminism: Opportunities and Obstacles
The era of globalization has produced a systemic context that is both challenging and more conducive to women’s participation in revolutionary uprisings. Let’s begin with the enabling features. Worldwide, a critical mass of activist women and women's organizations, as well as the diffusion of women's rights discourses worldwide, have changed the social relations of gender within societies and globally. Global feminism has emerged since at least 1985, when the UN’s third World Conference on Women took place in Nairobi and a number of influential transnational feminist networks were formed. It has expanded since 1995, when the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing resulted in the adoption of a Platform for Action and commitments by governments to implement its recommendations for women's equality and empowerment (Moghadam 2005, 2013). Women's caucuses were active at all the UN conferences of the 1990s – the conference on environment and development in Rio in 1992, the human rights conference in Vienna in 1993, the population and development conference in Cairo in 1994, and the world summit for social development in Copenhagen in 1995. As such, women’s movements across the globe contributed significantly to what Mary Kaldor (2003) termed Global Civil Society. In 2000, women activists from around the world, and representatives of increasingly influential transnational feminist networks, took part in the five-year reviews of the World Summit for Social Development and the Beijing Conference, writing position papers, lobbying delegates and advocating stricter observance of timelines and benchmarks for implementation. In time, they also advocated for policies and mechanisms to enhance women’s political representation and economic empowerment, including parliamentary quotas and gender budgets. It should be noted that many of the older feminists active in Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, including founders of transnational feminist networks, are veterans of left-wing parties and Third World revolutions (Moghadam 2005). Both domestic social changes and global processes provided conditions conducive to the adoption of pro-feminist legislation and policies by governments and international organizations alike.
Thus I argued (Moghadam 2003) that with feminism’s global diffusion – the worldwide spread of feminist ideas and the inclusion of women's rights in global and national agendas – revolutionary movements and state-building projects of the new century were more likely to incorporate women and feminism. The worldwide condemnation and marginalization of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early part of the new century – a success story of global feminist activism against “gender apartheid” in Afghanistan – seemed to confirm the postulate that in an era of feminism and globalization, if revolutions or oppositional movements did not incorporate women and feminism, it would be to their disadvantage. They would be less likely to gain either national or international support.7
Related to the growth of global feminism was the emergence and expansion, most visible in the new century, of what John Foran and his colleagues (2017) has called “new political cultures of opposition and creation” that are less interested in seizing state power than in helping to bring about radical social transformation. Examples include the Latin American pink tide, the global justice movement, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, the global climate change movement, Occupy, the Arab Spring, and so on. The transnational feminist networks that emerged in the mid-1980s and took off in the 1990s – and which had strong critiques of structural adjustment policies, the consolidation of neoliberal globalization, patriarchal political institutions, and violence against women – were part of the global justice movement and often participated in the World Social Forum and its regional forums (Moghadam 2005, 2013).
The challenges that both feminism and revolutionary transformation face, however, are formidable. Feminism may have been diffused transnationally during the era of globalization, but the entrenchment of neoliberal capitalism has had several pernicious effects, of which two are mentioned here. First, neoliberal capitalism has co-opted certain strands of feminism in a “business” or “market-friendly” direction, comfortable with capitalist globalization, engaged with national and international elites, and devoid of a transformative vision (Eisenstein 2009; Fraser 2009; McRobbie 2009; Roberts 2012).8 There is also a kind of imperialist or at least hawkish feminism, which endorses or calls for military intervention, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Honduras, Libya, and Syria. In the absence of the transformation of an economic system wherein finance capital flows across borders and exotic financial products are bought and sold with little to no oversight, leading in part to gross income inequalities, policies such as microcredits for poor women or increasing the number of women on corporate boards can be easily adopted without undermining the logic of the neoliberal capitalist system. Similarly, calls for the integration of women and LGBT in the military reinforce rather than undermine militarism, military spending, and weapons production.9
Second, through its tendency toward a kind of oligarchy, neoliberal capitalist globalization has marginalized and alienated certain sections of the working class and lower-income population that have turned to right-wing, anti-feminist populist and nationalist movements in various countries across the globe (Rodrik 2017; Schafer 2017; Moghadam and Kaftan 2018). It should be recalled that leftists and feminists were the earliest critics of neoliberal globalization, because of overly-powerful institutions of global or regional governance, the propensity for economic inequality, declining labor standards, periodic financial crises, and burdens placed on poor and working-class women (Beneria and Feldman 1992; Beneria 2001; Moghadam 1999a). In recent years, however, right-wing populists have taken a stance against globalization, best exemplified by Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front. President Donald Trump and his former advisor, Steve Bannon, are also part of this right-wing populist chorus against globalization. Popular discontent with the status quo has led in some recent cases to left-wing successes – notably Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the UK, Pablo Iglesias and Podemos in Spain, and the Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal (with its female leadership10) – but these have not been typical of recent electoral victories, which have been won largely by conservative and mainstream parties. Indeed, right-wing populist parties or politicians have been elected or re-elected in the U.S., Turkey, Poland, Hungary, India, Finland, Germany, Holland, Austria, and Italy. Finally, not only did the Arab Spring yield a modest harvest, in terms of a democratic outcome in Tunisia and constitutional reforms in Morocco, but Islamist parties – socially conservative and perfectly compatible with capitalism – have gained traction in both countries.
Although many observers, myself included, saw much promise in the global justice movement, the World Social Forum, and the 2011 mass protests, those developments did not succeed in effecting lasting change. Despite what initially appeared to be cracks in the viability of the capitalist world-system and conditions propitious for major transformations, the mass mobilizations were not able to undermine the neoliberal global order. Nor were the powerful core countries willing to allow the Arab Spring protests to run their course organically and without external interference – which is why the so-called revolutions in Libya, Syria, and Yemen descended into violent armed insurrections (Moghadam 2017). The one Arab country that peacefully overthrew its government and sought to establish a viable social democracy—Tunisia—has struggled economically ever since.11 Two WSF convergences that took place in Tunis, in 2013 and 2015, have not been enough to mobilize global support for that country. The fate of the once radical Syriza party in Greece is further testament to the power and entrenchment of the neoliberal world order.
In contrast to the social revolutions mentioned earlier in this article and discussed in detail in much of the scholarship on revolution, today’s singular revolutionary movements face serious obstacles. Recall that until the Gorbachev era and then the collapse of communism under Boris Yeltsin, Third World revolutionaries could count on the support of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc. As a result, numerous revolutionary struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America could succeed in emancipating themselves from colonialism or military dictatorship and try to build a socialist system that also rewarded women who had taken part or who had suffered under the previous regimes. Since then, some revolutionary movements, such as the FARC in Colombia, have had to give up their arms and promise to take part in the electoral process – fully aware of their inability to have transformed Colombia’s class relations. Others, such as Turkey’s PKK and Syria’s YPG, lack the international support needed for the attainment of autonomy. The Palestinian revolution has lost the political capital it enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, although widespread sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people continues. What is more, many of the successful revolutionary struggles of the 20th century, such as those listed in Table 1, ultimately failed in their emancipatory objectives – either because they were constantly undermined by U.S. “regime change” tactics, or by the revival of patriarchal or authoritarian tendencies within them, or by the decline of the Soviet Union and loss of its economic support. Indeed, the events of 1989 Eastern Europe, whether regarded as revolutions or democratic transitions, helped consolidate global neoliberal capitalism and the hegemony of the United States in the interstate system. And in 2018 we are still grappling with the unfinished business of second-wave feminism, especially ending violence against women and institutionalizing economic justice for women and their families.
On World Revolution
In such a context, what is the future of feminist revolution? Has the consolidation of neoliberal capitalist globalization ended the capacity for feminist-informed revolution? I think not, although the challenges are daunting.
World-systems scholars have introduced the concept of “world revolution” – acts of resistance that are not necessarily coordinated but that occur relatively close to one another in time. In their book, Antisystemic Movements, Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (1989a; see also 1989b) described how the world revolutions of 1848 and 1968 may have failed – “the bubble of popular enthusiasm and radical innovations was burst within a relatively short period” (pp. 19-20) – but also transformed the world. The 1848 revolutions institutionalized what came to be known as the Old Left and constituted a dress rehearsal for the Paris Commune and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, as well as other anti-systemic movements, including those in Mexico, China, and Iran in the early 20th century. I would add that the worldwide spread of socialism, communism, and social democracy opened the political and discursive space for women’s participation and rights that became so visible later in the century.
The events of 1968 – protests in France, Mexico, Italy, the USA, and Czechoslovakia – institutionalized what came to be known later as the new social movements, but Arrighi, Hopkins, and Wallerstein left open the question of what it prefigured.12 While acknowledging the new social movements’ priorities and identities – including gender, generation, ethnicity, race, disability, and sexuality – they asserted that “the contradiction between labor and capital, given both the increasing centralization of capital and the increasing marginalization of large sectors of the labor force, will remain elemental” (Arrighi, Hopkins, and Wallerstein 1989a: 28). Indeed it has.
In The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism, Boswell and Chase-Dunn (2000) continued the analysis and began by distinguishing social revolutions and world revolutions. The first, they noted, are class-based rapid transformation projects that build or strengthen states. By contrast, world revolutions are clusters of revolutionary activity and social movements, including separatist and colonial revolutions. As with the analysis by Arrighi, Hopkins, and Wallerstein, this is an expanded definition of revolution, not as a singular, episodic event, but as a cyclical process. In addition to mapping periods and sites of world revolutions, Boswell and Chase-Dunn argued that revolutions – both social revolutions and world revolutions – have a progressive and diffusive nature to them, in that their demands and objectives tend to persist across time and space.
As noted, neoliberal capitalist globalization has led to much dissatisfaction and unrest and, as Victor Wallis (2017) has stated, has engendered multifaceted crises. But who will spearhead world revolution in the present era? Boswell and Chase-Dunn asserted that “despite globalization, international political parties and labor unions have not been among those international organizations on the rise” (2000: 196). They concluded that
[A] cluster of revolts in the semiperiphery, when matched with demands from core social movements and peripheral states, could suddenly make debated issues of global standards an obvious solution. This would in retrospect appear to be a world revolution, one that would initiate new movements for global change (2000: 245).
In other writings, Chase-Dunn has pointed out that instead of the sort of violent revolutions or coups that predominated in the past, the 21st century movements have preferred peaceful protests and the ballot box. The non-violent nature of such movements echo observations by Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein on 1968 and 1989, and also is made by Foran, Gray, and Grosse (2017) about the “new political cultures of opposition and creation”, which include social movements for climate justice. In this new perspective, therefore, the once-firm distinction between revolution and social movements is replaced by an examination of movements for radical social transformation and system change, or anti-systemic activity within global civil society. Especially promising is the “New Global Left” (Chase-Dunn and Nagy 2008; Chase-Dunn et al 2014), those groups critical of neoliberal and capitalist globalization and which include popular forces, social movements, global political parties, and progressive national regimes. Analyzing the participants of the World Social Forum and U.S. Social Forum between 2005 and 2010, Chase-Dunn and his colleagues find strong movement linkages – for example, across feminist, human rights, fair trade, health, environmental, peace and similar issues – and a concern for climate justice being common to all. Could concern over the ecological crisis, described poignantly and persuasively by Naomi Klein (2014), begin to bring disparate movements and networks together in a powerful mobilization against seemingly endless capital accumulation and growth?
The concept of world revolution points the way toward an understanding of prospects for coalition-building and the future of revolution in an era of globalization. In adopting the world-systems perspective of world revolution as a cluster of revolts with progressive aims, the scholar can situate the events of 2011 in the anti-globalization protests that had taken place over a decade before; recall the Green Protests in Iran in 2009 and the nationwide protests for economic justice in early 2018; and consider the plight and potential of “the precariat” (Standing 2011). One also might note that many trade unions around the world – such as the one in Tunisia – are resolutely anti-neoliberal, as are many of the new progressive political parties across the globe. Let’s recall that the global justice movement and the 2011 revolts seemed to be promoting a type of global Keynesianism, or left-wing social democracy, with redistribution of wealth and meaningful employment for all, and care for the planet; and they were against authoritarianism and for a democracy that delivered social rights and human dignity. It’s also worth noting that the precariat – educated young people who can look forward not to steady jobs with good wages and benefits, but underemployment and short-term jobs in what some euphemistically call “the gig economy” – have taken part in those movements and may become a major force in future anti-systemic revolts. Finally, a number of scholars have highlighted the growing presence of Southern-based movements as well as policy and activist groups that critique neoliberalism and offer alternative visions and policy formulations (Carroll 2016; Smith, Plummer, and Hughes 2016).
What, then, are the prospects for a feminist-inflected world revolution? I offer the following observations and propositions about the part that women and feminist demands will and must play:
The precariat includes many educated young women who are unemployed or lack a steady job; in many countries, female youth unemployment can be as high as 20-30%;
Women were visible in an almost unprecedented way in all the 2011 revolts as well as in the 2009 Green Protests in Iran; sustained feminist activism in Tunisia between 2011 and 2014 was responsible for the retention of key legal gains and the adoption of pro-feminist constitutional articles;
Women’s organizations have helped to build civil societies and social movements nationally and globally; feminist organizations exist in almost every country; transnational feminist networks and women’s NGOs often coordinate activities; women’s peace groups such as Code Pink and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom take strong positions against militarism, war, environmental degradation, and all forms of violence against women; feminists from various countries as well as groups such as Marche Mondiale des Femmes/World March of Women are vocal and visible at the World Social Forum and have issued radical critiques and alternative visions;
The Global Women’s March of January 2017 and the marches of January 2018, along with the #MeToo and #Time’sUp campaigns, may signal a new era of concerted feminist activism against patriarchal practices and attitudes;
There was an overwhelming presence of young women of different ethnicities in the March for Our Lives protests of 24 March 2018 against gun violence.
Toward a Feminist World Revolution?
Today’s global realities seem to militate against a repeat of the great revolutions of the past or the 20th century Third World revolutions. And yet today’s realities seem to require a return to some aspects of previous revolutionary organizing and mobilizing, such as internationalism and social form of coordination. In particular, nationally-based revolutionary movements need to cultivate the support of progressive organizations, parties, and movements across the globe – including those that are involved in the World Social Forum – rather than either depend on support from an external state or assume an exclusively militaristic stance. And movements that do not integrate women and feminist concerns will have to do so if they are to garner the support of the world’s women.13
For the feminist world revolution to succeed, however, feminist activists themselves must fully integrate socio-economic and class concerns in their agendas. This is crucial in order to mobilize as broad a female base of support as possible for a new vision and policies that oppose patriarchy, militarism and war. Especially important is attention to the economic injustices that afflict working-class and poor women, from the absence of decent jobs, paid maternity leave, and public transport to the high cost of schooling, healthcare, and housing. Many feminist economists have offered trenchant critiques of neoliberalism’s effects on poor and working-class women’s burdens in the spheres of production and reproduction alike, and have argued for greater resource allocations toward social services or “the care economy” (see, e.g., Rubery 2015). Such a focus is necessary if we are to weaken the base of right-wing populist movements, including Islamist movements. Feminist activism should not cede the concerns of working-class women or even women with religious values to the right-wing. Valorization of motherhood through institutional supports for maternal employment and guaranteed healthcare for mothers and children is one way to start building bridges. And condemnation of all forms of violence against women – including domestic violence and workplace sexual harassment and abuse – should continue, as the problem is shared across classes and cultures.
If past revolutions, and even many of the older social movements, were dominated by men, today’s social realities – including the presence of women across professions and occupations, their involvement in all manner of movements, organizations, networks, and political parties, and leadership and creativity in their own organizations, movements, and networks – means that women will be key players in any future revolution. Indeed, just as the Tunisian revolution succeeded in part because of the concerted efforts of women, feminists, and their allies (in contrast to Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where women and women’s rights issues were sidelined), the world revolution of 20xx can only succeed with the continued full integration of women, their organizations, and their concerns and demands. Apropos of this point, consider the massive participation of young women from high schools and universities across the U.S. in the planning, leadership, and mobilization that made the March for Our Lives activities on 24 March 2018 so impressive.14
In recent years there have been numerous causes and revolts that could in retrospect make up our world revolution – pro-democracy movements and protests against dictatorships; criticisms of globalization and austerity measures; women’s rights activism; the environmental movement and concerns over climate change; anger over corporate power, abuse, and lack of accountability, and activism for peace and against militarism. For observers such as myself, fundamental change in the U.S. seems an almost impossible dream. But could Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers campaign, the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota, the Fight for Fifteen to raise the minimum wage, peace activism, and the March for our Lives campaign become strategically connected so that these “moments” come to constitute a powerful mass movement for radical social transformation, in the U.S. and beyond? I would argue that in order to bring about lasting change, the many disparate causes, revolts, and mobilizations require a coordinating mechanism. At present there is one forum at which such issues are discussed and where the varied groups converge – the World Social Forum. Like other recent movements, notably the Occupy movement, the WSF has been characterized by “horizontalism”, which eschews traditional hierarchical structures and formal political organizations and prefers direct, face-to-face democratic deliberation. Indeed, the charter of the WSF expressly forbids the formulation of a political program or even working with progressive political parties, and “a significant group of participants strongly supports maintaining the WSF as an ‘open space’ for debate and organizing” (Chase-Dunn and Nagy 2008: 264). But others have supported a more concerted political orientation, including a “global united front” and a more explicit political manifesto (ibid., p. 265).
As Chase-Dunn and Nagy point out, in the period after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Third International, also known as the COMINTERN, mobilized the world’s socialist and communist parties around specific issues and campaigns. Other large coalitions were the United Front and the Popular Front, both active during World War II. Could one of those models – albeit without the dogmatism and infighting of the past – inspire a more effective WSF? Could we revisit and update the 2005 Porto Alegre Manifesto, signed by 19 prominent WSF participants and outlining 12 proposals on economic measures, peace and justice, and democracy, “to give sense and direction to the construction of another, different world”?15 Arguably, a return to a more formal organizing structure but with clear political goals and a unified strategy to achieve those goals through coalitions with like-minded political parties across the globe could finally pose a more serious challenge to the current global system and prevents its capture by the extreme right. We need to believe and act on the idea that “another world is possible”.
I end in agreement with a pertinent prediction by Immanuel Wallerstein: “The modern world-system is in structural crisis and has entered into a period of chaotic behavior which will cause a systemic bifurcation and a transition to a new structure whose nature is as yet undetermined and, in principle, impossible to predetermine, but one that is open to human intervention and creativity” (Wallerstein 2000: 249). I would only add that women’s intervention and creativity will be central to the world revolution that would usher in a new democratic and socialist order.
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1 According to this definition, there have been few genuinely social revolutions across history, and Skocpol focused on France, Russia, and China. She later added the 1979 Iranian revolution to her list. Of course there have many political revolutions, including anti-colonial and independence struggles, which have been less transformative of class and societal structures. Mass protests that precede democratic transitions have tended to constitute a separate body of scholarly literature.
2 This typology pertains to immediate outcomes. In the immediate aftermath of the end of apartheid and the formation of a democratic polity, South Africa saw the integration of feminist claims in the legal and budgetary frameworks. However, the majority of the population remained mired in poverty, inequality, unemployment, and poor infrastructure – and these may form the material conditions that perpetuate violence against women.
3 In her book, Waylen examines eight countries in East-Central Europe and Latin America, and South Africa that experienced democratic transitions. She highlights the role played by organized women's movements (before, during, and after the transition), key political and civil society actors, and the wider political context in explaining the different gender outcomes across the country cases. In their study of democratization and women and case studies of Argentina, El Salvador, Ghana, and South Africa, Viterna and Fallon (2008) identify the following key factors: the nature of the democratic transition itself, the legacy of previous women’s mobilizations, the actions and ideologies of political parties, and international influences. They find that South Africa and Argentina strengthened laws for women and increased women’s representation in comparison to Ghana and El Salvador.
4 Ashraf Dehghani, head of the splinter group Fedayee Guerrillas, was the exception.
5 Notably Marzieh Ahmadi-Oskooi, author of the very moving poem “Wave” (Moje).
6 Sedghi (2008) also offers a credible explanation for the widespread support for the Khomeini project – including compulsory veiling – that uses a political economy lens on class and cultural divides in Iranian society in the 1970s.
7 In September 1996, when the Taliban came to power, the Clinton administration in the U.S. and governments around the world were close to recognizing the new regime, in part to ensure an oil pipeline deal. Concerted action on the part of expatriate Afghan feminists in the U.S., Europe and Pakistan, along with protests by feminists around the world (e.g. the gender apartheid campaign by the U.S. Feminist Majority, feminist action in Italy, and a petition drive by women's organizations in many countries) prevented recognition at the time. Although initially regarded as a success story of feminist and international action, Afghanistan descended into armed conflict after the U.S. intervention in late 2001, following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. It should be recalled that in the 1980s the U.S. supported the reactionary tribal-Islamist armed uprising against the modernizing Democratic Republic of Afghanistan; this intervention has had long-lasting effects on Afghanistan’s gender regime and on the domestic political situation. Today, Afghanistan remains underdeveloped, patriarchal, and violent, and the U.S. military still has a presence there. For details, see Moghadam (1999b, 2013: 146-155).
8 See also Kantola and Squires 2012; Prugl 2015; Prugl and True 2014 for a more nuanced and perhaps accommodating view of how feminists and “gender experts” inevitably engage with corporate entities and international organizations in the neoliberal era.
9Neoliberal capitalism, as well as the collapse of the Old Left, may have resulted in the fragmented and often highly individualized nature of dissent and protest, but an analysis of that process and trajectory is outside the scope of the present paper.
10 See “Catarina Martins: The Portuguese Experiment”, New Left Review 106, July-August 2017.
11 In Deauville, France, in May 2011, OECD countries promised generous aid to democratizing Tunisia, but never delivered. In 2016, Tunisia was compelled to seek a $2.8 billion loan from the IMF, in return for which it has had to establish an austerity budget – which then triggered a round of riots in January 2018.
12 It may be argued that the left-wing Iranian student abroad, organized primarily in the Confederation of Iranian Students, National Union (CISNU), influenced European student movements, especially when CISNU protested the Shah’s visit to Cologne in May-June 1967. For details, see Matin-Asgari 2002, esp. ch. 7.
13 It goes without saying that misogynistic and violent armed groups such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh, the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Boco Haram, Al-Shabaab, and the rebels of Libya and Syria, have no future in any world revolution or coalition. Among other ills, they have no program for progressive socio-economic change and actually reject democracy.
14 March for Our Lives was planned to call for gun control in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February 2018.