Feminism in a global era

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Economy and Society Volume 31 Number 4 November 2002: 533–557
Feminism in a global era
Sylvia Walby
Feminism is being re-shaped by its articulation through a global discourse of human
rights and an increased focus on state interventions. This is partly a result of the tran-
sition in the gender regime changing the economic and political resources and oppor-
tunities open to women and partly due to globalization. Globalization has not only
created difficulties for democratic governance, but it has also facilitated the develop-
ment of new spaces, institutions and rhetoric where universal human rights is a
powerful justificatory principle.
Keywords: feminism; globalization; gender regime; modernity; social movement;
human rights; politics.
Feminism is being re-shaped by its increased articulation through a global dis-
course of human rights and an increased focus on state interventions. There is
an increase in the use of rhetoric that women’s rights are human rights as a
framing and justification of feminist action, simultaneous with a turn of feminist
activity away from autonomous separatist groups towards their mainstreaming
within civil society and the state. Of course, neither the use of the notion of equal
rights nor demands on the state are entirely new within feminism, but both the
extent of the use of universalistic conceptions of human rights, which draw down
on global and regional practices and institutions, and the extent of the orien-
tation to states constitute new developments. This raises a number of questions
as to how this is to be understood and why it is happening. My argument is
that there have been two major changes in the context of contemporary Western
feminism, which have facilitated the priority given to globally articulated
Sylvia Walby, Department of Sociology, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT. E-mail:
[email protected]

Copyright © 2002 Taylor & Francis Ltd
ISSN 0308-5147 print/1469-5766 online
DOI: 10.1080/0308514022000020670

Economy and Society
rights-based arguments together with an increased orientation to the state: the
transition in the gender regime and a complex globalization.
First, the transition in the gender regime has provided political opportunities
within the state and formal electoral politics that have facilitated the main-
streaming of feminist demands. This transition is leading to women finally being
incorporated into the governance of what might become, but are not yet (contra
Miller and Rose 1990), liberal democracies. Significant proportions of women
are still in pre-modern forms of social relations, such as housework rather than
marketized work (Mies 1986; Walby 1997), only very recently beginning to
participate directly in the elective forums of liberal democratic states (Inter-
Parliamentary Union 2000; Norris and Lovenduski 1995) and still barely
citizens (Orloff 1993). The issue here is: what are the implications of a transition
in the nature of the gender regime for the nature of the gender politics that are
taken up? What are the implications for the orientation of feminist politics
towards the state as the gender regime changes? While it has been argued that
feminism is a social movement that has entered abeyance (Bagguley 2002;
Sawyers and Meyer 1999; Taylor 1989), is it more appropriate to conclude
instead that feminism has simply changed its repertoire and form? Here I draw
on social movement theory in order to assess the implications of changes in the
gender regime for feminist politics. This investigates the significance of changes
in the economic and political resources involved in political mobilization
(McCarthy and Zald 1977), changes in political opportunity structures (Taylor
1989), changes in the availability and use of different types of framing (Diani
1996; Snow et al. 1986) and the potential significance of argumentation and epis-
temic communities (Haas 1992; Risse 1999).
Second, globalization has facilitated new spaces, institutions and rhetoric
where the notion of universal human rights is a powerful justificatory principle
embedded in specific institutions. Globalization constitutes a new framing for
feminist politics that assists the change in discursive presentation and new
opportunities for argumentation. Globalization impacts on the nature of
feminism especially by creating changes in political opportunities. By globaliz-
ation I mean a process of increased density and frequency of international or
global social interactions relative to local or national ones. This includes
economic, political and cultural dimensions. This closely follows the definition
of Chase-Dunn et al. (2000). I resist a definition in terms of supra-territoriality
(Scholte 2000), as this underestimates the extent to which global processes still
have a territorial component. The definition is deliberately minimalist to avoid
conflating the causation of globalization with its definition and to allow for the
possibility of multiple waves with different causes. Much of the analysis of
globalization has analysed social processes primarily connected with changes in
capitalism and associated class, political, economic and cultural relations (Held
et al. 1999; Ohmae 1990). However, this is unduly restrictive. When the focus
includes differences due to gender, ethnicity and religion a wider set of politics
comes into focus. The extent of globalization can be overestimated (Hirst and
Thompson 1996) and remains highly uneven, with countries differentially

Sylvia Walby: Feminism in a global era
integrated into global networks (Hirst and Thompson 2000). Of course,
globalization has not homogenized the world and many national differences
remain (Whitley 1999). Globalization does not simply entail an economic
process which diminishes the political capacities of nation-states (Cerny 1996;
Ohmae 1995), but rather more complexly is implicated in the restructuring of
workers’ repertories of political action (Piven and Cloward 2000) and of regional
polities (Hettne et al. 1999), such as the European Union (Walby 1999a), and
the development of forms of global governance (Held 1995) and global civil
society (Berkovitch 1999). The changes in time-space relations involved in
globalization produce contradictory effects. It has sometimes been thought that
globalization is a process hostile to feminism (Peterson 1996), that emerging
forms of global economic governance are in opposition to women’s interests, as
is suggested in the case of the neo-liberal strategies for micro-credit to women
(Rankin 2001) and in structural adjustment policies of the IMF (Sparr 1994),
and that feminist responses are primarily ones of opposition (Haxton and Olsson
1999; Rowbotham and Linkogle 2000). However, increases in international
linkages have also been used for political projects designed around women’s per-
ceived interests (Moghadam 2000; Moser, 1993; Ramirez et al. 1997). Globaliz-
ation restructures gendered political opportunities and resources in complex
This re-framing of feminism in terms of universal human rights constitutes
a challenge to some forms of feminist treatments of difference. Diversity has
rightly been a major form of social analysis in recent years (Calhoun 1995; Taylor
et al. 1994). One of the major issues for contemporary feminist theory has been
how to theorize differences between women while not reifying them (Braidotti
1994; Squires 1999; Young 1990) and simultaneously addressing commonalities.
While a considerable amount of Western feminist theory has focused on the
‘doxa of difference’ (Felski 1997), for example in the debate about the ethics of
care (Fraser 1997; Gilligan 1982; Sybylla 2001; Tronto 1993), and ethnic,
national, religious and racialized divisions between women (Mohanty 1991), a
new wave of international feminist practice has embraced the discourse of
human rights (UNIFEM 2000a). This opens fundamental questions as to the
nature of the basis on which claims for justice are made and the implications of
the use of the concept of the universal (Nussbaum 2000a, 2000b; Menon 2002;
Sen 1987, 1999). The notion of human rights has sometimes been thought to be
limited by its Eurocentric origin and thus its closeness to Western rather than
universal ideals of the autonomous individual. However, the range of human
rights legitimated by the UN includes not only the individual civil and political
rights of the Western heritage, but also the list of economic and social rights
developed in the Soviet Union and Asia, which was integrated into the UN list
of human rights in 1966, so that these UN legitimated human rights now take a
hybridized rather than purely Western form (Woodiwiss 1998). The reformu-
lation of the list of universal human rights endorsed by the UN is, because of its
recent and various additions and re-interpretations, obviously a social construc-
tion, even as its invocation of the ‘universal’ as a source of legitimacy attempts

Economy and Society
to stabilize it as an absolute. The conception of feminism in terms of rights is of
course, not itself new (Banks 1981; Ramirez et al. 1997), but the nature of its
current deployment globally, appears to have some new features (Berkovitch
1999). Is, then, the ‘traditional’ feminist focus on difference being undercut,
transformed or restructured in a new global context? Is there, and if so how
important, an emergent unifying framework for feminism in which an increas-
ingly global discourse invokes the notion that women’s rights are human rights?
How important is the practice of complexity and alliances (Jakobsen 1998), coali-
tions (Ferree and Hess 1995) and networks (Castells 1997) as practical forms of
engagement with difference?
The paper will first present an account of the new kinds of politics that are
under discussion in this paper. Then, it will argue for a multi-layered expla-
nation of these changes drawing on social movement theory, theories of globaliz-
ation and theorization of changes in the gender regime. The empirical focus on
the paper is on the UK and the US, though where possible it draws on wider
data, especially from advanced industrial countries. This is set in the context of
developments at a regional level, especially that of the European Union, and the
Changes in feminism
This analysis will be empirically supported and illustrated by two examples of
feminist politics. The first is that of gender mainstreaming in economics,
especially through policies of equal treatment and the legal regulation of
employment. The second is the attempt to stop male violence against women.
In both cases there have been feminist attempts to develop political interventions
in both civil society and the state. They are part of a set of global feminist politics,
which, while tailored to local circumstances, draws profoundly upon a common
web of politics. In each case these are political issues of long standing, being
articulated during first wave feminism at the end of the nineteenth century, as
well as today. But their current form is new, drawing upon the political capaci-
ties of women that are newly available consequent upon the transformation of
the gender regime and the development of the global linkages.
There are four key dimensions to the changes in the forms of these feminist
politics. The first is the movement from separatist autonomous groups to
engagement with the state. The second is the increased use of equal rights dis-
course, with a simultaneous fading of oppositional radical feminist and socialist
discourse. The third is the increasing significance of the global level, partly in
the sense of increased communications among feminist networks, but more
importantly in the sense of the utilization of new political spaces developed
within and by emergent forms of global and regional institutions (such as,
respectively, the UN and the European Union). The fourth is the increasing use
of coalitions and alliances and networks as modes of organizing which engage
with difference in a more nuanced way than either the earlier tightly knit groups

Sylvia Walby: Feminism in a global era
based on ‘identity’ or the more traditional democratic and bureaucratic central-
ist forms.
From radical autonomous groups to engagement with the state
In the 1970s in the UK and the 1960s in the US many feminist strategies
involved the setting up of independent feminist bases, separate from mainstream
political forums such as the state. Examples of this in the area of violence against
women in the UK included the establishment of refuges for battered women and
rape crisis centres run by women for women (Dobash and Dobash 1992; Hague
and Malos 1993). Indeed, the state was often seen as much a part of the problem
as a source of the solution (Hanmer 1978). Funding from the state was small and
marginal, more often at a local rather than national level (Pahl 1985), although
there were some exceptions to this (Smith 1989).
During the 1990s there were significant changes in UK state policies towards
violence against women (Grace 1995), though not ones that the feminist com-
munity generally understood to be adequate, since they did not substantially
address issues of gendered power in the home and the state (Hester et al. 1996).
By 2000, a wide range of feminist networks, such as the Women’s Aid Feder-
ation of England, women legal professionals, feminist academics and senior
women police officers, came to be in more systematic dialogue with the state at
local and at the national level over improving policy in relation to violence
against women (Labour Party 1995). This process was aided by the significant
increase, over the last thirty years, in the proportion of women at senior levels
in professions relevant to criminal justice policy. This lobbying was not only at
the local and national levels but also involved regional and global institutions,
including the European Union and the Council of Europe (Kelly 1997). The
Home Office began to address violence against women more systematically, and
to fund and support a wider range of policy developments, while simultaneously
seeking to shape the agenda in its own terms. The allocation of £8 million to
run and evaluate experimental projects by NGOs as well as by state agencies, in
order to test ideas on how to reduce domestic violence and rape against women
in the Crime Reduction Strategy at the end of the 1990s, marked a new depar-
ture in Home Office policy (Taylor-Browne 2001). However, there remain
ongoing demands, for instance, for more substantial central support for the
network of refuges and rape crisis lines, and for improved court procedures to
deal with the exceptionally high rate of attrition in rape cases and the conse-
quent low conviction rate for rapists (Kelly 1999; Lees 1996). Nevertheless, the
strategy of engagement with the formal political sphere, rather than relying pri-
marily on women’s own resources in civil society, has been consolidated. UK
feminists have drawn on the resources of a trans-national movement against
male violence against women in their engagement with the British state.
Economic issues are also being mainstreamed with increasing emphasis on the
state (Walby 2001b). This is in contrast with the 1970s, when feminist strategies

Economy and Society
more often involved the building of women’s separate committees in trade
unions and professions in order to give women an independent voice. By 2002
such basic capacity building for the articulation of women’s voices is more devel-
oped, even if rarely regarded as sufficient. There has been a considerable
increase over the last thirty years in the proportion of women in senior positions
in trade unions, in the academy, in management and in government, which has
facilitated the articulation of a variety of women’s perspectives on economic and
redistributive issues (Acker 1989; Gagnon and Ledwith 2000; Ledwith and
Colgan 1996; Shaw and Perrons 1995). Feminist strategies in relation to econ-
omics build on the already existing institutionalization of women’s voices (Hicks
2000), as part of the agenda of gender mainstreaming, that is, the incorporation
of a gender perspective on all economic matters (Rees 1998). Examples of this
process include the government commitment to gender mainstreaming in 1998,
led by the Women’s Unit, with an ongoing process of implementation through-
out government (Cabinet Office 1998; Department for Education and Employ-
ment 1998). This includes the Treasury engaging in dialogue with the Women’s
Budget Group (an informal think tank of women economists, social policy
experts, trade unions and NGO leaders) over the gender implications of the
budget (Himmelweit 2000; Women’s Budget Group 2000). Of course, the
process of gender mainstreaming is not complete (Gregory 1999); nonetheless,
the mainstreaming of gender in the economic domain, integrating feminist
concerns into state policy and policy machinery, is proceeding.
Globalization of gender mainstreaming
Gender mainstreaming is a development that goes beyond that of equal oppor-
tunities. It goes beyond it by requiring that all areas of policy are re-examined
using a gender lens, assessing the implications of all policies for women and men,
and also by broadening the political strategy from equal opportunities into more
varied ways of engaging with gendered inequalities (Pascual and Behning 2001;
Rees 1998).
Gender mainstreaming is now a global movement (UNIFEM 2000a). There
were, of course, many pre-cursors to this movement. The International Labour
Organization has attempted to set standards for employment since its inception
in 1919, one of which, Convention 100 adopted in 1951, was for equal pay for
equal work by men and women (Valticos 1969). This has been ratified by most of
the many states that are members of the ILO. The UN adopted a Convention on
the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women at the General
Assembly in 1979, which has been ratified by most members of the UN (Nelson
and Chowdhury 1994). While in itself this convention has little binding force,
nonetheless, it was important as a form of legitimation of this demand when made
by local activists in particular countries (UNIFEM 2000e). For example, it was
important in the campaign by Japanese women who were demanding equal
opportunities legislation. They successfully used this convention by threatening

Sylvia Walby: Feminism in a global era
to embarrass their government if it had not passed suitable legislation before an
international meeting (Yoko et al. 1994).
Gender mainstreaming became a high profile strategy at the UN conference
on Women at Beijing in 1995, following on from the UN conference for women
in Nairobi ten years earlier. This has involved a strong presence within the pro-
cesses and politics of development and the South as well as in the North. The
spread of the ideas has been through global feminist networks, and their utiliz-
ation of international development and UN institutions (Moghadam 1998).
The EU has adopted gender mainstreaming and it is now, since the Treaty of
Amsterdam, a core policy (European Commission 1999; Rees 1998), even if
unevenly implemented (Pollack and Hafner-Burton 2000). It is a process that is
under active development by a variety of political actors, including trade unions,
and a variety of women’s lobby groups including women’s committees in trade
unions (Pascual and Behning 2001). Gender mainstreaming builds on and goes
beyond Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome, which required equal pay for men
and women in Member States, and which was the foundation of a series of
Directives expounding the principle of equal treatment in employment. This
EU policy is legally binding on Member States. If a state is not following EU
policy then there are two remedies. One is that the European Commission will
take the defaulting Member State through legal proceedings in the European
Court of Justice. In one example in the early 1980s this process resulted in the
revision of UK sex equality laws so that it included work of equal value, not just
similar work. The other route is for citizens to take legal cases directly based on
European law. In either case, the principle is that EU law is superior to domestic
law. Member states are obliged to comply with EU rulings on equal oppor-
tunities. Before the Treaty of Amsterdam this remit did not extend beyond
employment, but this Treaty has widened the range of issues potentially covered
(Hoskyns 1996; Pillinger 1992; Walby 1999a, 1999b), though there are remain-
ing gaps (Randall 2000). The EU is the superior polity in this area of the regu-
lation of gendered employment relations. Women are not mere passive
beneficiaries, since women in the UK and elsewhere, such as Ireland, have been
very active in pressing the EU to take action to implement its Treaty obligations,
over the heads of national governments, both by lobbying and by taking cases
through the courts based on EU law (Curtin 1989; Hoskyns 1996; Pillinger
The EU did not adopt these measures because its Member States requested
it; indeed the policy goes far beyond that of most Member States (European
Parliament 1994; Fitzpatrick et al. 1993). Rather, they were part of the EU
strategic response to globalization, which was perceived by key actors to
require the building of a regional economy that could compete on a global scale
in a way that the individual nation-states could not. They were part of associ-
ated social model that was one of social cohesion and of open competitive
markets. Equal opportunities in the labour market were a key element of this
strategy, that is, part of a strategic engagement with globalization (Walby
1999a, 1999b).

Economy and Society
The EU has developed a different model of capitalism from that of the US
(Crouch and Streeck 1997; Leibfried and Pierson 1995; Therborn 1995). This
difference is a result at least partly of the political efforts of a variety of actors,
especially in building a social dimension to sustain social cohesion that is core
to the EU model (Bornschier and Ziltener 1999). The long tradition of labour
unions (Pascual and Behning 2000), the contingent presence of socialist political
entrepreneurs such as Delors (Bornschier and Ziltener 1999), the political coali-
tions forged in response to the traumas of the Holocaust and nationalist mili-
tarism (Therborn 1995) and the development of women’s lobbies (Hoskyns
1996) have been key elements in the construction of this EU social model. The
European response to globalization was thus forged in a different context from
that of other world regions (Hettne et al. 1999) and has generated a model of
capitalism in which the support of social cohesion is a significant element. In this
context women’s organizations and their allies have been successful in creating
equal opportunities as a key, indeed constitutional (Weiler 1997), principle of the
Stopping violence against women
The attempt to stop violence against women involved the development of
political networks at local, national and global levels. There has been a globaliz-
ation of demands to restrict men’s violence against women by the use of legal
regulation and to provide resources to women who have suffered such violence.
Like economic equality, the demand to reduce and stop men’s violence against
women has a long history. Campaigns to protect women from domestic violence
and sexual assault can be found at the end of the nineteenth century. During the
1960s and 1970s, feminist activists in the US and UK were prominent in the
development of national, yet mutually informed, movements around domestic
violence and rape (Dobash and Dobash 1992).
The ideas and practices spread rapidly to many countries. This was partly due
to feminist networking, travelling, global media, development aid and the global
publishing industry. Local campaigns were established in both Western nations
(Hanmer et al. 1989) and the developing world (Counts et al. 1992; Davies 1993),
from Canada (Johnson 1996) to Malaysia (Ariffin 1997) and India (Sen 1998).
The European Union facilitated the spread of feminist practice on violence
against women by funding a series of networks and projects with the explicit
intent of sharing knowledge and stimulating developments in further countries.
Support was particularly strong in the European Parliament, which voted three
times for Daphne initiatives to fund the development of a large number of inno-
vatory measures, and also networks of non-governmental bodies (NGOs)
working in this area. Some members of the European Commission supported
this activity: for instance, Gradin, when European Commissioner responsible
for justice and home affairs, launched a European campaign for ‘zero tolerance
of violence against women’ on 8 March 1999. The movement into this policy

Sylvia Walby: Feminism in a global era
area goes beyond earlier restrictions of EU interventions to economic matters.
This necessitated discussions as to the legal basis of these developments. In April
1999 the European Parliament decided that it had legal authority for these
actions under Article 152 of the Treaty of Amsterdam that referred to human
health, including respect for physical integrity (Women of Europe Newsletter
1999), a broadening of remit from that in earlier treaties.
By the early 1990s this demand to stop men’s violence against women was
articulated in international forums, including those of the UN (Friedman 1995).
This was translated into language and concepts more appropriate for the
predominantly male forum of the UN, that is the language of human rights
rather than men’s oppression of women. The demands were that women’s rights
were human rights, and that violence against women constituted a violation of
women’s human rights. This was a call for the transformation of the existing
agenda of human rights and for a new interpretation that placed women’s issues
at the heart of the mainstream (Bunch 1995; Stamatopolou 1995). In 1993 a UN
conference in Vienna resolved that
Violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental
freedoms of women . . . there is a need for a . . . clear statement of the rights
to be applied to ensure the elimination of violence against women in all its
forms, a commitment by States . . . and a commitment by the international
community at large to the elimination of violence against women.
(UNIFEM 2000b)
This outcome was the result of actions by a set of alliances, networks and coali-
tions at both grassroots and international levels (Toro 1995). While this Declar-
ation was not legally binding on Member States, nonetheless it recommended a
series of specific legislative, educational and administrative measures to be taken
by states and, further, has provided an important source of legitimation to
feminist activists in putting pressure on ‘their’ states. This declaration was used
as a resource in arguments by feminist expert networks. These actions were
reiterated and developed in the 1995 UN Beijing Platform for Action. In 1996
the UN established a trust fund in support of actions to eliminate violence
against women, administered by UNIFEM (2000c). UN agencies have encour-
aged the sharing of knowledge about both the effects of violence and effective
means of combating violence by non-governmental organizations as well as
states (UNIFEM 2000d). In 1997 the UN General Assembly adopted the
‘Model Strategies and Practical Measures on the Elimination of Violence
Against Women in the Field of Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice’, which
further expanded the UN-recommended policy on violence against women
(UNIFEM 2000d).
This conceptualization within the discourse of rights has facilitated the
spread and legitimation of this campaign against violence against women (Bunch
1995). This feminist practice has transcended the ‘doxa of difference’ in feminist
philosophy (Felski 1997). Rather, feminists here learnt to work with and across
difference (Friedman 1995). However, the rhetoric of ‘cultural difference’ was

Economy and Society
used by states which were resistant to this expansion of women’s human rights
different from those that they had been traditionally granted in particular
societies, especially some Islamic countries (Mayer 1995; Rao 1995). Neverthe-
less, the 1993 UN declaration directed states not to ‘invoke any custom, tradition
or religious consideration to avoid their obligations’ regarding violence against
women (UNIFEM 2000d). Important to the feminist success here was the
constant engagement with the issue of diversity through the breadth of variety
of grassroots organizations together with the use of networks and coalitions
rather than monolithic organizational forms. This enabled fluid and flexible
political responses that were sensitive to context within the framework of a
shared desire to end male violence against women and a willingness to utilize
the rhetoric of rights that resonated both with the grassroots and with the
administrators of international organizations. The development of communi-
cation technologies facilitated the rapid transfers of knowledge and practice
between grassroots and international organizations. In this way globalization
facilitated the development of feminist campaigns around violence against
Explaining changes
The explanation of these developments in feminism, the increasing use of
human rights discourse and the increasing engagement with the state, need to
be multi-layered. It involves changes in social structure, in political opportunity
structures, in economic and political resources, in the framing of the issue and
the development of feminist epistemic communities. These are interrelated
levels of explanation rather than competing ones.
Social structural changes
There have been important changes in the form of the gender regime affecting
many dimensions of women’s lives, creating new possibilities for feminist
politics (Walby 1990, 1997). During processes of gendered social change, the
category ‘women’ is not a stable one. As gender relations change, so too does the
constitution of masculinity and femininity, and the interests and priorities of
‘women’. The political priorities of different groups of women may change along
with changes in their economic and domestic situations. As certain types of
material situation become more prevalent, so too may the political priorities
associated with those situations. As social situations change, so too may the
economic and organizational resources and political opportunities available to
some women. The issues addressed below are debates about the specific changes
that might be leading to the developments in feminism noted above, and the
linkages between them.
Macro social change associated with industrialization has often been