Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Has Caribbean feminism failed? Or did it just never exist?

Last week, I sat down with two of my favourite male people, over some Guinness(es?) and some wicked, fried pot fish, to catch up on the happenings. The conversation soon got around to feminism, because these two male people are actually interested, and don't just pretend to be in the hopes that when they ask me "how's work?" I'll just say "You know, it is what it is. Pass the pepper sauce."

So they had some issues, among them my confession that in my work, when I talk about my theories of economics to people who are presumably non-sympathetic - or who at least start out that way - I avoid the term 'feminist'. I do not call my work 'feminist economics' outside my group of colleagues or friends because:

1) It is irrelevant, almost so irrelevant as to be counter-productive. I'm suggesting that in the traditional conceptualization of the economy, there are missing markets, and missing actors. Some of women's work, and some of the consequences of economic policy and activity on women, are rendered invisible, and if we are to obtain a true picture of the economy, maximize its productivity and advance development goals, we need to start thinking about that economy in different ways. This argument hinges on the idea that mainstream economics is lacking, whereas 'my' economics is more complete. To then present my views as 'feminist', to qualify them in this way, only marginalizes them, which is the opposite of what I'm trying to do.

2) It is inflammatory. 'Feminist' is a bad word. This is a surprise to no one. Many people I encounter are eager to distance themselves from what they see as feminist ideology, and are in fact relieved to have that basis on which to reject your ideas. If advancing that ideology without using the F word is going to improve women's access to economic goods, then I'm prepared to use other words.

3) It is not true. Based on the first point, if I believe that an economic model that values women's work and counts it as an economic input is a truer model, then what I do is just Economics, only properly done. (One could argue that insofar as feminism is a belief in the right of women to have political, social, and economic equality with men, all economics should be feminist economics, which is also true. And so we could argue each of those points, and probably both be right.)

This is an age-old argument, and while I call myself a feminist, language is an important part of the political strategy that gets things done. So using language like 'women's rights' and 'equity', and employing methods like first establishing the existence of a problem and then revealing that the majority of those experiencing this problem are women or men or children is often more expedient.

But they thought that I was wrong to do this, and that if feminism was not at all problematic, as I was suggesting, then I should use my work to make it visible as a movement. Because, they said, the feminism that everyone knows, and that men in the Caribbean are so turned off by, has been imported from the US and UK, with all their bra-burning and armpit-hair growing. They suggested that the women's movement in the Caribbean has failed to adequately represent its cause, to refocus the business of feminism within the Caribbean context, and to disabuse people of the notion of feminism as a foreign, outdated ideology. They believed that rather than treat as separate issues like violence against women and sexual and reproductive rights, we should frame them within the larger context of women's human rights, showing the linkages, and in that way, it would all become clear to the masses and we, the feminists, would win. I explained that we had done this, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. They were not convinced. I suggested that they were considering the issue as already-feminist men, assuming a reasonable, blank-slate audience that does not always exist. Again, they were not convinced.

I had, and have, several responses to this, including the idea that 'feminist', both as a qualifier and a noun, is not strictly tied to 'feminism' as a movement. There's some merit in what they say, as well as some confusion, I think, about what the advancement of women's rights in the Caribbean has looked like, and what it looks like these days. But I wanted to ask you first, readers and lurkers and bears, what you think, before I address these ideas in a subsequent post.

Are Caribbean people really thirsting for feminist knowledge, and have we simply been doing it wrong all along?


  1. Caribbean people are seeking something more, our present situation is not sustainable.Ffeminist values are integral to a better reality. Its not about the feminists winning per se but society winning because an quitable world is better world. Patriarchy (I try to stay away from this word too) helps no one especially not men. I love what these men propose and I think that this has been the goal of the movement in the Caribbean. Caribbean feminists have led the post modern feminist movement, which aims to make feminism and the women's movement more relevant to ALL women. So it hasnt necessarily been done wrong its just all movements take time. I think the reason many dont know about it is the way in which the women's movement has ben framed by the media, the powers that be and feminists themselves. I think the real issue is now making the key tenants of feminism accessible to women and men of all socio-economic classes.

  2. Feminism has become a loaded word, and I lack faith in our ability to change this in my lifetime. This puts feminists in a precarious position: while it is conceivable and in some ways advantageous to frame feminism in terms of simple equality (as your 'male feminists' seem to be suggesting), the path to women's equality may require uniquely targeted (that is, unequal) methodologies.

    This targeting can create the conditions for a fight with what appears to be a nascent "men's movement" that is convinced that women have already achieved equality or more in career opportunities and societal status, often resentful of what it perceives as men's diminished standing and women's brazen effrontery, and in pursuit of a return to a traditional - perhaps biblical - view of a man as patriarch who has perhaps the loudest voice and certainly the final say in his own house, whose familial obligations end at earning a decent wage and being present in the home, and who is free to pursue manly interests unencumbered by the need to explain his reasons for absence, his whereabouts, or his expected time of return. There is anecdotal evidence that this movement, even among educated men, may be growing.

    Balancing the unique efforts needed to achieve real results for women, and the marketing strategy needed to properly position those efforts to what may be an increasingly unsympathetic male population, is probably one of the largest challenges facing the women's movement in the Caribbean.

  3. "and in pursuit of a return to a traditional - perhaps biblical - view of a man as patriarch who has perhaps the loudest voice and certainly the final say in his own house, whose familial obligations end at earning a decent wage and being present in the home, and who is free to pursue manly interests unencumbered by the need to explain his reasons for absence, his whereabouts, or his expected time of return."

    A very interesting analysis! And what mainstream publications (web sources don't count :D) of the Men's Movement lead you to this conclusion?

  4. @Gogonostop I am unaware of any official publications of any sort by the organisation that would probably be considered by most Barbadians to be the voice of the men's movement. Even if there were, they probably could not be counted on to state that uppity women should stop trying to control men and know their place - and make a sandwich too, while they're at it.

    My evidence comes from speaking with people who lead the movement, hearing about men who belong to the movement, and understanding the terms in which they perceive their struggle.


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