The second-wave did not prepare me for questions of sexuality and gender and so it was on my own that I read and understood these concepts. When my studies began to focus on class and race, my views on feminism broadened further. The apex of my understanding formulated when I became interested in black nationalism, revolutionary anti-imperialism, and third-world womanism. My theories were challenged when I spent time in the Middle East and reformulated on my conversion to Islam. Whereas before I stood with a broad number of women, I found my sister-comrades disappearing through my studies as my interests and positions narrowed. Now I find myself in the position of considering all women my sister-comrades once again, though to them I offer myself mainly as an ally. I would like to trace how this arc developed over time.
First and foremost, I have come to the understanding that first-world feminism has almost nothing in common to the overwhelming majority of women of the world. The issues that I saw as important in my youth have never crossed the radar of these women and they are wary to concern themselves with issues such as abortion (hammered into every young USA feminist's head as the golden issue), sexuality, gender, dress, and public economic position. The stay-at-home mother is the anathema of first-world feminism. She represents a center of patriarchal control that supposedly upholds generations of misogynists and treatment in the media. She is the Madonna, the virtuous and chaste woman who guards the home and traditional family structure. Family is another anathema to the first-world feminist, and is a biological afterthought for many women who seek professional advancement. Issues such as birth control and abortion are focused squarely on this archetype, as women are supposed to have control over their own bodies - to what end? To fully participate in the market economy. When half your working force sits "idle" at home, the economy cannot reach its full potential.
This in itself is a very narrow view for first-world feminists. Poor women have always held paid jobs, whether this is out of their homes or in the factories. They are still expected to hold the position of mothers in the family, often expected to have dinner ready, but are also expected to bring in money. This is actually parallel to the situation of women in the West, who are now expected to work 40 hours a week in an office and still come home and cook dinner, clean the house, and look after the children.
A note on childless women - this is a rarity biologically and when it occurs for women who are physically able to bear children it is generally because of work or a spouse who is sterile. There were more mothers in the USA in 1960 than there are today. The biggest factor for women who are infertile in the USA is their age. They have pushed back child-bearing because of the desire for professional advancement. So these childless women in the USA are generally of a certain class, that being a class of women who are generally well-to-do. The very well-to-do who have children either belong to households that can afford to keep her home to watch after the children or hire help that can look after the house for her.
So, the choice as to have children or not is seriously a class question. Women who are well-to-do have the ability to put off childbearing indefinitely, and then even seek artificial insemination procedures or adopt. In general, though, most women in the world are mothers at some point in their lives. It is the largest commonality that exists in women. And this is possibly the greatest point of contention between first-world feminists and third-world womanists.
Womanism is defined as originally a USA black feminist movement inspired by African women, wherein women are celebrated in their roles as centers-of-family. However, it has grown to include all women who are interested in celebrating their roles while at the same time "(opposing) all oppression based on race, sex, class, sexual preference, physical ability, and caste" (Delores Williams). The issues that interest womanism are rather material issues, such as quality of life and health. While quite able to discuss matters of theory they are mainly concerned with more basic concerns. Therefore, while a feminist might support the invasion of Afghanistan because of how women are treated in Afghanistan, womanists would rather oppose the invasion out of concern for Afghani women's safety and quality of life.
For sure, first-world feminism is incompatible with anti-imperialism. First-world feminists, brought to understanding via complex theoretical issues and yet unaware of the basic conditions of world womankind, seek to impose their issues, ideas, virtues, and ways of thinking on women who are unable to feed their families or walk down the street in safety. Worse yet, first-world feminists are often recruited by imperialists to offer up moral justification for imperial action. In their quest to earn an equal market share of the pie, first-world feminists have long been utilized to "expose" the failings of other societies and their relations to gender, sex, and family issues. The only market where a womens studies degree ever becomes lucrative is when one works internationally. Meanwhile, USA women are unable to present united fronts against basic womens needs in their own countries, either because of too much capital influence (media depictions of women, etc) or because they know they have it "better" than all these other women in the world, so who are they to complain? Better to raise up all other women to their level before fighting further in their own communities.
Yet the dissolution of the community is the biggest threat to effective international women's movements. By being forced to recognize that women live as one body women are no longer able to adequately focus on the problems plaguing their own communities. The cookie-cutter curriculum passed out by international aid organizations for "women's development" on the ground in the third world confirms this assumption. By weakening communities, capital spreads. This is globalization. So first-world feminists must take a hard look in the mirror and reassess their place in such a system. Are they helping to build communities or to destroy them? Are they empowering women, or are they empowering women in the way they see best?
I traveled abroad and was met by many women who were warm and welcoming and yet showed concern for my childless state. A few confided to me that women from their society see women from mine as being sexless, deprived, disrespected, and uncouth. I'd never felt that way until I arrived, educated and trained, and yet could still feel that yawning chasm of inequality back home through the examples the women gave me - how we are treated like meat, how we are raped, how we are forced to be all sorts of things at once. And yet here I was, in another country, in another society and community, here to deliver these virtues up into their world, where women for sure worked outside of the house and for sure held gender roles in their societies, but exercised a great deal of power through embracing their realities and seeking direct action for their problems instead of endless discussions about gender theory. How often had I sought to make things better for the women in my neighborhood before I first came here where my help was unwanted and unwelcome?
So I guess where I am now, after processing this through years of self-reflection and consideration of the theory I'd been so eager to consume, is somewhere that is ambivalent and in the middle, yet more radical than I've ever been. I am against globalization and imperialism. I am against the eradication of cultures and religion. I am for women working in their own communities on what they consider to be the most trying issues, and I am for women joining hands with each other internationally when they see fit for issues that affect women worldwide.
It would be nice to see a UN type institution for women, where they could meet and discuss issues and plan joint actions where they see fit to do so. Like the UN it would probably not have much purpose beyond this, but without a security council type apparatus we could finally hear the voices of the women in the oppressed majority and hear what concerns them the most. Perhaps it is not about earning a wage equal to a man's... perhaps it is earning a wage for labor in the home. Perhaps it is not about family planning and maybe it is more about financial and material support for families already existing or for those who wish to have families.
If we look to the major triumphs for women in the third world, it almost always follows the pattern of womanism as opposed to feminism. Women in Libya were given money gifts from the state to begin families. Women in Venezuela are paid 80% of minimum wage for work in the home. Often families are given stipends by the government for number of children in the home, not to soak up welfare money but rather to assure that children have a basic standard of living. Women attend school for free in most Middle Eastern countries, and their attendance outnumbers male attendance in almost all cases. Universal healthcare exists in the third world, helping women and their families. Etc.
So perhaps the best answer is to focus on what matters in our communities first, and then set up a way for us to have a fair and balanced dialogue on an international stage with our sisters abroad. This would clear things up for a lot of us, and help us start to focus more on our neighbor than Salma in Egypt. In this way I'm sure we could see more results in a better fashion.
Meanwhile, a word of advice to first world feminists: take your heads out your asses. I tried to find a good first-world feminist blog to read about issues that might be affecting our communities, but all I see is diatribes and drama, fashion and sex tips. Like how women's magazines were eventually appropriated to push capitalist messages, so too have our blogs and womens networks, now more concerned with a pro-choice President (none of them have ever been btw!) rather than feeding the poor on your street. Women in the first world need to start focusing on material issues as opposed to the theoretical issues. Leave those to the academic ghettos on campus (women's studies departments) and get to work formulating action plans instead of kicking the can down the road all day about sexism in video games and TV shows... those are reflections of our material conditions! Women have no respect in society's purview because we have not demanded it through action. Rosie the Riviter and Suzie the Soviet were not about inspiring women to action, it was rather that these were portraits of real-life women engaged in action and transforming society calling their sisters to arms.