Third World Feminism Essay

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Third World feminism has taken important liberal and nationalist forms in both politics and the academy. Liberal feminist movements of the 1970s and 1980s drew on social science literature that linked women’s economic disadvantage to occupational and educational discrimination. Public policy responses included Women in Development (WID), promoting women’s participation in international development planning; and later, Gender and Development (GAD), emphasizing the relationship of development programs and processes to changes in gender relations.

Nationalist feminisms stress the transmission and interpretation of third world women’s voices and their engagement in civic and non-governmental organizations. Nationalist academic writing of the late 1980s and the 1990s drew heavily on the work of Fanon (1961), Memmi (1965) and others to explore the shared and enduring subjective experiences of colonial oppression and marginalization. It engaged as well post-structural and postmodern critical and interpretive methods to interrogate, deconstruct, and reinterpret representation in literature, art and other cultural forms. Resulting feminist postcolonial theories have explicated gendered representations produced in colonial and postcolonial settings.

”Subaltern” is a term used historically by the British military to identify officers of lesser rank. It is now used more broadly to characterize socially subordinate groups. Antonio Gramsci described the subaltern both as incipient challengers to traditional dominant classes and relatively powerless groups subject to constraining ideological power. The term’s meaning has expanded again, however, as postmodern and postcolonial feminists have argued that the conceptual and discursive meanings of Marxist and neo-Marxist thought, including Gramsci’s theorization of the subaltern, reproduce binary and essentialist thinking that has limited Third World women’s political options. Feminist sociologists more generally echoed these concerns in their theoretical and methodological recognition of the situated and subjugated knowledges of women and other socially marginalized groups.

Academic and policy makers’ current discussions of globalization and the internationalization of investment and trade have to an extent supplanted the debates of the 1980s and 1990s about the ideological and subjective meanings of colonialism, postcolonialism, and nationalism. Methodological and epistemological challenges to structuralist categorizations of history and culture continue to engage feminists and other critical theorists and activists. However, recent recognition of the breadth and depth of global interdependence has reinvigorated the scholarly quest to understand the dynamics of global capitalism and the transformative political spaces therein. The third world feminist challenge is ever more complex as the interstices of international domination and national self-interest multiply and become less distinct, changing the terms of meaningful collective action.


  1. Fanon, F. (1961) The Wretched of the Earth. Grove, New York.
  2. Gramsci,    (1991)   Prison   Notebooks. Columbia University Press, New York.
  3. Memmi, A. (1965) The Colonizer and the Colonized. Orion Books, New York.
  4. Spivak,    C.   (1988)   Can   the   subaltern speak.’ Speculations on widow sacrifice. In: Nelson, G. and Grossberg, L. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL, pp. 271-313.

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