Feminisms. A Global History

Delap, Lucy
Anzahl Seiten
256 S.
$ 27.50
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Lea Börgerding, Globalgeschichte, Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin

The historical field of global and transnational feminism has flourished over the past decades. In the 1990s, a growing number of scholars began tracing feminist ideas, activists, and networks across and beyond national borders, mirroring the wider “transnational turn” in the discipline. While the bulk of early research was largely western-centric, focusing on white feminists and liberal international women’s organisations from the United States and Europe, the field has since evolved.[1] Inspired by Chandra Mohanty’s powerful critique of a “western gaze” on Third World womanhood and postcolonial approaches[2], newer scholarship has highlighted transnational exchanges and feminist knowledge production on the African, Asian, and Latin American continents throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.[3] Similarly, over the past decade, the literature on ‘global socialist feminism’ has drawn attention to the leftist women’s networks that spanned from socialist Eastern Europe to the global South during the Cold War period.[4] One of the most recent areas of research that addresses historiographical blind spots, in turn, has centred on Black feminist internationalism.[5] Taken together, these works not only put into question the idea of a one-directional flow of feminism from the west to the “rest”. They also point towards the rich entanglements and tensions between different, competing emancipatory projects in a globalizing world.

Lucy Delap’s Feminisms: A Global History makes an exciting contribution to this evolving body of literature. Her book presents a sweeping challenge to feminist histories that draw only on “a limited cast of mostly white and educated foremothers” (p. 15). By contrast, Feminisms explores campaigns against gender injustice “across a global canvas, spanning 250 years” (p. 26). To this end, Delap draws on recent scholarship in the field to cover an impressive width of case studies, ranging from women’s activism during Japan’s Meiji period (pp. 227–229) to Filipina campaigns for suffrage after the First World War (pp. 181–183), the 1929 women-led protests against British colonial taxation policies in Nigeria (pp. 117–123), and feminist transnational encounters across Latin America and the Caribbean during the 1980s (pp. 256–7). In so doing, Delap suggests new historical starting points that move beyond the ‘wave analogy’ that has long been used to periodize feminist history, and brings in new actors, sites, and networks.

Feminisms is structured according to eight core themes that help weave together cases that seem disparate at first. Chapter 1, for example, zooms in on “Dreams” by which Delap means the “utopian hopes attached to feminism” in both literature and fiction (p. 27). Moving from Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s tale of a technologically advanced, women-ruled “ladyland” published in colonial Bengal (pp. 29–31) to Alexandra Kollontai’s radical socialist vision of sexual liberation during revolutionary Soviet Russia (pp. 36–43), Delap highlights the breadth of feminist thinking about the future in different cultural, political, and religious settings.

Other parts of the book equally make the point that no uniform understanding of feminism or women’s liberation existed across time and space. In Chapter 5, which focuses on “Looks” as sites of feminist activism, Delap shows that depending on historical context, the same fashion, clothing or body type could adopt entirely different, at times even opposing meanings. One example is the diverse reception of headscarves, veils, and chadors which Delap argues have been “both empowering and constraining for women” (p. 180). Referring to cases such as the wearing of garments that covered women’s upper bodies and heads in mid-nineteenth century Lima, Peru (p. 207), or the highly divisive politics of veiling in Islamic feminisms (p. 210), she emphasizes how some feminists considered coverings compatible with women’s public organising, while others saw it as a form of suppression and source of control over female bodies. Here, Delap deliberately uses historical contextualisation as a political tool to counter contemporary framings of veiled women as passive victims of patriarchal social and religious norms that have been used to align Islamophobia with feminism (pp. 219–220).

Delap does not simply applaud feminism’s plurality and difference. Her work is mindful of the “contests, conflicts and powerplay” that shaped campaigns against gender injustice (p. 22). She explores for instance how during the twentieth century, many women in sub-Saharan Africa did not identify with feminism because they thought it was “dominated by white women and colonial mindsets” (p. 163) and actively silenced their concerns. Alternative spaces and regional arrangements hence emerged, responding more closely to African women’s needs (pp. 167–168). Different parts of the book pick up on Western feminism’s strained relationship to colonialism, orientalist thinking, and racial prejudices that resulted in the repeated exclusion of women of colour and marginalisation of the global South, for instance during the UN “decade for women” (pp. 250–258). As such, it provides a nuanced account that recognizes feminism’s deep fragmentations as well as its racial, gendered, and classed hierarchies.

Scholars of global and world history might raise the point that Feminisms does not elaborate much on the mechanisms behind the various cross-border influences, travelling knowledge, and global borrowings that it observes. While Delap mentions the role of physical mobilities, modernizing communications infrastructure, and internationalist networks as possible factors (pp. 336–337) and ponders feminists’ connections to other political movements like nationalism, socialism, and faith (p. 293), she does not develop a uniform theory that would explain how and why feminisms went global. Perhaps such a framework would have been unfitting, given Delap’s scepticism towards one-size-fits-all approaches. Feminisms instead introduces the idea of “mosaic feminisms” (p. 20) to demonstrate the fragmented but connected nature of various feminist movements, ideas, and actors. Although this concept indeed avoids reproducing inaccurate narratives of linear feminist progress or Western diffusion, it fails to provide an alternative model of what exactly drove different feminisms across space and time. This analytical silence feels especially surprising given that scholarship that advances conceptual frameworks and theory in both gender/women’s and global/transnational histories has grown over the past years. Here, Delap could have engaged more proactively with current theoretical and methodological debates in the field.[6]

On the whole, the book’s main contribution to critical global and transnational feminist histories is that it unearths patterns of feminism in creative, often unexpected ways. Delap’s intricate exploration of music as a tool of feminist protests from 19th British suffragette songs (pp. 301–305) to the 1990s riot grrrl movement (p. 324) and her reflections on the use of aural archives in Chapter 8 on “Songs” are but one case in point. Delap’s case studies – like that of the 1929 women-led, anti-colonial protests in Nigeria – further hammer home the message that there has been “no increase over time in the radicalism of feminist thinking” (p. 29) over time and geography. While it can sometimes be hard to identify organising principles driving this history, Feminisms successfully disrupts the existing historiography. Ultimately, Delap’s thematic, non-chronological approach to feminisms opens up creative new starting points for further research and exploration.

[1] One of the most well-known works from the field’s early research is Leila J. Rupp, Worlds of Women. The Making of an International Women's Movement, Princeton 1997.
[2] Chandra Mohanty, Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses, in: Feminist Review 30 (1988) 1, pp. 61–88.
[3] Katherine M. Marino, Feminism and the Americas. The Making of an International Human Rights Movement, Chapel Hill 2019; Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Radicals on the Road. Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era, Ithaca 2013; Elisabeth Armstrong, Before Bandung. The Anti-Imperialist Women’s Movement in Asia and the Women’s International Democratic Federation, in: Signs 41 (2016) 2, pp. 305–331; Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, London 1986.
[4] Ciara Bonfiglioli / Kristen Ghodsee, Vanishing Act. Global Socialist Feminism as the ‘Missing Other’ of Transnational Feminism – a Response to Tlostanova, Thapar-Björkert and Koobak (2019), in: Feminist Review 126, no. 1 (2020), pp. 168–172; Francisca de Haan, Eugénie Cotton, Pak Chong-ae, and Claudia Jones: Rethinking Transnational Feminism and International Politics, in: Journal of Women's History 25 (2013) 4, pp. 174–189.
[5] Tiffany N. Florvil, Mobilizing Black Germany. Afro-German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement, Urbana 2020; Keisha N. Blain / Tiffany M. Gill / Michael O. West, To turn the whole world over. Black women and internationalism, Urbana 2019.
[6] Clare Midgley / Alison Twells / Julie Carlier, Women in Transnational History. Connecting the Local and the Global, London and New York 2016; Oliver Janz / Daniel Schönpflug (eds.), Gender History in a Transnational Perspective. Networks, Biographies, and Gender Orders, New York 2014; Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Crossing borders in transnational gender history, in: Journal of Global History 6 (2011), pp. 357–379.

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