Transnational feminism

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People talk about transnational feminism. What is transnational feminism? But first, what is transnational? Where does this word come from, who uses it, and why? How does the transnational differ from the global? Then, what do different feminists think about the transnational? What are the debates and the concerns? From there, what's transnational feminism? Finally, what does the transnational and transnational feminism mean for feminist activists, on the ground? There are many questions, and even more answers. Here's one take.


Transnational feminism begins with the idea that power -- economic, political, cultural, social, all forms and all mixtures of forms -- has somehow become global. That doesn't mean that important things aren't going on at the local level, in our neighborhoods and communities, in our schools and clinics, in our households and in our families, in our bodies. It means that the elites, the people who dominate, the people who claim ownership, have loosened their ties with any one nation, and now roam the globe. This sounds like imperialism, and it is like imperialism. Wealthy people go from wherever they are to other places, and take, steal, rob, extract natural resources, labor, capital, cultural goods, even health. They bring that stuff back to their own home sites. What's changed is that their own corporations may no longer be completely housed in one country. So, `American' corporations, like automobile and apparel, no longer have most of their factories in the United States. Natural resources move across many borders before being finally changed into a good to be consumed. Workers move across borders before finding jobs. Money moves all over the place, at faster and faster rates. So, everything becomes not only global but also transnational. Cross border and multiborder, with multiple national identities, tendencies, citizenships, families, and more.


Why is this issue particular to feminism?


Because all of the speculation, all of the extraction, all of the generation of wealth, all of it begins with the super exploitation of women. It's all on the backs of women. Saskia Sassen is one person who has studied the new economies. In her book Cities in a World Economy, Third Edition (Pine Forge Press, 2006), she describes the situation of the global economy as on the backs of women:


"The last decade has seen a growing presence of women in a variety of cross-border circuits. These circuits are enormously diverse but share one feature: They are profit- or revenue-making circuits developed on the backs of the truly disadvantaged..... They include cross-border migrations, both documented and not, which have become an important source of hard currency for governments in home countries. The formation and strengthening of these circuits is in good part a consequence of broader structural conditions. . . . I conceptualize these circuits as countergeographies of globalization."[185 - 186]


In the new global economy, in the last decade, developing countries enter the global market by sending women across borders to work in wealthier countries and send home their wages, as remittances. The Philippines, for example, sends women as care workers, in particular nurses, and domestic workers, as part of its national economic development program. These women go to Italy, to the Middle East, to China (especially Hong Kong), to Canada, to the United States. Whole communities lose their women `of a certain age.' Who takes care of the children and the elderly and the households `back home'? Good question. Who hires these women and, often, brings them into their homes and family settings? Another good question. These are questions of transnational feminism, questions that social movements pose, that feminists in public policy ask, that feminist researchers study. There are many such questions. What does it mean for a country, a poor country, to invest in its peoples' education, to send them off, to have them work and send back much needed hard cash, and then to have them return, often when they are too old to continue working in their work lives, or when they are disabled, by work or some other circumstance? What does it mean that the receiving countries, the wealthy countries, benefit twice over? They don't have to pay for the upbringing and education of the youth, and they get cheap labor? How does that get accounted, and by whom? All of these are questions for transnational feminism.


"These circuits can be thought of as indicating the, albeit partial, feminization of survival, because it is increasingly on the backs of women that these forms of making a living, making a profit, and securing government revenue are realized. Thus, in using the notion of feminization of survival, I mean not only that households and indeed whole communities are increasingly dependent on women for their survival, but also that governments are dependent on women's earnings in these various circuits, and so are types of enterprises whose ways of profit making exist at the margins of the licit economy. Finally, by using the term circuits, I want to underline the fact that there is a degree of institutionalization in these dynamics -- they are not simply aggregates of individual actions." [188]


Globalization produces as it needs transnational women, women who have crossed borders, women who care for others who have crossed borders, women who live on many sides of borders. Globalization needs the transnation, and the transnation needs women. This leads to the feminization of survival. The world, the nations, the communities, the families always needed women for reproduction and then set things up so that women would also be the primary care providers. They would not only reproduce the species but also the conditions for people to live from day to day. That means women would provide food, clothing, health, shelter, emotional support, pleasure, peace, well being. In the new economy, all of that has been commodified, monetized, marketized. Everything is for sale, everything must be sold. Survival means making a living, making a profit, securing government revenue. Governments are now in the business of exploiting and superexploiting women's time, labor, bodies. Governments have formal and informal arrangements and structures, what Sassen calls circuits. Transnational feminism studies, traces, analyses, disrupts and transforms these circuits.

Author: Dan Moshenberg, George Washington University, dym@gwu.edu

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