Gender mainstreaming: the future of feminism? Or feminism’s disappearing act?

Sylvia Walby’s ‘The Future of Feminism’ makes the case for gender mainstreaming as a successful mechanism for integrating feminist principles into institutions. But doing so runs the risk of subordinating feminist goals to other agendas, a contradiction that Walby never entirely resolves.

Heather McRobie
22 January 2012
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“Feminism is not dead.  This is not a postfeminist era.  Feminism is still vibrant, despite declarations that it is over.  Feminism is a success, although many gender inequalities remain.  Feminism is taking powerful new forms, which makes it unrecognisable to some.”

So begins Sylvia Walby’s The Future of Feminism, a powerful yet quietly detailed assessment of feminism’s achievements and new challenges.  As UNESCO Chair in Gender Research at Lancaster University, Walby brings rigorous methodological tools to outline her central thesis that feminism is thriving and is crucial to twenty-first century life; for readers more used to the tone of recent popular feminist writers like Jessica Valenti and Ariel Levy, the lack of obvious polemic in Walby’s writing takes some adjusting to, with Walby writing in the same crisp prose as in her earlier comprehensive report on the costs of domestic violence.    But although her writing style is academically understated, the case she makes is compelling: feminism is now stitched into all levels of political and public life, and our task is to continue this stitching, through gender mainstreaming and through a self-aware approach to intersectionality.

Her balanced assessment is refreshing, at a time when everything from burqa bans to SlutWalks quickly point to divisions within ‘feminism’ as a concept.  Walby does not paper over the historical divides within feminist movements as she sketches out the second wave, third wave, local movements and core debates over issues such as pornography, but rather makes the case that feminism has emerged as a global movement precisely by taking local and innovative forms, and finding complimentary allies in the human rights movement, environmentalism and social democracy. 

She highlights gender mainstreaming as one of the most successful tools of the last generation in achieving feminist objectives.  As Walby points out, gender mainstreaming is now a widely-accepted series of strategies that ensures that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central to all activities in an organisation or project (it is, for instance, the current main gender equality approach of the EU).    I asked Walby what she thought of the arguments made by some feminist theorists that gender mainstreaming necessitates the sacrifice of truly feminist goals in order to cooperate with mainstream or dominant institution.  Walby acknowledges “there is an intrinsic tension in gender mainstreaming between feminism and the mainstream; if the feminist component is too weak then there can be not only invisibility but also loss of impetus to the project.  Similar issues arise where feminism is intersecting with other projects: on the one hand there may be synergy and greater power; on the other there may be loss of visibility and vitality.  However, it is necessary for feminism to engage with the mainstream and with other projects in order to be successful; so these dilemmas need to be faced rather than avoided.”

This even-handedness may sound like waffling, and her comprehensive overview of other scholars’ points of view sometimes feels at first as though Walby is refusing to pin her own position down, stretching too broadly to accommodate the myriad forms of activity and organisation that label themselves as ‘feminist’ (and some that don’t). But as her argument develops, the vision becomes somewhat clearer: feminism has stitched itself successfully into dominant global and national institutions and formed dynamic interactions with other movements, namely environmentalism, the human rights movement and (more ambivalently) social democracy, but its capacity for adaptation is not infinite. 

Neo-liberal structures, in particular, pose a challenge for feminism, as it entails both increasing economic inequalities and a process of de-democratisation.  As feminism’s stated goal – according to Walby – is both to reduce inequalities and to deepen democratic governance, neoliberalism stands alongside militarism and fundamentalism as a toxic environment for the achievement of feminist aims.

I wish Walby had developed this argument further, as Rahila Gupta does in her recent piece ‘Has neoliberalism knocked feminism sideways?’ , where she argues that neoliberalism thrives on atomisation.  Walby highlights the dynamic interactions between feminism and other progressive movements, and the damage neoliberalism causes to feminism, but not the damage neoliberalism does to the building of alliances between progressive movements, curtailing feminism’s ability to be a transformative movement.

Similarly, Gupta has highlighted how neoliberalism (falsely) ‘depoliticises’ the cultural climate, with organisations working on trafficked women calling themselves, for instance, the ‘violence against women’ sector rather than feminists.  Gender mainstreaming could also be criticised for being part of this corrosion of a clearly defined feminist agenda, subordinating feminist agendas to the goals of institutions that operate comfortably in the neoliberal order.  Walby, I feel, never entirely dissects gender mainstreaming’s close relationship with neoliberalism.

On the subject of militarism, which was this year’s theme for 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women, Walby notes “feminism has a long tradition of combating militarism.  Feminists opposed the First World War and many wars since. This opposition to war and militarism has often been combined with internationalism and a rejection of extreme forms of nationalism.  Some of the recent ways of engaging with militarism have involved working with the UN, for example gendering the processes of peace-keeping.  There is also recognition of the inter-connectedness of different forms of violence, for example, that conflict zones are likely to generate high rates of gender-based violence against women.”

In other words: feminism rarely acts alone, but combines powerfully with other progressive ideologies, institutions and movements.  But while this could be taken as a criticism of contemporary feminism, in her conclusion Walby turns the idea around, as she outlines the global crossroads we face in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008: towards further neoliberalism or a shift away from the excesses of the free market.  She argues that, at this crucial stage, it is only if the social democratic project fully embraces its feminist partners that it will have a chance at success. 

Alternative futures, she argues, hinge on the future of feminism.   The challenge ahead is to marry social democracy movements and feminism together effectively, so that “the majority of the population would be engaged in a democratic project that stood some change of success in reforming capitalism and in tackling the environmental crisis, as well as in reducing gender and other forms of inequality.”  Hardly a small task to ask of us.  But, while her argument is compelling, the question of ‘mainstreaming’ – or ‘co-opting’ – remains somewhat unresolved: is the future of feminism on the outside, an oppositional and transformative force, or a force that operates most effectively from ‘within’ the current structures?  And is feminism still feminism when it becomes, as she writes, ‘unrecognisable’?


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