The world of women is a house divided. Despite the global advances in millions of women’s lives, old fault lines have persisted and new fault lines continue to open within and among countries on issues affecting women’s rights and bodies, with differences rooted in economic, cultural, legal, or even chronological factors related to stages of national development. In September 2014, leading feminists from dozens of countries, some of them legendary international figures not well known in the West, met in New York to listen to each other’s perspectives and debate differences.
Their perspectives are now collected in a book, Women and Girls Rising: Progress and resistance around the world, which scatters ideas like shrapnel across the feminist universe.
Differences remain between feminists in the Global South and North over priorities for advancing human rights and development. In two days of formal talks and informal conversations conference participants were united on expanding women’s rights, yet were not always in alignment on where to direct energy and focus. In richer countries, especially in the United States, a lot of effort these days goes into saving—through the courts, Federal government agencies or direct political action—what women thought had been achieved in the past: the right to abortion; sustained outrage and social pressure over the exploitation of women’s bodies as commercial come-ons, most egregiously in television advertising and social media; the promised opening through affirmative action to real equality of access to seats in the boardroom and desks in the corner office, or to sports facilities for girls and women equal to those of men and boys. Everybody has a list.
Within developing countries, advocates for women’s rights, and human-rights activists in general, often have to take on governments and the establishment at their peril and in the streets—or resort to compromises that would be roundly condemned by Western feminists. Gaps between the global North and South, with feminists from both sides sometimes caught in the middle, are revealed most sharply on social issues: the absence of broadly agreed definitions of violence against women; the persistent defense on cultural grounds of stark abuses or inequalities; the reluctance of governments to expand sexuality education and reproductive services to adolescents, when pregnancy is a leading killer of girls in developing countries; and the harsh pushback against calls to end the criminalization of LGBT people and protect their rights when persecution is widespread and growing in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
In economic terms, numerous feminists contributing to this book argued that globalization is not necessarily building a global sisterhood but instead threatening gains made by local women’s movements, fueled by the growing influence of transnational corporations and other private-sector players in in organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank.
To capture the spirit and content of the gathering, the new book is a collection of essays ideas edited by the meeting’s two conveners: Ellen Chesler, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the biographer of Margaret Sanger, the pioneer advocate of birth control in the United States a century ago; and Terry McGovern, professor of population and family health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The book includes 34 essays by leading participants in the 2014 meeting, which drew a live audience of at least 400 and about 2,500 additional viewers online.