The women’s movement in the era of globalisation: does it face extinction?

Andrea Medina Rosas and Shamillah Wilson

This article is based on an inter-generational dialogue between younger and older women regarding the future direction of the women’s movement. Like other social movements, the women’s movement is currently experiencing tensions as feminists of different ages negotiate their place within it. In this article, we will highlight some of the issues raised in this session, and relate them to our personal experiences and points of view, as young feminists.

The contributions and gains made by the women’s movement1 over the past 20 or 30 years have assisted in creating a very different world. Currently, there are many new challenges for the movement. One is the issue of ensuring that commitments to women’s rights are turned into reality for every woman, and another comes from the new global political situation, which threatens to unleash a new World War. But there is another key challenge, which comes from inside the movement itself. This challenge – which is felt in other social movements too – is how to deal with inter-generational tensions within the movement. Young women, either already in the movement or considering entering it, are asking questions about the movement, including where it is headed. We think this creates several distinct tensions and experiences that have not been sufficiently discussed and addressed.

At the AWID Forum, an attempt to develop the dialogue among young women and older women in the women’s movement took the form of an inter-generational panel. The structure of the engagement was an open and honest exchange among participants about the tensions that seem to the participants to exist between the generations of women in the movement. We then moved on to discuss the challenges and strategies for inter-generational activism. When we came to distil this article from the discussions we had had, we decided to focus it around three main questions raised most often by the panel. These questions are, first, ‘Is the women’s movement “missing in action?”, second, ‘What are some of the tensions between different generations of women in the movement?’, and third, ‘What strategies can we use for inter-generational organizing?’ The article aims to reflect on all these questions and put forward some suggestions for action.

Is the women’s movement ‘missing in action’?

The question ‘Is the women’s movement “missing in action”?’, as well as the title of the panel ‘Is the women’s movement on the way to extinction?’, are both important, and represented radical starting points for the discussion. In reflecting on these questions, some of the women at the workshop felt, that in fact, the movement is in some state of paralysis. Evidence for this includes stronger right-wing and fundamentalist groups who obstruct our actions and goals; a feeling of inability to draw more people into the movement; and a sense that the women’s movement has entered a period of relative inaction in comparison to the successful mass mobilizations of feminists that took place around the world in the 1990’s.

We feel that before anyone pronounces a final verdict on the current state of the women’s movement, it is very important that we take a look at the diversity that can currently be found in the global women’s movement, and consider the possibilities open to us to organize as a women’s movement. The issue of diversity kept emerging throughout the panel at AWID. The agenda of women within the movement seems to widen every day. Women’s experience of inequality does not only depend on gender, but also on other factors including their age, race, and culture, their political, economic and social situation, their health, their erotic preferences, their education and experience, and so on. The differences between life in different contexts, and the inequalities between regions and countries, affect the way in which we engage with issues. The state of the women’s movement differs in every place, according to history and current conditions. Even in the same country, we can find radical differences in women’s situation from one region to another, because of differences in access to information, services, the condition of civil and political rights, and the presence or absence of war.

Sometimes we hear criticism about the emphasis currently being given to diversity within the women’s movement. One particular criticism is that in focusing on only one aspect of the multiple agenda (for example, the rights of young women), we risk forgetting about the global agenda, and betraying the women’s movement. We think it is important to state explicitly that all the context-specific issues we bring up are informed by the same feminist vision, and contribute to the global feminist agenda. We feel that through focusing on specific issues affecting us as women in particular contexts, we strengthen our capacity and ability to challenge existing relations of power in our situations. This focus also strengthens our ability to contribute meaningfully to the global women’s movement. It is important that we do not lose sight of this, given the new challenges that women are facing in a globalised world. In the end, it is most important to be explicit that all these specific issues have the same feminist vision, and contribute to the global feminist agenda.

Nowadays, there are more women who identify themselves as feminist or have a commitment to equality and women’s rights than ever before, across all generations.

This presents us with a choice: we can either develop a strong global movement which supports women in their diversity, and is able to act, influence and advance even further; or we can forfeit a unique opportunity through our own shortsightedness.

As a first step, we think it is important for all women within the movement to acknowledge that the movement is advancing, in many very different ways because of the diversity of women within it. In the end, the critical issue is to analyse and evaluate the advances, rather than dismissing them if they are not in line with our own vision of feminism. We think that women within the movement sometimes try to find some signs of the movement advancing, but only look for signs that it is advancing in the way that we want it to. If they are not there, we conclude that the movement is not advancing at all. We have not necessarily looked more widely and asked others how they see the progress of the movement, in awareness that we are all inventing and reinventing ways to live as feminists.

The discussion at the AWID workshop focused on questions such as: ‘How can I use feminism?’; ‘What are the final or principal goals of feminism?’; and ‘Who is feminist?’ During the discussion we realized firstly that there are still strong prejudices against feminism, what it is and what it has been doing. These prejudices are often related to specific intentions to disqualify feminism and create confusion around it. Secondly, inside the movement there are notions about people’s loyalties, and the essential identity of a feminist. Discussions need to be had about these notions. At present, they make access to the movement more difficult. This affects the nature and potential of activism, by limiting different, creative approaches to achieve our goals. It is important to keep in mind that the feminist approach is about respecting non-lineal processes, which are not restricted in terms of time or space. It is also important to remember that we are all syncretic women – that is, we are mixing traditional and modern ways of being women, and living out innovative ways of being. We are moving all the time, sometimes in a more contradictory way than at other times. As a global women’s movement, our challenge in trying to move is to recognize that we are moving to the same beat, even if it is not at the same pace. Evidence of this is the AWID Forum itself. It attracted more than one thousand women from all over the world, who wished to meet each other and share their actions, thoughts and concrete experiences with other women. This sharing was very intense work, While it did not result in – and was not intended to result in – any ‘universal truths’, it did enable us to challenge ourselves and each other to create global evaluations and strategies. These need to be based on acknowledgement of the diversity and complexity of the movement, and its current challenges.

What are some of the inter-generational tensions?

Generalizing about older and younger women

Acknowledging that age is one aspect of diversity is useful for the women’s movement; thinking of women of all ages as the same hinders our ability to move forward, in a number of ways. In this section, we are going to describe several of the main tensions that young and old women talked about during an inter-generational meeting. Of course, not all women of a particular generation think the same way, but as the panel discussion aimed to be a space in which all participants could focus on the tensions which divide us in order to ensure we could move forward, we will deal with these issues in a general way.

One of the first contributions from women in their forties and older was how uncomfortable they feel with the labeling of ‘older’ and ‘younger’ women. Many felt that old is considered less fashionable, as in beauty and fashion. These concerns were actually echoed by younger women who said that in meetings with older feminists they have doubts about how to refer to them. Although talking about younger persons generally does not present a problem, the term ‘older’ appears to be offensive, and most of the time is met by a range of comments, including: ‘But I’m still young!’ or, ‘But I’m still young at heart!’ We agreed at the panel that it is therefore important to keep in mind that all of these words represent vital cycles, and are not used to denigrate or devalue anyone.

We all need to be aware that there are stereotypes or prejudices which are based on an idea of youth and older age as dichotomous, so some qualities are attributed to one and excluded from the other. Generalizing about people according to their age can have the effect of causing discomfort, without gaining anything. For example, older people are generally considered more experienced, knowing and wise, in relation to their longer life experience. However, this generalization has resulted in some inter-generational tensions in the movement, since it leads to assumptions that young women don’t have the experience and ability to make decisions or be leaders.

So, at present the existing tensions around age have some positive and negative aspects for each of the generations. In future, we need to keep the positive aspects, while rejecting what is negative. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that words give meaning which in turn leads to action. They are not politically neutral. It would be good to find a word which could be used instead of ‘older’, to avoid the negative connotations of that word. If we only talk of ‘older’ and ‘younger’ feminists, we forget that there are not just two generations. Individual women may not consider themselves as fitting into either of these categories.

Past struggles are unappreciated

Another big issue, which includes many variables, is the feeling that the struggles and achievements of older women are not appreciated by young women. Some veterans of the movement feel that younger women do not know much about the history and creation of feminism. As ‘proof’ of this they say younger women are less willing to call themselves feminists, and that there is no sharing of feminist values.

Creating a bridge between our own lives and past feminist action is a challenge for many young women. As we were born into an era in which the gains made by the earlier generation are a reality, if no one talks to us about the struggle and history of achieving those rights, we take them for granted and assume that they were always there. It is true that to approach feminism is still a matter of a personal desire, a decision to research, to read, to search. But women’s history and feminism are not yet included in school curricula. Instead, as mentioned earlier, the term ‘feminism’ is often accompanied by ignorance, confusion and prejudice. Some young women stumble across feminism in their own search on their personal journey of making sense of the world we live in. Others are introduced to feminism by their own mothers, or through a teacher at school, a conference at university or a course of study they undertake. But although university-level courses on women, feminism and gender at university level are very important advances, these are not enough, and they are constantly under threat.

Should young women adopt the label of ‘feminist’? We feel it is important to adopt the identity of ‘feminists’, in recognition of our history, and the fact that the struggle ahead is a political one. But our diversity as a movement should allow us to look for people with similar views for the purposes of building alliances, instead of resorting to the usual tendency of questioning the identity of a ‘feminist’ and thus creating points of difference and a means to cause divisions. Our discussion about these issues at AWID related the question to the ignorance and prejudices we have talked about. It does us harm to close our doors to collaborations with people who perhaps do not use our words or references, but are close enough to us in terms of feminist ideals.

Finally, it is important for young and older women to acknowledge that ‘education’ in feminism is also necessary for older women. Sometimes the impression is given that all the women in the older generation were supportive and part of the feminist movement, and that the gap appears only in later generations. But there are older women who are only now discovering or reconsidering feminism. Some of them are doing this because of young women close to them, who have integrated feminist activism into their daily lives. Others are doing it because they are working in institutions which require them to integrate a gender perspective or analysis into their work.

The movement is a ‘reserved club’

One participant at the workshop recounted that she felt that the movement was like a reserved club to which she could not get access, even though she was keen to become part of it. The sensation of feeling like an intruder, and hearing criticisms about other people who are ‘not feminist enough’, has prompted us and others like us to run away many times. We feel that we might not measure up to the movement.

One challenge for all of us is to formulate and spread feminism in a positive way. In order to do this, it is important that the advances that we make as younger women, in our own lives, as well as the benefits of earlier feminist action, are seen as part of the history of the feminist movement. If this were the case, we would recover a sense of politics in our actions and lives. It is also important to acknowledge that there are different ways of being feminist. The act of criticizing this different way of being or doing is a destructive one, which is contradictory to the objective of creating a movement of diverse energies and visions. Focusing on the issues and challenges that we face as young women does not mean that we do not care about the achievements of the last generation. Instead of criticizing, everyone in the women’s movement should be engaging with everyone else, building our individual and collective capacity to achieve change.

Perceptions about the way young women should work

There seems to be a perception that young women’s contribution should continue what has already been started, but only in a prescribed way. But in fact young feminists are taking what has already been done or initiated, and continuing feminist action, even if it is not in the way that some older women would like. We are doing it in the way we understand it, with our possibilities and resources, and often we are doing it with older women. For example, in many countries now it is not so easy to organize mass marches of thousands of people, but in those places where it is possible and necessary, the young women are there, at the forefront. We are writing our songs, playing our guitars, painting our murals, and we are creating in very different ways of expression the same feminist horizons: some times out in the streets, at the congress, other times writing and studying, and at other times living and testing our freedom, travelling, or simply through the way we live our lives to the full.

As young women, our desire is not to take anyone’s place. ‘Older’ women occupy some important spaces in the movement, and we have no intention of shutting them off. We should focus on the challenge of how to draw more women of all ages into the movement and to generate relations based in sisterhood, rather than on parent and child relationships. Sisterhood means the encounter of different and equal women characterized by friendship, who meet to accomplish objectives and in recognition of feminist principles. It also means listening to others, and being listened to, and taking criticism with respect, without remarking on the age differences, or the generation gap. Older women often behave as controlling mothers, seeing us as daughters, in need of guidance.

Sisterhood would mean older women introducing us to meetings and conferences where we can meet the women who made it possible for us to be where we are today, see how they live, learn our own history in flesh and blood, related to us. We want to read their books, watch them act, and support their proposals which inspire us. But, we are also writing, and we also have opinions on all of the goals of feminism, so we can also offer learning and inspiration to them. Because we are also adult women, and we are part of this movement.

Young women’s skills are under-used

Returning to the issue of competition, one participant at AWID stated that: ‘We do not want to just be photocopies of the movement.’ It is not that younger women want to decide everything, or that we want to be ‘the bosses’, but some of us do feel that our capacities are not used to their best advantage by the movement.

Our sense of being on the margins is made more difficult to understand, since we often hear affirmations from older women that young women are the hope and new life of feminism. In fact, we think we are in the same boat as the older women. As young women we are not only interested in the future. We are going to continue with the feminist movement, and we are finding and experimenting with new ways of being in it right now, all together. But it sometimes seems difficult to recognize this when we are dealing with inter-generational issues.

The high cost of activism

Another issue young feminists have pointed out is the cost of activism in the movement, which has taken a toll on women who have preceded us, and is now taking a toll on us. Many of us experience illness, depression, poverty, anger and conflict. Many of us are struggling with addictions, not just to substances but also to obsessive work regimes which do not allow us time to reflect, or breathing space.

Being a feminist means we have many fascinating, complex experiences, trying to create a new culture, and re-create our own lives. But the destructive aspect of it, the guilt and sacrifice, at work and in our lives more generally, is a tremendous challenge. Young women are trying to pick up this challenge and do something about it. We want to find alternative ways of engaging that does not cause so much sacrifice and unnecessary pain. We know that if we are tired and burnt-out, we will be unable to continue doing the work we do, and will deprive the movement of valuable members and contributions. Secondly, the freedom and humanity that we are striving for should also bring us some autonomy and pleasure.

What strategies can we use for inter-generational organising?

In the end, to be true to the political ideals of the movement, and in the spirit of moving forward, it is imperative that we meet the internal challenges to become a movement relevant to women of all ages and generations. The AWID workshop gave some of us a chance to analyse this issue a little more, and identify what needs to be done. The challenge we face is to start talking, sharing and so forth with each other, for the achievement of an inclusive movement.

Having recognized the challenge to facilitate diversity and inclusiveness in the women’s movement, some of the recommendations which came out of the AWID panel are:

  • to recognize the diverse ways of being a feminist and engaging with feminism
  • to intensify our efforts to form and spread feminism, including its vision and strategies, to ensure all generations gain from it
  • to acknowledge the fact that the women’s movement contains women from different generations, contexts and schools of thought. This diversity is fascinating in itself
  • at the same time, to bear in mind that younger women are not the ‘only hope’ of the women’s movement in future, and that the agenda is not already formed. In fact it is open to reflection and evaluation to ensure relevance and responsiveness to the needs of all women
  • to confront openly, and challenge, notions of ‘competition’ between generations of feminists, and the spectre of the controlling parental figure
  • to create opportunities for open and honest dialogue about the tensions that still cause divisions in the movement
  • to promote the development of an agenda that can include the movement in all its diversity, and create an ideal of feminism which is non-essentialist (that is, which recognizes many ways of being a feminist)
  • to promote ways of being an activist which minimize sacrifice or damage to ourselves in our work and personal lives
  • to share and continue the good inter- generational experiences and actions which already exist in the women’s movement
  • to recognize the role of pioneers at the beginning of the women’s movement, but build alliances between the generations to ensure we achieve our goals in future
  • to promote links with other movements.

In a movement that has accomplished so much for women globally, it is an appro- priate time to reflect on where we are and where we are headed, and think about some of the barriers holding us back from achieving our goals.

Andrea Medina Rosas is a lawyer. She is Director of the Centre for Research and Attention to Women (CIAM) in Guadalajara, Mexico. andreagdl@infosel.net.mx

Shamillah Wilson is the Young Women and Leadership Programme Manager for the Association for Women’s Rights in Develop- ment. Address: 221 Lawrence Road, Crawford, Athlone, Western Cape 7764, South Africa. swilson@awid.org


1 In this article, we use the terms women’s and feminist movement interchangeably. When we refer to the movement, we are talking about the organisation of efforts (advocacy, mobilizing, resistance and so on) toward achieving gender equality and social justice.


Marcela, L (1989) ‘Enemistad y sororidad: hacia una nueva cultura feminista’, Memoria 25, Centro de Estudios del Movimiento Obrero y socialista, Mexico

Click here to download: The women’s movement in the era of globalisation: does it face extinction?