March, the women’s month…and this is a last “hurrah.”
Women and women’s collectives are not homogenous.
Women have layered identities where gender intersects with class, race, ethnicity, religion, and political ideology. For example, the Western feminist movement was once seen as largely white, thereby, not able to capture the oppression of colored women nor the narrative of colonization. Women representing other women eventually became questionable — genuine representation meant representing one’s self and not having another person do it for you. Thus, the struggle then became that of participation and not just representation. White women no longer spoke on behalf of colored women because colored women spoke for themselves.
In the same manner, peasant women, indigenous women, Muslim women, women laborers, women rebels, women soldiers, lesbians, transwomen, etc. all have the voice to speak for themselves and they must seize all spaces for them to be able to do so. Look closely at the so called ‘women making history’ in the 116th US Congress, the election of the following ‘firsts’: the first Muslim woman, the first youngest woman, the first Native American woman, the first black and Latina Congresswomen from certain states. These women image gender interfacing with other identity markers and are in the legislative space with no other representing their collective except them.
The feminist movement and the women’s movement are also not one and the same. They are related but nonetheless distinct from one another. The former is marked with its challenge against the structure of patriarchy and the hyper/toxic masculinist values they perpetuate; it works both as an analytical frame and as a social movement to combat it. The latter, on the other hand, is preoccupied with activism, with being an integral part of a social movement for change, specifically, as it relates to the multiple facets of women’s lives.
These movements did (and still do) clash — women contesting women on issues such as abortion, divorce, sexuality, prostitution/sex work — and the battle fronts have been in public discourses, legislation and policy formulation. Failure to nuance the distinction may tend to lose the significant criticality of both movement and issue.
This is a call for a learning moment — women and movements are heterogeneous.
And what about women’s leadership? On the one hand, women supposedly have so much to prove by being an anti-thesis to men’s leadership and by debunking weakness as it has been equated to being a woman.
But then you have the phenomenal rise of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: from being the second woman Head of State to give birth while in public office, to making United Nations history by bringing her baby during the 73rd General Assembly meeting, and to taking the world public by storm with her grace, compassion, and courage amidst the recent terrorist attack in her country. One could argue that all of these are but ordinary things for a woman to do. But what made them extraordinary is the fact that a woman leader has done them publicly, almost naturally. Empathy and emotions, usually seen as weak points of women leaders, are now viewed as strengths.
On the other hand, there are also other women leaders who may ride on prevailing male leadership norms. Their gender is not really seen as something significant to the way they govern — they are pragmatic and calculating like any other male leaders. Masculine leadership persona is attached to women leaders, imaging them as “male” leaders in women’s bodies — aggressive, competitive, even brutal. But come to think of it, isn’t it possible that the imaging of so called “Iron Ladies” is from a “male gaze,” borne out of men’s masculine narcissism? If that is the case, then male leaders are attributing and claiming strength to their gender and not to that of the woman’s.
The counter-fact is, women are strong leaders by themselves and make a difference without being imaged as masculine. In this regard, a recent study by Perkins and Phillips discussed in the Harvard Business Review found that women leaders of diverse countries are “significantly more likely than male leaders to have fast-growing economies.” They cited Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirlief who advanced inclusive leadership, tolerance, centrality of reconciliation, unraveling the benefits of diversity, and simply, making sure that no one will feel left behind. For the first five years of her administration, the economic growth rate was higher than that of her male predecessors.
This is a call to set things straight — there is no longer a dichotomy.
Nowadays, there seems to be a resurgence of authoritarianism in different parts of the world and as an article by Beinart in The Atlantic aptly entitled it, “The New Authoritarians are Waging War against Women.” According to Beinart, looking at the experiences of the United States of America, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Italy, and the Philippines, the common denominator is: “They all want to subordinate women.”
Women’s empowerment disrupts male dominance and in an authoritarian setting, is unacceptable. For authoritarian leaders, equality between men and women is an absurdity and the women’s place is under men, both literally and figuratively. And thus we see a litany of insults, devaluation, objectification and sexualization, demonization, and dehumanization of women — day in and day out, in whatever media platform, in a variety of images.
We also see women fighting other women…women defending men who have done wrong, who continue to do wrong…women backing up men’s authoritarian rule.
At this point we may need to harvest from our heterogeneity, give birth to a feminist movement against patriarchal authoritarianism, prop up weak institutions and nurture incorruptible rule of law, find strength in our compassion and non-negotiable dignity and humanity, and advance a transformative politics of inclusion, respect, and care. No one else should voice these but us, the women who resist the structure of gendered-violence of an authoritarian regime.
We don’t need strong women to resist strong men…we need ordinary sisterhood in an extraordinary time — this is the call.
Ma. Lourdes Veneracion-Rallonza, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University