Women's Movements, Identity Politics, and Policy Impacts: A Study of Policies on Violence against Women in the 50 United States

Article excerpt

Scholars of social movements and democratic political theorists have argued that "identity politics" weakens social movements and undermines their influence on public policy. I offer a theoretical argument that at least some forms of "identity politics" likely have the reverse effects. In particular, when marginalized groups organize around ascriptive characteristics or "social location," they generate knowledge about the social group, strengthen participants' feelings of affiliation with the movement, produce more representative movement agendas, and create the building blocks for broader coalitions. In a study of the U.S., I find that separate organization by women of color strengthens women's movements, and indirectly improves government responsiveness both to violence against women of color in particular and to violence against women in general.

Are "identity politics" weakening contemporary social movements? Social movement scholars and political theorists have argued that identity politics divides movements and reduces their political effectiveness (Gitlin 1995; Tarrow 1998; Taylor and Whittier 1999; Echols 1989; Harvey 1996). In particular, the impulse towards separate organization around specific social positions (such as women's caucuses or African-American-centered groups) is seen especially as balkanizing. But others have argued for a more nuanced view of "identity politics," arguing that separate organization can be critical for empowering and engaging marginalized groups in democratic political life (Young 2000; Gutmann 2003). Drawing on this work, I suggest that separate organizing around social position can create more inclusive social movements and lay the groundwork for cooperation across social cleavages.

I engage this debate by investigating the relationship between women's movements' organizational efforts to recognize racial divisions and policy responsiveness to violence against women across the 50 states. Policy responsiveness is examined both as it pertains to women in general and as it relates specifically to women of color.1 I find that states where women of color organize separately are likely to have stronger women's movements, and consequently greater government responsiveness both to violence against women of color in particular and to violence against women in general. This suggests that the most vulnerable segments of society, and social movements more generally, benefit from organizational mechanisms that recognize diversity.


Do identity politics advance or undermine social movements2? The answer to this question depends partly on what is meant by identity politics (Young 2000). Todd Gitlin (1995: 141), one of the best-known critics of identity politics, defines identity politics as an impulse toward separate organization (such as the formation of caucuses) with an aim to imbue formerly denigrated group-identities with more positive meaning or to develop a group culture (141). Such organization requires drawing strict boundaries around group members based on ascriptive characteristics (gender, race, etc.).

Critics of identity politics worry that organizing around separate "identities" weakens social movements. Gitlin, for example, argues that identity politics have fractured and weakened the Left in the United States. Tarrow (1998: 119) notes that "In fact, identity politics often produces insular, sectarian, and divisive movements incapable of expanding membership, broadening appeals, and negotiating with prospective allies." Similarly, Taylor and Whittier (1999: 174) note that they "agree with the dominant view that disputes over sexuality, class, and race contributed to the decline of the radical feminist branch of the movement." see also Echols, 1989).3 Critics of identity politics argue that separate organization undermines movement identity, distracts activists from important political issues, and prevents the construction of a common political agenda. …