Addressing the Tensions: Reflections on Feminism in the Caribbean1

Article excerpt

Feminism in the Caribbean and the world has been in retreat since the 1980s and the spaces it was able to occupy are getting smaller and smaller. In fact, for the Caribbean, not only is feminism in retreat but the "privatisation" of the "ideology" and "movement" by a few has limited its ability, capacity and potential to grow academically and socially since private control has a way of stifling creativity. Associated to this, feminism in the Caribbean has run aground, foundering on the rocks of "genderism". Recently, Caribbean feminists took time out to 'recentre Caribbean feminism'. And in so doing they discussed issues relating to the relationships between race, class, gender and ethnicity and the state, Caribbean sexuality and the various "feminisms" which exist or are present in the region.

While the conference discussion did not offer any new thinking in terms of feminist theorising in the Caribbean, it was, nonetheless, interesting since it provided a forum for an exchange between younger and older feminists and indicated that if feminism was to survive the older feminists must, of necessity, loosen private control and yield protected ground to the younger women, both in academia and the wider social realm. It also pointed out that older feminists ought to have a clearer definition of 'feminism', particularly in relationship to the concept and use of the term 'gender'. It also noted the weaknesses (which hithertofore were either ignored or were not understood) of 'feminists' and the existing feminist practice which ought to be addressed in a fundamental way if the objective is continuity and action towards social justice.

However, for me, the concept and theme of the discussion raised some critical questions which the sessions did not answer. First, what was feminism the centre of? Was feminism ever at the centre of political, ideological, social or academic discourse? If it were, what were the factors which led to its decentring? What replaced it at the centre? Was it replaced by "genderism"? Why is there a need to recentre it and how can it be "recentred"? Who or what is responsible for creating or facilitating the recentring process?3 What is the role of unemployed, low income and working class, rural and urban women in this process? What constitutes the recentring process? Is there a role for women of faith in the discussions on feminism in the Caribbean? Are they included in the recentring process?

This paper will simply be a reflection, or rather a commentary, on the ideas and practice of feminism in the Anglophone Caribbean. My views will be based on my own involvement in the women's movement for over 30 years and my current work with women throughout the region. This paper, then, will try to reflect generally on the origins and current status of feminism and its submissiveness to "genderism". It will touch on aspects of its exclusiveness as it relates specifically to women of faith who have been upheld for a long time by feminists (not only in the Caribbean) as 'reactionary' and unable to contribute to the women"s struggle for change. This aspect, I see as contributing to the stunted growth of feminism as a movement.

Each section which is critical to understanding the phenomenon of "feminism" in the Caribbean will be independent, though connected.

Feminism: Its Origins and Current Status

The history of feminism in the Caribbean is intricately bound up with the history of feminism in the United States of America where feminists first came to political prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s when second wave feminism emerged attendant on the new left and civil rights movements.

This Euro-feminism appeared in the Caribbean in the mid to late 1970s and seemed to be different in the sense that it attempted to carve out a space as a new and unique intellectual and political formation. For the Caribbean, then, it was a feminism which had its roots in the experiences of white middle class North American women, experiences which have been generalised as the experiences of all women regardless of race, class, ethnicity, nationality, culture, political affiliation, sexual orientation or religious conviction. …