Neoliberalism, Gender, and Development: Institutionalizing "Post-Feminism" in Medellin, Colombia

Article excerpt

Those of us in this type of institution, I think we sometimes, in order to maintain ourselves there, have to lower the tone of critique that subverts, or the permanent subversion of the daily-ness of the patriarchy . . . and in fact, you do not have to be feminist in order to work in a program for women in NGOs. What are the qualifications that they require? Women who have knowledge of the theory of gender!1

-Feminist NGO director, Medellin, Colombia

In what context does this woman's distinction between being a "feminist" and having "knowledge of the theory of gender" make sense? After all, it is feminists who have created the theory of "gender" and who have worked hard for its integration into mainstream development work. How is it that a woman in Medellin, Colombia, has come to see knowledge of gender as not feminist, perhaps even "anti-feminist?"

Like all theoretical tools and discourses, the theory of gender is always interpreted by persons within particular social contexts and with particular orientations to the social world. In the context of an increasing neoliberal hegemony, states are shrinking their development budgets, seeking new ways to economize, and gender policies are of course implicated in these changes (Babb 2001; Rosen and McFedyen 1995). At the same time, feminists have been so successful at flagging the importance of considering women's participation in development that governments are compelled to attend to gender issues if they want to receive development monies (Young 1993; Alvarez 1999). With the need to downsize and yet still attend to women, states increasingly turn to feminist NGOs to provide services and expert knowledge. What the quotation above refers to is the tendency for an increasing number of these NGOs to provide states with knowledge of the theory of gender minus the feminist critique of gendered power relations (see also Alvarez 1999; Lebon 1996, 1998; Thayer 2000, 2001; Lind 2000; Garcia Castro 2001).

From 1998 to 2000, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork among state and city development agencies as well as several feminist NGOs in Medellin, Colombia. Knowing that discourses rarely (if ever) translate directly, I asked, What does gender perspective mean in the context of Medellin? What is the impact of the substitution of gender perspective for earlier references to feminist? Is it a move "beyond" feminism, as some in Medellin claimed? Or is it more like the "anti-politics" machine that Ferguson (1994 [1990]) claimed for development discourses more generally and that Scott (1988) and others have cautioned against in relation to the term gender m particular?

In this article, I discuss how both state officials and local feminist organizations used the gender perspective discourse. While there were some positive associations with this discourse, there was also evidence that under neoliberal regimes, it could justify a hostile reception to subversive feminist politics. Specifically, when used by state actors, it seemed to delegitimate feminist critiques of essentialized linkages between femininity, women, and motherhood. As Babb (2001) observed in Nicaragua, I found the local government in a neoliberal economic context eager to reinscribe domesticity upon women, to reassociate them with their children and families as against feminist attempts to establish women's individual subjectivity.

Feminists working in NGOs appreciated the ability of the "gender perspective" to "move beyond" feminists' exclusive focus on women. However, they also feared the retrenchment it seemed to signal in some hands, especially as the reinscription of domesticity signaled a particularly hostile attitude toward the most controversial feminist issues, such as abortion and homosexuality. Far from a move "beyond" feminism, it seemed more like a move around feminism, toward a "post-feminism" that would arrive long before the subversive promises of feminism were realized. …