[Feminist Nationalism]

By Gabriel, Christina; West, Lois A. | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall/Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

[Feminist Nationalism]


Gabriel, Christina, West, Lois A., Resources for Feminist Research


The scholarship on nationalism has grown enormously in the past 20 years. Theories of nationalism have been vigorously debated as we enter the new millennium. More often than not this discourse has neglected to consider the ways in which processes of nationalism are profoundly gendered. Feminist scholars have attempted not only to critique these lapses but to develop alternative conceptualizations. Feminist Nationalism is one such attempt. Its stated purpose is to "incorporate gender ... into a definition of nationalism that places women in the centre and acknowledges feminist nationalism as a process of interaction developed between women and men, and not solely by men" (p. xxx). As such, this edited collection offers an important contribution to the feminist project of reconceptualizing the phenomenon of nationalism.

Editor Lois West's introductory chapter, "Feminism Constructs Nationalism," provides an overview of some key interventions that animate scholarly discussions of nationalism and thus frames the anthology well. She identifies the androcentrism inherent in many mainstream accounts of nationalism and then presents an overview of some feminist critiques (Walby, 1992; Yuval-Davis and Anthias, 1989; Enloe, 1990; Jayawardena, 1986; Peterson, 1995). The strength of this chapter, however, lies in the attempt to move toward a theory of feminist nationalism. This discussion presents a much needed counterpoint to many current "malestream" treatments of nationalism.

Drawing on her earlier work (1992), West distinguishes between three different types of feminist nationalist movements: historical national liberation social movements; movements against neocolonialism; and, identity rights movements that "wage struggles internal to their societies." In the latter case she cites "minority rights movements by Chicanas or African-Americans in the United States, and the feminist movement led by women of Quebec" (p. xxxi). This characterization is somewhat problematic because it can be argued that the aspirations of Quebecoise feminists for a sovereign nation-state are qualitatively different from the struggles of Chicanos or African-Americans for minority rights within the American nation-state. And, while West asserts that elements of each type of nationalism overlap, it may have been useful to distinguish more carefully between identity rights movements.

The volume is organized by region: Europe; Middle East/Central Asia/Africa; Asia and the Pacific Islands; and the Americas. Indeed, geographical region seems to be the only rationale for grouping cases as diverse as Korea and Hawai'i together. This does not detract, however, from the overall purpose. Two guiding assumptions help to focus this collection. Firstly, as West writes: "feminist theory is necessary to understanding the construction of gender, nations and states by placing women at the centre," (p. xxi). However, this insight is coupled with a recognition that gendered nationalism is the outcome of a process of construction specific to particular contexts. Thus, West calls for a "gendered cultural relativism" which she defines as "the relativizing of the struggles of feminists and nationalists to their historical, cultural, social and economic times and place" (p. xxxi). To greater and lesser extents these assumptions inform the 12 detailed case studies that follow from the introduction.

Two comparative overviews stand alone in a volume of country specific cases. The first is Gisela Kaplan's survey, "Feminism and Nationalism: The European Case." Reviewing key historical events, Kaplan attempts to show how historically feminism and nationalism are "almost always incompatible ideological positions within the European context" (p.3). The two exceptions, she highlights, are 19th century Italy and 20th century Finland. The chapter ends with a discussion of developments toward supranational alliances and the implications for women. Given the adoption of the Schengen Agreement and the deployment of stronger internal immigration controls for some groups of people it would have been useful if this last section also considered the impact of such trends upon those women positioned as "European" and those represented as "minority," "guestworker" or "migrant. …

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