[Invited Review Article] Feminisms

Muller, Nadine and Claire O’Callaghan, “Feminisms”, Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, 21 (2013)

Below you can find the introduction to this article. For the full advance access .pdf version, please click here.



women-cyberactivism-arab-springWithin the realm of feminism, 2011 is undoubtedly a year in which the unstable and artificial distinctions that are still often drawn between feminist theory, practice and activism were shaken by women taking to the streets in attempts to claim their rights as humans, citizens, and political, sexual and intellectual agents. With uprisings by both men and women in Tunisia having begun in late 2010, the following year witnessed numerous countries – such as Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria – follow the Tunisian example through mass protests against existing regimes and leaders. The success of each of these uprisings remains to be determined, not only because conflicts are on-going (with some leaders, including Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, overthrown, and others, such as Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Bahrain, still in power) but also because the road of political change, as so often, proves a treacherous one, not least for women. With clashes between religious and secular political groups in the writing of new constitutions, women’s places within these new systems remain hotly contested, and their concerns often are considered of low priority. In Libya, despite concerted efforts by groups such as the Voice of Libyan Women,[1] ‘women have been excluded from much of the serious decision-making’.[2] In other countries, women remain in danger of harassment and assault outside the home in particular, including in Egypt.[3] To date, these issues continue to raise awareness of the global relevance of feminism, far beyond what has been attributed – usually wrongly – as its primary geographic ground: the West.

1349548523-slutwalk-takes-place-in-paris_1505828There, too, however, feminist activism has seen a continuing revival, with April 2011 witnessing the inception of the so-called ‘SlutWalk’ marches in Toronto, Canada, a phenomenon that soon spread to cities in the US, UK, Australia and India. Conceived first as a response to a police officer’s claim that, in order to avoid rape, ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts’,[4] the walks – in which many women choose to participate in sparse clothing, holding signs proclaiming ‘slut’ – protest against victim-blaming in cases of sexual violence and advocate women’s ownership of their bodies. Next to reclaiming the streets and their bodies, the SlutWalk activists also arguably reclaim the term after which their protests are named in an attempt to subvert the male-determined value system inherent in such language. Emily Nussbaum, in New York Magazine, controversially branded SlutWalk as ‘the rebirth of the feminist manifesto’, a statement that represents one end of the scale of feminists’ responses to the protests. At the other end of that scale, however, stand those who not only feel the SlutWalkers’ aims and methods are inherently contradictory but who also suggest they replicate the white, heterosexual, middle-class prejudices of which feminists of the 1960s and 70s have been accused so often.[5]

WACWithin the context of the global financial crisis, in 2011 the UK also saw protests against ever-deeper government spending cuts that continue to affect the majority of British society, but in particular women, be it in the form of welfare cuts, less (part-time and/or flexible) jobs, or reduced take-home wages, all of which are detrimental especially those acting as caregivers (parental or otherwise). Funding cuts to the third sector have resulted in crucial charities and other not-for-profit organisations drastically reducing their services or closing their doors entirely, including, for example, Rape Crisis Centres and shelters for women who are survivors of domestic violence and/or homeless. The full extent of the effects of the coalition government’s spending cuts in the public sector, and most notably the reorganisation (or, as many would argue, privatisation) of the National Health Service, remain to be seen, but these too have inspired widespread fears regarding an impact on care standards for the elderly and the disabled,[6] as well as for pregnant women and new mothers.[7]

3d-trees-on-open-book-hd-wallpaperThe texts reviewed in this chapter contribute to these various feminist debates, reminding us, therefore, not only of the inseparability of feminist theory, practice and activism but also of the continuing relevance and contribution of feminist scholarship beyond the academic realms in which it is often conceived. Section I, ‘Introspection: Examining Narratives of Feminism’ reviews Clare Hemmings’ Why Stories Matter and Sylvia Walby’s The Future of Feminism, both of which are concerned with the narrativisation of feminism in popular culture and feminist historiography, examining the effects these narratives have on feminism in the present and the potentials they offer for the future. Part II concentrates on texts that provide a timely exploration of women’s economic and political roles within capitalism and patriarchy: Ann Cud and Nancy Holmstrom’s Capitalism For and Against: A Feminist Debate and Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work. Turning to feminist engagements with religion, the chapter’s final section reviews Linda Alcoff and John D. Caputo’s essay collection Feminism, Sexuality and the Return of Religion and Sherine Hafaz’s monograph An Islam of Her Own.


[1] The Voice of Libyan Women describe themselves as ‘determined Libyans, young and old and from all walks of life, fighting to legitimize the demands that women in Libya have for themselves’. See VLW: Voice of Libyan Women, http://www.vlwlibya.org/.

[2] Giacomo, Carol. ‘Women Fight to Define the Arab Spring’, New York Times (10 November 2012), Accessed: 15 February 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/opinion/sunday/women-fight-to-define-the-arab-spring.html.

[3] Ibid.

[4] ‘“SlutWalk” marches sparked by Toronto officer’s remarks’, BBC News (8 May 2011), Accessed: 13 February 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13320785.  Const. Michael Sanguinetti, the officer in question, later apologized for his remark.

[5] For a detailed discussion of such accusations, see Astrid Henry. Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 16-51.

[6] See, for example: Gentleman, Amelia. ‘Elderly care in the NHS: “There is nowhere for people to go”’. The Guardian (12 July 2011), Accessed: 15 February 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/jul/12/elderly-care-in-nhs; and Gentleman, Amelia. ‘How have the cuts affected disability services?’, The Guardian (30 March 2011), Accessed: 15 February 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/mar/30/cuts-disability-services.

[7] See, for example: ‘Survey shows strong public support to avoid spending cuts to maternity services’, The Royal College of Midwives (22 November 2009), Accessed: 15 February 2013, http://www.rcm.org.uk/college/about/media-centre/press-releases/survey-shows-strong-public-support-to-avoid-spending-cuts-to-maternity-services/.

Books Reviewed

Alcoff, Linda Martin and John D. Caputo (ed). Feminism, Sexuality, and the Return of Religion. Indiana University Press. [2011] pp. 194. hb $24.95 ISBN 9 7802 4322 3043.

Cudd, Ann and Nancy Holmstrom. Capitalism, For and Against: A Feminist Debate. CUP. [2011] pp. 360. pb. £63.00 ISBN 9 7805 2113 2114.

Hafaz, Sherine. An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women’s Islamic Movements. New York University Press. [2011] pp. 208. pb. $21.00 ISBN 9 7808 1477 3055.

Hemmings, Clare. Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory. Duke University Press. [2011] pp. 288. pb. $84.95 ISBN 9 7808 2234 9167.

Walby, Sylvia. The Future of Feminism. Polity Press. [2011] pp. 210. pb. £15.00 ISBN 9 7807 4564 7562.

Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Duke University Press. [2011] pp. 304. pb. $23.95 ISBN 9 7808 2235 1122.