The Women’s Movement in Protest, Institutions and the Internet

As Jo Reger noted recently (here) the death of feminism has been regularly announced in the West, while at the same time feminism has never been so pervasive – everywhere and nowhere as she says. Our own study set out to map the trajectory of the women’s movement in Australia and to discover why death notices have been so common.

One reason was the nature of the news media. The protest event database we compiled, covering 35 years, showed that the media lost interest in the women’s movement when it was no longer ‘new’ and hence ‘news’. For example, major metropolitan newspapers stopped providing coverage of International Women’s Day marches, even when these continued to be large events.

Cessation of media coverage of street protest contributed to a shift in repertoire. But the loss of media visibility and shift in repertoire led many to conclude the women’s movement was ‘over’. This was far from the case, as was clear from the institutions database that we compiled, which mapped all of the policy agencies and women’s services created by or in response to the women’s movement. Again this covered a period of 35 years and all Australian jurisdictions (like the USA, Australia has a federal system). It is the only attempt we know of to map all the institutions originating in a social movement. Peaks in protest activity and institution-building roughly coincided, but in some sectors such as domestic violence and sexual assault, the establishment of refuges and rape crisis centres helped sustain protest activity [see Figure 4.6 below].Sawer_blogimage1

 Establishment of rape crisis and sexual assault services compared to women’s movement protests about sexual and other violence (reported in Sydney Morning Herald) – New South Wales – 1970-2005.

Our data confirmed the doubts already raised by Verta Taylor and others over whether social movements should be defined in terms of non-institutional protest activity. Such definitions contributed to perceptions that the women’s movement was ‘over’ even when its influence was spreading around the globe through transnational institutions and advocacy networks. Strange, for example, that gender electoral quotas were being adopted in more than 100 countries despite the declarations that feminism was dead. If the equation of social movements with non-institutionalised protest activity were accepted, it would also mean that the successful campaigns for women’s political rights in Australia and New Zealand in the late 19th century did not involve women’s movements – which is clearly wrong.

Our own definition of women’s movement encompasses the mobilisation of a collective identity as women, the sustaining of women-centred discourses and the making of claims challenging the gender order. How collective identity is mobilised, often drawing on heroic struggles of the past to motivate present action, is itself an interesting question. Our definition does not require non-institutionalised forms of protest activity and it does not assume that institutionalisation should be viewed in negative terms, as signalling the end of a period of transformative protest activity. We suggest, on the contrary, that protest activity and institution-building are just two of the multiple repertoires adopted by social movements. In general, social movements require institutionalisation to achieve long-term agendas. Only empirical research can show the extent to which institutions are able to maintain social movement values over time.

The visualisation we have done to make our data accessible [here] shows how extensive feminist institution-building has been inside and outside government in Australia and at intergovernmental levels. It also shows the relative vulnerability of different types of institutions – for example, in Australia, working women’s centres collided with government agendas to decentralise wage bargaining.  However, institution-building continues despite the supposed death of feminism – for example, the number of national women’s advocacy organisations has continued to grow and to be more closely networked internationally. The Internet has facilitated organising at national and international levels, particularly when face-to-face meetings involve the additional costs presented by distance or disability. Feminist communities have also been thriving on the Internet and in Australia feminist social media campaigns have provided rapid response to egregious incidents of sexism in public life, including the vilification of recent Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Our project encompassed manifold manifestations of the women’s movement, from roller derby to slut walking and feminist music programs.  Drude Dahlerup, Myra Marx Ferree and Christina Ewig have provided chapters for our book, confirming the relevance of the Australian mapping project to understanding the trajectories of women’s movements in other Western democracies. Our conclusion is that despite the threats posed to the ‘woman-friendly state’ by neoliberal agendas, the women’s movement continues to evolve in new forms. As Myra Marx Ferree has said, change in repertoire does not have to mean that values have been abandoned.

By Marian Sawer, Australian National University, on her new book with Sarah Maddison, The Women’s Movement in Protest, Institutions and the Internet: Australia in Transnational Perspective.


4 thoughts on “The Women’s Movement in Protest, Institutions and the Internet

  1. Thank you for sharing the results of this important research. I like your definition of women’s movements and your attention to multiple repertoires of contention. Your media analysis is helpful in understanding the mismatch between the proliferation of feminist obituaries and actual feminist mobilization– the table is illustrative and will be helpful to cite in my own research. As news outlets use different methods for information dissemination, like Twitter, and as information spreads more rapidly, I wonder if this will allow more protest events to be brought the fore?

  2. I was happy to collaborate with Christina Ewig to contribute to this important project by laying out a picture of how feminist organizing outside Australia has also persisted and changed over time. I think recognizing the variety of repertoires that social movements use to produce changes in values and practices is crucial for understanding not only the survival but the effectiveness of feminism. This research is truly pathbreaking in showing those changes in repertoire over decades of activism. Maybe it is “obvious” that blogging is not the same as building shelters for battered women and that neither of these is the same as having a big media event! As Sarah Sobieraj has shown in her book SOUNDBITTEN, movements can go astray by just chasing media visibility; the other side of the story is that movements can be proclaimed dead when the media moves away. What Sawer and her colleagues show in the Australian case is that there the women’s movement resisted the temptation to chase the media and built institutions that survive “death” notices and work to overcome backlash in innovative ways. The tools that the internet provides are not going to be effective in themselves however – they need ideas to propel them (like the turn to bystander interventions to prevent rape on campus)! The transnational circulation of innovations (to and from Australia, Scandinavia or the US or UK) is a crucial piece of the survival of women’s movement and that is a story that remains to be told.

  3. I think the insight that media attention plays a role in societal views of a movement’s viability is an important reminder of how often movements are judged on perceptions and not data. Data is just what this book provides! I am excited to see more and more scholarship emerging looking at 21st century feminism, particularly in a global context. The rapid spread of slut walks in 2011 and 2012 is an important reminder of the work still to be done on the feminist agenda and the need for scholars to continue to examine how women and men organize to change their lives.

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