Activism and Social Movements

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Activism and Social Movements

Organized by: Jennifer L. Bronson, Howard University, Department of Sociology

Updated by: Jenny Lendrum, Wayne State University

Through time and space women have been important advocates for social justice; however, much of the research on social movements focuses on male experiences or does not use a gendered approach in its analysis. The experiences of female activists, their motivations, and reasons for becoming involved in political action often differ from men and these differences are important to understand for future movement building. This collection of articles discusses women activists and women’s social movements from around the world. Together, they illustrate the wide variety of injustices women are working to rectify as well as the challenges and successes. Many of these research articles discuss the importance of understanding the role played by individual and collective identity in motivating political action. This is particularly vital when an individual holds multiple minority statuses (e.g. the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality). Students will be inspired not only by the contributions of women to social change, but to also explore how their own social identity shapes their involvement in social justice work.

Borland, Elizabeth, and Barbara Sutton. 2007. Quotidian disruption and women’s activism in times of crisis, Argentina 2002-2003. Gender & Society, 21 (6): pp. 700-722.

Argentina recently underwent a period of economic crisis that shook societal foundations. People turned to collective action for social and political change, and women were at the forefront of many protests. This crisis offers an opportunity to study a moment of “quotidian disruption”—when routine practices and ingrained assumptions are threatened—as an impetus for mobilization. The authors draw on ethnographic observations and analyze 44 in-depth interviews with activist women in Argentina to explore their responses to quotidian disruption. The authors show that the Argentine crisis challenged everyday practices and expectations that were often gendered, fostering activism that drew on previous social frameworks while also creating new ones. Activism became a new quotidian for many women and transformed their identities and experiences with politics and gender relations. 

Coe, Anna-Britt. 2015. I Am Not Just a Feminist Eight Hours a Day” Youth Gender Justice Activism in Ecuador and Peru. Gender & Society, 29 (6): pp. 888-913.

This article focuses on youth feminist political action in Ecuador and Peru and its relationship to contemporary gender hierarchies. I examine how and why youth gender justice activists understand their political action differently from the professionalized adult feminists who mobilize them. Grounded theory was used to collect and analyze interviews with 21 young women and men activists on gender justice. Youth activists seek cultural changes using social advocacy to target the family, household, and intimate partnerships, what I describe as politicizing the sociocultural. They develop new ways of perceiving political action in response to challenges produced by emergent gender hierarchies, which they understand as blurred gender inequalities or processes that simultaneously enable and constrain gender equality. 

Culley, Marci R., and Holly L. Angelique. 2003. Women’s gendered experiences as long-term Three Mile Island activists.” Gender & Society, 17(3): pp.445-461.

This article examines women who have been antinuclear activists at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant for two decades. Qualitative interviews focus on their perceived transformations over time that are based on gender and everyday experiences. They perceive gender as both a barrier and a facilitator to activism, even after 20 years. Women describe their technological education as one strategy to overcome the barrier of gender. On the other hand, they consider the gendered role of motherhood as a primary catalyst for action. In addition, they discuss individual everyday experiences focused on the health concerns for family members that influenced their political activity. Over time, women linked personal transformations with increased political understanding and involvement. 

Einwohner, Rachel L., Jocelyn A. Hollander, Toska Olson. 2000. Engendering social movements: Cultural images and movement dynamics. Gender & Society 14(5): 679-699.

This article discusses the role of gender in social movements. First, the authors create a typology of the ways in which social movements are gendered – gendered composition, gendered goals, gendered tactics, gendered identities, and gendered attributions. Second, they explore the processes by which movements are or become gendered. Finally, the implications for social movement outcomes are discussed with a focus on the “double bind” faced by movements attached to femininity. The authors write that gender in a social movement may be beneficial or detrimental to its goals and legitimacy. Social movements from the United States, Europe and Latin America are used for illustration. They conclude by calling for more gendered analyses of social movements. 

Zajicek, Anna M. 2002. Race discourses and antiracist practices in a local women’s movement. Gender & Society 16(2): 155-174.

This research examines the role of race and racial discourses on the politics of white women activists. The women’s movement has been criticized for its failure to adequately include women of color or address racism. Multiracial feminism developed to address these critiques and is the framing theory used to examine whiteness and white privilege. Interviews were conducted with 46 white, female activists involved in the women’s movement between 1972 and1999. Based on the interviews, the author uncovered five discourse themes: the absence of whiteness, power reversal, symbolic multiculturalism, reification, and strategic power. The most prevalent theme, absence of whiteness, refers to discussions of race in terms of being “nonwhite” or excluding “white” from race. Of the five, strategic power represented the most progressive, antiracist repertoire. This research points to the importance of including race in an analysis, particularly the role of white identity, in feminist social movements. 

Kuumba, M. Bahati. 2002. “You’ve struck a rock”: Comparing gender, social movements and transformation in the United States and South Africa. Gender & Society 16(4): 504-523.

Women in the U.S. and South African played a key part in the Civil Rights and anti-apartheid movements. Although ending racism was the central goal of these movements, women activists became involved due to the intersection of multiple oppressions, such as race, class and gender inequality. This research seeks to understand the role of political opportunities for males and females, gender power relations, and gendered structures on activist participation and outcomes. This gendered perspective on activism allows us to consider the different experiences and realities of male and female activists and in turn, how this shapes social movements. 

Reger, Jo. 2002. Organizational dynamics and construction of multiple feminist identities in the National Organization of Women. Gender & Society 16(5): 710-727.

This article discusses theories of identity formation and how this process contributes to collective identities. In addition, she explores the mechanisms through which women’s organizations express different definitions of feminism. A case study of two National Organization of Women (NOW) chapters is conducted to answer these questions. The chapters were located in Cleveland, Ohio and New York City. Data came from 25 interviews with NOW members and relevant archival records. The researcher discovered that the two chapters differed in organizational dynamics, such as membership diversity and consistency of leaders. These meso-level factors in turn influenced the collective identities of the members. 

Bayard de Volo, Lorraine. 2004. Mobilizing mothers for war: Cross-national framing strategies in Nicaragua’s Contra War. Gender & Society 18(6): 715-734.

During the Nicaraguan Contra War, Sandinistas and Anti-Sandinistas worked to mobilize mothers in order to support their respective positions. For both groups, “mother” was synonymous with “woman” and effectively elevated maternal identity and discourse over other roles and identities. Frame analysis is used to analyze the maternal framing techniques used to support or protest war efforts. Maternal framing in wartime is not a feature of most wars; rather, it develops in the social context. The Sandinista State utilized a maternal framing discourse to drum up domestic and international support for the war. Conversely, the Anti-Sandinistas and U.S. State Department organized mothers to protest the draft and political prisoners.  In both cases, the State and its opposition are attracted to the symbolism of mothers and maternalism. This research contributes to our understanding of the importance of organizing women’s support for or against war efforts. 

Gordon, Hava Rachel. 2008. Gendered paths to teenage political participation: Parental power, civic mobility, and youth Activism. Gender & Society 22(1): 31-55.

This article proposes that gender shapes “the development, involvement, and visibility” of teenagers as activists. The focus is on understanding the forces that contribute to a teenage girl’s involvement in activism and social movement. A key factor in a youth’s likelihood of engaging in political activity is the role of the parent. While a parent’s ideologies can motivate a young person to become involved in activism, parental concern for the safety of their child may present a barrier.  Findings suggest that girls are more likely than boys to exhibit a disconnect between their political consciousness and degree of action due to parental power. This can have ramifications for future political participation. 

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth and Yvonne Braun. 2010. Coal, identity, and the gendering of environmental justice activism in Central Appalachia. Gender & Society 24(6): 794-813.

Environmental justice movements differ from environment activism in that the focus is on justice for the people who live, work and play near polluted or toxic areas.  Women are typically at the forefront of environmental justice movements, often spurred by their identities as mothers. Bell and Braun explore this trend by analyzing how women and men’s identities shape environmental justice activism in Central Appalachia coalfields. They conducted 20 interviews with men and women involved in environmental justice movements. They found that in Central Appalachia, masculinity is closely linked with employment in coal mining as well as a “code of silence” that prevents many men from speaking out about injustices. However, some men in the study feel that these issues can be overcome. Other findings support the literature that suggests that it is women’s identities as mothers which prompts their environmental justice activism.

Luna, Z., 2016. “Truly a Women of Color Organization” Negotiating Sameness and Difference in Pursuit of IntersectionalityGender & Society, 30(5), pp.769-790.

Research on the U.S. women’s movement has documented the difficulties of cross-racial work between White women and women of racial/ethnic minorities. Less understood is how racial/ethnic minorities do cross-racial work among themselves to construct a collective identity of “women of color” that encourages solidarity across race, class, and other statuses. Drawing on research from the reproductive justice movement, I examine how women of color organizations that strive for intersectional praxis negotiate sameness and difference. I identify two different logics at work within women of color organizations: the first relies on a presumption of “same difference” that emphasizes similar experiences of gender and race oppression; the second accords greater recognition to the “difference-in-sameness” that structures constituents’ lived experiences. While the former can reproduce precisely those forms of silencing and exclusion that women of color organizations seek to challenge, the second remains a (necessarily) ongoing process. The article concludes that women of color organizations must strive continuously to actively negotiate, rather than assume, commonality if they are to avoid reproducing various forms of marginalization and inequality.

Zion-Waldoks, T., 2015. Politics of devoted resistance: Agency, feminism, and religion among Orthodox agunah activists in Israel. Gender & Society, 29(1), pp.73-97.

This study explores how religious women become legitimate actors in the public sphere and analyzes their agency—its meanings, capacities, and transformative aims. It presents a novel case study of Israeli Modern-Orthodox Agunah activists who engage in highly politicized collective feminist resistance as religious actors working for religious ends. Embedded in and activated by Orthodoxy, they advocate women’s rights to divorce, voicing a moral critique of tradition and its agents precisely because they are devoutly devoted to them. Such political agency is innovatively conceptualized as “devoted resistance”: critique within relationship, enabled by cultural schema, and comprising both interpretive skills and “relational-autonomy” capacities. This study contends that understanding agency within religious grammars reveals its underlying logics, highlighting how structures shape the meanings and realization of women’s varied “agentive capacities.” It challenges current dichotomies like feminism/religion, resistance/submission, and autonomy/dependence. Overall, the author argues for a nuanced, culturally specific, capacity-based, relational approach to analyzing religious women’s agency.

Peretz, T., 2017. Engaging diverse men: An intersectional analysis of men’s pathways to antiviolence activism. Gender & Society, 31(4), pp.526-548.

Despite the demonstrated utility of intersectionality, research on men allied with women’s rights movements has largely focused on white, heterosexual, middle-class, young men. This study illustrates the importance of attending to men’s intersecting identities by evaluating the applicability of existing knowledge about men’s engagement pathways to the predominantly African American members of a Muslim men’s anti–domestic violence group and a gay/queer men’s gender justice group. Findings from a year-long qualitative study highlight how these men’s experiences differ from those in the literature. While the Muslim men’s experiences add dimension to the existing knowledge—especially regarding age and parenthood, online interactions, and formal learning opportunities—the gay/queer men’s experiences are not accurately represented within it. Their pathways begin earlier, do not rely on women’s input, do not create a shift in gendered worldview, and lack a pathway narrative because they connect to gender justice through their own intersecting identities and experiences. This suggests that a marginalized identity is not in itself sufficient to alter engagement pathways; the particular type of marginalization matters.

Whittier, N., 2016. Carceral and intersectional feminism in congress: The violence against women act, discourse, and policy. Gender & Society, 30(5), pp.791-818.

This paper uses a materialist feminist discourse analysis to examine how women’s movement organizations, liberal Democrats, and conservative Republican legislators shaped the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the consequences for intersectional and carceral feminism. Drawing on qualitative analysis of Congressional hearings, published feminist and conservative discussion of VAWA, and accounts of feminist mobilization around VAWA, I first show how a multi-issue coalition led by feminists shaped VAWA. Second, I show how discourses of crime intermixed with feminism into a polysemic gendered crime frame that facilitated cross-ideological support. Third, I show how, in contrast, intersectional issues that activists understood as central to violence against women were discursively and structurally separated from gendered crime in Congress. Although a multi-issue movement coalition advocated for expansions in VAWA dealing with immigrants, unmarried partners, same-sex partners, transgender people, and Native Americans, these issues were understood in Congress through more controversial single-issue discourses and often considered in administratively separate Congressional committees. Fourth, I show how VAWA’s outcomes played out in terms of carceral and intersectional feminist goals.