Activism and Social Movements

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Activism and Social Movements

Organized by: Jennifer L. Bronson, Howard University
Updated by: Erielle Jones, University of Illinois – Chicago

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.

Ward, Kristy. 2022. “Gender Regimes and Cambodian Labor Unions.” Gender & Society 36 (4): 578–601.
Globally, labor unions have been criticized for being highly gendered, patriarchal organizations that struggle to engage with, and represent, women. In Cambodia, the disparity between women’s activism and organizational power is particularly acute. Women workers are the face of the labor movement, yet they remain excluded from union leadership despite some movement toward more progressive gender policies within unions. Using data from semi-structured interviews with workers and union leaders in the construction and garment sectors, I illustrate how gendered narratives and practices of control are mobilized through gender regimes that operate in the household, the workplace, and unions. I propose an analytical framework that incorporates these three interlocking gender regimes to draw attention to the contradictory role of unions in advocating for worker rights while depoliticizing women’s activism and sustaining gender inequity. I argue that it is the contradictory relationship between these regimes that entrenches women’s subordination within unions despite their numerical strength.

Rose, Ariana. 2022. “‘Dutch Racism is not Like Anywhere Else’: Refusing Color-Blind Myths in Black Feminist Otherwise Spaces”. Gender & Society, 36(2), 239–263.
Despite myths of color-blindness in the Netherlands, Black women are marginalized by mainstream expectations of racial and cultural homogeneity. I use Amsterdam Black Women as a case study to illustrate the lived experiences of women affected by this exclusion. In this space, women freely critique Dutch society through mundane moments of truth-telling, venting, and joking, which enable individual problems to rise to a community level. I explore how subtle configurations of Black feminist organizing can be key sites of healing, experimentation, and political engagement. This research complicates how we understand experiences of misogynoir when race consciousness is blended in a transnational context and how Amsterdam Black Women has made possible the refusal of Dutch norms that require members to accept their oppression silently and support false narratives of progressiveness and color-blindness.

Hutchens, Kendra. 2022. “‘People don’t come in Asking for the Gospel, They come in for a Pregnancy Test!’ Feminizing Evangelism in Crisis Pregnancy Centers”. Gender & Society, 36(2), 165–188.
Led by women, faith-based pregnancy centers constitute the largest segment of the movement to oppose abortion in the United States. These centers provide services for women (e.g., options counseling and ultrasounds) but face criticism for offering assistance motivated and shaped by conservative religious views. In this article, I explore how evangelical staff at two faith-based centers in the western United States conceptualize their work as religious practice and reimagine “doing” evangelism. I draw upon observational, interview, and textual data to show how gender shapes the definition, expression, and affective nature of evangelism. In “feminizing evangelism,” the centers challenge established evangelical practice to “share the gospel,” which necessitates spiritual regulation, a distinct form of emotional labor. In highlighting the emotional complexity of gendering religious practices, this article contributes to scholarly conversations at the intersection of gender, religion, and emotion.

Elmeligy, Nehal. 2022. “Airing Egypt’s Dirty Laundry: BuSSy’s Storytelling as Feminist Social Change.” Gender & Society, 36(1): 112–139.
In this paper, I examine alternative feminist activism and social movements in Egypt by analyzing BuSSy. BuSSy is a performance art group that hosts storytelling workshops and monologues of taboo and “shameful” personal stories that challenge societal and state-sanctioned normative discourses on femininity/womanhood and masculinity/manhood. Drawing on transnational feminist scholarship and queer theory and using collective memory as a lens, I argue that BuSSy’s storytelling is an act of airing Egypt’s dirty laundry, queering normative discourses to enable feminist counter-memorializing. Based on content analysis of secondary data including BuSSy’s published interviews, YouTube videos, website and Facebook images, and testimonies from 2006 to 2020, my analysis reveals BuSSy as curating an “archive of feelings” centralizing gendered narratives of shame. I examine how BuSSy’s affectively contagious storytelling leads to feminist social change by empowering storytellers and listeners. BuSSy’s works create cathartic experiences to shed stigma and shame. Finally, I reconceptualize feminist activism and collective memories outside of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and contribute to the literature on shame by analyzing how BuSSy identifies and counters shame’s silencing power.

Agarwal, Bina. 2021. “Reflections on the Less Visible and Less Measured: Gender and COVID-19 in India.” Gender & Society 35 (2): 244-255.
The gender effects of COVID-19 are complex, and extend much beyond the issues of care work and domestic violence that have captured global attention. Some effects have been immediate, such as job losses, food shortages, and enhanced domestic work burdens; others will emerge in time, such as the depletion of savings and assets and pandemic-related widowhood, which would make recovery difficult. I use examples from India to outline the complexity of such outcomes, the limitations of the many telephone surveys conducted during the pandemic, and the importance of anticipating both the immediate and the sequential effects.
We can anticipate these effects by drawing on our knowledge of preexisting gender inequalities and people’s coping strategies under crises, as well as real-time media alerts. Prior conceptualization can help us design better surveys for capturing both the visible and less visible impact of the pandemic, as well as formulate more effective policies for mitigating the adverse effects. I also highlight the advantages of group-based approaches for protecting women’s livelihoods during such crises, and emphasize the need to create a synergy between feminist theory, evidence gathering, and policy formulation.

Battle, Nishaun T. 2021. “Black Girls and the Beauty Salon: Fostering a Safe Space for Collective Self-Care.” Gender and Society 35 (4): 557-566.
Black girls regularly experience gendered, racial structural violence, not just from formal systems of law enforcement, but throughout their daily lives. School is one of the most central and potentially damaging sites for Black girls in this regard. In this paper, I draw attention to the role of the beauty salon as a space of renewal for Black women and girls as they navigate systems of oppression in their daily lives and report on the ways in which a specific beauty salon in Chesterfield County, Virginia, supported a group of Black high school girls. The study focuses on the exposure of Black girls to carceral measures in school settings and speaks to the role of African-American beauty salons as spaces where collective care from violence can manifest and strategies to interrupt racialized gendered violence against Black girls can emerge. As Co-Investigator of this study funded by the Department of Justice, I created the “scholar-artist-activist lab,” consisting of a small group of undergraduate and graduate students facilitating workshops with a mixed gender group of Black high-school students, to discuss, interact, and participate in social justice-centered exercises. I focus here on the experiences of the Black girls who participated in the study.

Jones, Nikki. 2021. “’I AM A Child!’: A Girl-Child’s Truth and The Lies of Law Enforcement.” Gender & Society 35 (4): 527-537.
On January 29, 2021, a police officer with the Rochester, New York, Police Department pepper-sprayed a 9-year old Black girl who had been handcuffed and forced into the back of a police car. In the struggle that proceeded this moment, an officer yelled at the girl with obvious frustration, “You’re acting like a child!” In this essay, I consider how the girl’s quick retort —“I AM a child!”—interjected a truth into the struggle that had been all but ignored by the armed adults on the scene. I consider how the truth embedded in this girl’s call exposes the lies of law enforcement and, in doing so, lay the seeds of abolitionist imaginings—a call for a system, a world, that would treat a Black girl as if she were a child.

Terriquez, Veronica and Ruth Milkman. 2021. “Immigrant and Refugee Youth Organizing in Solidarity With the Movement for Black Lives.” Gender and Society 35 (4): 577-587.
In recent years, politically active Latinx and Asian American Pacific Islander youth have addressed anti-Black racism within their own immigrant and refugee communities, engaged in protests against police violence, and expressed support for #SAYHERNAME. Reflecting the broader patterns of a new political generation and of progressive social movement leadership, women and nonbinary youth have disproportionately committed to inclusive fights for racial justice. In this essay, through two biographical examples, we highlight the role of grassroots youth organizing groups in training their diverse young members to become effective allies, introducing them to intersectional frameworks that motivate solidarity across racial and ethnic boundaries.

García-Del Moral, Paulina. 2020. “Practicing Accountability, Challenging Gendered State Resistance: Feminist Legislators and Feminicidio in Mexico.” Gender & Society 34 (5): 844-868.
In the late 1990s, Mexican feminists mobilized transnationally to demand state accountability for the feminicidios (feminicides) of women in Ciudad Juarez. Feminicidio refers to the misogynous killing of women and the state’s complicity in this violence by tolerating it with impunity. Drawing on debates of the Mexican Federal Congress (1997–2012) and interviews with feminist state and non-state actors, I examine feminist legislators’ response to transnational activism, which was to pass the “General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence” and to create the penal-type code of feminicidio, which includes provisions to punish negligent state actors. These laws make the state a target of its own punitive power. To pass these acts, feminist legislators faced resistance from male legislators and the Federal Executive. I build on feminist institutionalism to theorize this resistance as gendered. Gendered state resistance was pervasive because feminist legislators practiced accountability by identifying the complicity of state institutions, including Congress, in perpetuating feminicidio. As part of the process, they built alliances with other female legislators and framed their arguments with notions of modern statehood. Although this framing strategy resulted in innovative legal change, I interrogate the assumption that modernity is the solution to feminicidio, because it can lead gendered state resistance to manifest as a simulation of accountability.

Mcreynolds-Pérez, Julia, and Michael S. O’Brien. 2020. “Doing Murga, Undoing Gender: Feminist Carnival in Argentina.” Gender & Society 34 (3): 413-436.
Murga porteña, the satirical street theatre tradition associated with Carnival in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is historically a strongly patriarchal institution. Prominent roles such as reciting poetry, singing, and playing percussion instruments have been reserved exclusively for men. As the feminist movement in Argentina has grown in visibility and importance in recent years, feminist murga participants disrupted these patriarchal patterns. Women murga performers (murgueras) have begun to use murga as a space for feminist practice, both by creating women-only organizations to learn murga skills and by bringing feminist perspectives into mixed-gender murgas. Murgueras are engaged in a multifaceted feminist project that disrupts gendered patterns by building women-only spaces to develop competence in the performance of historically masculine skills such as percussion. Drawing on ethnographic participant-observation of murga events as well as in-depth interviews with key organizers at the confluence of murga and feminism, we explore the ways in which murga has provided the spaces and strategies for collective feminist engagement. Murgas have become important social institutions in which women are “undoing gender” and disseminating feminist perspectives, even as most members join them not as explicitly feminist institutions.

Pike, Isabel. 2020. “A Discursive Spectrum: The Narrative of Kenya’s ‘Neglected’ Boy Child.” Gender & Society 34 (2): 284-306.
In this article, I examine a narrative that on the surface could be backlash to gender equality efforts: that after years of policy attention to girls, Kenya’s “boy child” has been neglected. Through a content analysis of Kenyan online newspaper texts spanning the past two decades, I chart the evolution of this discourse, finding that it was present as early as 2000, intensified around 2010, and began to produce concrete actions around 2013. I argue that the narrative is a reaction to expanded women’s rights, but not always in the sense of negative backlash. Some boy child claims-makers were indeed concerned with a decline in men’s power. However, others, mostly women, used the boy child narrative to redirect attention to issues that profoundly affect the well-being of women such as violence and the struggle to find a partner. These results point to the value of a discursive spectrum approach for analysis of potential backlash to gender equality as well as discussions around policy attention to boys and men.

Peretz, Tal. 2017. “Engaging Diverse Men: An Intersectional Analysis of Men’s Pathways to Antiviolence Activism.” Gender & Society 31 (4): 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.

Luna, Zakiya. 2016. “Truly a Women of Color Organization” Negotiating Sameness and Difference in Pursuit of IntersectionalityGender & Society 30 (5): 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.

Whittier, Nancy. 2016. “Carceral and Intersectional Feminism in Congress: The Violence Against Women Act, Discourse, and Policy.” Gender & Society 30 (5): 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.

Zion-Waldoks, Tanya. 2015. “Politics of Devoted Resistance: Agency, Feminism, and Religion Among Orthodox Agunah Activists in Israel.” Gender & Society 29 (1): 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.

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): 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. 

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.

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. 

Borland, Elizabeth, and Barbara Sutton. 2007. “Quotidian Disruption and Women’s Activism in Times of Crisis, Argentina 2002-2003.” Gender & Society 21 (6): 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. 

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. 

Culley, Marci R., and Holly L. Angelique. 2003. “Women’s Gendered Experiences as Long-Term Three Mile Island Activists.” Gender & Society 17 (3): 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. 

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. 

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. 

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.