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date: 04 December 2020

(p. 363) Civil Society

This section includes essays on the burgeoning literature on gender politics in civil society, that is, gender politics involving the “soft power” of voluntary action, organization, and persuasion rather than the coercive power of the state. The scope and dimensions of civil society are contested: some argue civil society should include everything outside the state, including the market, while others argue that such corporate and economic activities are the antithesis of the idea of civil society. Others wonder whether activists who move onto the terrain of the state count as civil society actors. Some have argued that civil society is a type of activity, not a physical location, and that the key feature of such activity is that it is voluntary and not subject to system imperatives such as bureaucratic rules or profit imperatives.

However it is defined, though, nearly all definitions include social movements and voluntary organizations, and these sorts of activities are the focus of this section. Discussion of civil society across these essays includes general efforts to organize (in interest groups, nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], think tanks, lobby groups) and mobilize (in movements, coalitions and campaigns) pressure and persuade governments and other citizens on matters of policy but also on matters of justice in areas often thought of as private or apolitical (e.g., the family, schools, sexuality). This includes not only women’s organizing in feminist movements and organizations but also the way that gender structures men’s efforts to mobilize and organize. It also includes women (p. 364) and men’s gendered participation in nongender-focused movements (e.g., labor movements, antiracist movements, peace, environmental, conservative and racist movements).

The chapters deal with the ways that gendered identities undergird all forms of civil society organizing and the challenges (as well as advantages) that group differences present to efforts to build solidarity in women’s movements and feminist movements. This literature likely has important implications for efforts to organize all forms of social movements. In addition, the essays examine the relationships between different kinds of organizing in terms of forms (for example, different types of organizations) and level, location, or context (for example, local or global, national or transnational). These essays also show how the political opportunity structure, and the political environment more generally, is gendered and how that shapes women and men’s organizing. This organizing, of course, also transforms the political opportunity structure, for example, sometimes producing institutional reforms such as gender and mainstreaming and changing the public mood and cultural attitudes about gender, among other effects. As such, social movements change the relationship between state and civil society.

The first chapter by Dara Strolovitch and Erica Townsend-Bell discusses the way gender structures civil society more generally, considering a wider range of civil society organizations. The essay begins with definitional questions, explaining the meaning of civil society and how it is related to gender, both empirically and conceptually, paying particular attention to the implicit assumptions about race, class, and sexuality that undergird different conceptualizations of civil society (for example, conceptualizations of civil society as a public sphere). The question of the autonomy of civil society, and the importance of this concept for gender, is also considered. The authors also point to the contradictory impact of civil society on gender—involving as it does the capacity to simultaneously empower women while also reproducing gendered norms of inequality. This chapter asks how these definitions and relationships apply in varying ways over time and context, focusing in particular on the United States and Latin America, and highlights areas of research on civil society that require further investigation.

The second chapter examines gender in movements, focusing not so much on feminism or women’s movements as on social movements more generally. The chapter examines the ways that gendered identities shape movements and also the ways that movements work in gendered environments. Kelsy Kretschmer and David S. Meyer distinguish and consider feminist, antifeminist, and nonfeminist movements and examine the role of gender in each. The chapter discusses a wide range of movements from terrorist, radical, and racist contestations to labor and peace movements.

The third chapter, titled “The Comparative Study of Women’s Movements,” reviews definitions of women’s movements in the recent comparative and social movement scholarship on women’s movements. Karen Beckwith offers (p. 365) distinctions between women’s movements, feminist movements, and women in movements, discussing different approaches to women’s activism in and support for political movements (including movements that are not women’s movements). The chapter points to the distinctive advantages of taking a comparative approach to the analysis of women’s movements, their similarities and differences, and their successes and failures, particularly in terms of understandings intersectionality.

The fourth chapter, by Christina Ewig and Myra Marx Ferree, examines feminist organizing from the nineteenth century to the present. Moving away from the waves imagery, Ewig and Ferree see feminist organizing as following a less unified logic, as cresting and falling in different parts of the world at different times. This overview explores how solidarity is constructed, given the intersectionality of feminist claims making. It also examines the changing organizational forms of feminist mobilization and links these to the changing political opportunity structure. The essay takes issue with the idea that feminist organizing is in decline.

The fifth chapter, “Local—Global—Local: Women’s Global Organizing,” by Jutta Joachim examines women’s global and transnational organizing and connections to local action. The chapter discusses definitions and debates about the meaning of the terms global, transnational, international, local, and grassroots, especially as they apply to gender politics. Drawing on the social movement literature, the chapter explores the relations and interdependencies that exist between the local and global, showing how women’s personal and local experiences have been sources of both global cooperation and solidarity as well as of conflict. The chapter examines the conceptual basis for studying transnational activist networks, especially considering the idea of cosmopolitanism, and offers an overview of the history of women’s transnational campaigns. Turning to contemporary politics, Joachim examines the ways that international organizations such as the United Nations and international institutions related to human rights, for example, shape local politics, arguing that women’s global activism involves filtering processes and layers of interpretations and that the initiators of campaigns do not always control the ways that their issues and problems are defined. (p. 366)