Minority Women’s Activism in Tough Times

Minority Women’s Activism in Tough Times

Leah Bassel, University of Leicester, and Akwugo Emejulu, University of Edinburgh

We would like to start by explaining why we are doing this project.  To us it seems obvious, but it clearly is not given the number of times we are asked: ‘Minority women? Why? The crisis affects everyone’.  Our aim is to challenge the invisibility of minority women – women who experience the effects of processes such as racialisation, class and gender domination, hierarchies of legal status – in representations and politics of ‘economic crisis’ in England, Scotland and France.

In response to the 2008 economic crisis, the Coalition government is undertaking an unprecedented restructuring of the British welfare state. Whilst France is not implementing such stringent measures, a key policy aim of the Socialist government there is also austerity which was particularly in evidence with the January 2014 budget.  We have argued elsewhere that an ‘intersectional’ move is urgently needed to challenge state representations of the crisis and the silencing of alternative analyses that demonstrate its differential and asymmetrical impacts. The idea of intersectionality, drawn from a rich tradition of Black feminist scholarship and activism, forces us to confront and think about women and men in a complex and heterogeneous way. Exploring how gender, ethnicity, race, class, legal status, disability, age, religion, and sexuality interact in different ways, depending on different cultural contexts, is crucial as we will show by drawing on our research.

Since 2011, we have undertaken over 85 interviews, focus groups and observations with directors, policy officers and development workers in anti-poverty, housing and migrant rights third sector organisations and with minority and migrant activist women; and civil servants in local and national government with a brief for equalities and/or the third sector. This research has been undertaken in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Coventry, Manchester, Paris and Lyon.

In the light of our findings to date we have three main concerns about the challenges of austerity for minority women.

Whose crisis counts?

The impacts of the crisis ‘on women’ are often understood in a difference-blind way, and do not reflect the variable impact of the crisis and austerity on particular groups of women. Despite initial reports of a ‘he-cession’, women appear to be disproportionately disadvantaged by the crisis. They are more likely to be employed in public sector (as teachers, nurses and social workers, etc, and more likely to be sub-contracted to the state via private sector organizations (as care workers, cleaners, caterers, etc).  Women are also more likely to be connected to the local state (through accessing public services) because of gendered caring responsibilities.Therefore, austerity measures are likely to increase female unemployment whilst reducing social protection measures that might cushion against mass job losses.

We ask: which women are affected? And to what extent? We challenge dominant representations of the crisis and the silencing of other women’s experiences.  Participants in our study have insisted on the ways in which precarious immigration status, experiences of racism and Islamophobia and barriers within cultural and religious communities have combined with the challenges identified above, a combination also documented by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Ethnicity.  They have also insisted that there is nothing new about ‘crisis’.  Experiences of economic hardships were perceived by our participants as a continuation of an already precarious economic and social existence, which austerity deepens and sharpens.  A report by a Coventry-based group refers to this as layers of inequality’, meaning that the cuts are one part of a jigsaw of issues including historic and on-going disadvantage, discrimination and racism.

Who speaks and who listens?

We also observe the ways in which, when they are visible, minority women are often seen only through a particular prism, e.g. as mothers of ‘troubled families’ following the 2011 English riots, or as victims of patriarchal family and community practices. This latter is particularly the case for migrant women who are victims of violence.  Our concern is that these representations position minority and migrant women as victims to be ‘saved’ from their communities in isolation from other dimensions of their lives.  This challenge is particularly acute in republican France where a difference-blind public discourse of equal and identical individual citizens deeply conditions political claims by and for minority women.

In response, our aim is to make these connections between different dimensions of minority women’s lives and the ways austerity measures affect them.  However, we also seek to make visible minority women’s activism and public responses to the challenges they define as priorities.  There are reasons to be concerned about who speaks and who listens across all three of our cases.  In England, for example, participants have voiced concerns about the ‘mainstream’ anti-cuts movement.  Are anti-cuts movements necessarily anti-racist? And where are minority women’s concerns included and represented by minority women themselves? We see an urgent need for rigorous, politically constructive research on this topic.

What role for the Third Sector?

Finally, we have also explored the effects of on minority women’s activism within third sector spaces—an important site where the paradoxes of austerity are brought into focus.  Our concern is how minority women and their advocates can work in and respond to an uncertain context in which budget cuts affect the independence of the third sector, and the rise of ‘enterprise’ as a dominant ideological frame generates strategic dilemmas for third sector organisations working in the anti-poverty, housing and migration sectors.

In our project, we map the ways in which participants position themselves around ‘enterprise’, whether to actively adopt these ideas for survival, or to resist or subvert them. The challenge our participants identify is that when third sector organisations are confronted with acute resource scarcity, they may prioritise strategies that are often short-term and oriented to service provision rather than advocacy and more radical activism. Resource scarcity can undermine the legitimacy of particular kinds of creative and oppositional work, which advance multiple social justice agendas (race, class, legal status and gender). When organizational survival often asserts itself as the dominant concern, the ‘simple and straightforward’ claim may win out, as it does not straddle issues areas, critique funding arrangements, or weaken competitive advantage vis-à-vis other organisations vying for the same funding.  In this diminishing political field, who will mobilise with and for minority women?


We will now push further, using an intersectional lens, to understand what kind of politics is possible by and with minority women in austere times. We see double potential here: to capture the differential effects of austerity measures on various social groups and to support new examinations of and oppositions to neoliberalism.


Leah Bassel is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Leicester. Akwugo Emejulu is Lecturer at the Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh.   We are grateful for funding we have received in support of the project on Minority Women and Austerity from the British Academy; the Centre for Education for Race Equality in Scotland, University of Edinburgh; College of Social Science Research Development Fund, University of Leicester