FOCUS: Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies: times of change and hot debates

FOCUS: Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies: times of change and hot debates

Anália Torres

This issue of Discover Society, curated by Anália Torres and Clara Oliveira, gathers 13 papers that came out of CIEG’s II international congress under the topic Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies: Reflexivity, Resistance and Action, that took place in Lisboa on July 2019. The Congress mobilised 217 participants from different parts of the world who, alongside the invited speakers, built a productive and enthusiastic atmosphere.

The papers are diverse but they all address central and contemporary issues concerning gender equality. Besides presenting the papers in this issue of Discover Society, I reflect on the rapid political changes that occurred between 2016-2019, with serious impact on human rights.

The On the Frontline piece tackles the hot topic of Sexual harassment and the Viewpoint discusses Rights, policies and politics. Concerning the articles, questions like “Gender Ideology” are addressed by Priscila Freire and Virginia Ferreira, and, from a different perspective by Joana Topa. Other subjects such as colonial stories and anti-racist feminism (Bruno Sena Martins), strategic identity and self-determination within the LGBTQI+ framework (Ana Cristina Santos), the dilemmas of Trans recognition (Sofia Aboim), researching gender inequality denial in educational settings (Rosemary Deem), family, work and parenthood (Isabel Dias), escort girls and clients (Bernardo Coelho) are also debated.

The diversity of subjects is expressive of the reflections and the research that is being produced on gender, feminist and women studies.

As CIEG’s coordinator and when preparing the initial address to the Congress I looked back on the year 2016, the date of our first international congress, and realized that over these 3 years to 2019, world politics changed dramatically. And those changes affected gender issues on a large scale.

Let us go back and remember what happened in 2016 to realize the complexity of the present moment and how fast things can change. In May 2016 Trump had not been elected yet and Dilma Roussef had been compulsorily removed from Brazil’s presidency a month before, in the so-called “Temer coup”.  We could not imagine that Bolsonaro’s extreme right wing presidential election victory was coming. Brexit was approved in the UK referendum only a month later, Orban in Hungary still hadn’t been elected, and in Poland the loss of rights didn’t seem so evident yet.

Since then, some of the worst diagnoses have come true. Trump won, Bolsonaro was elected, Brexit seems like a bottomless pit, with an increasingly worse prognoses.

In the case of the U.S., besides the insults, misogyny and explicit sexism of President Trump (who garnered support from the worst versions of the evangelical church), there were setbacks to abortion laws, persecution of immigrants, and Islamophobia, which together clearly remind us of Nazism’s rise in Germany.

In the case of Brazil, after confrontations and the escalation of violence before Bolsonaro’s election – when a true atmosphere of persecution and terror took hold – Marielle was murdered on 14 March and Bolsonaro was elected on 28 October, 2018; this climate of persecution forced many activists into exile – displaying similarities with what happened in 1964 with the military dictatorship. Hate speech towards liberals, reactionary and traditionalist discourses, attacks on gender equality and persecution of anything related to gender issues in schools and universities were features.

But we do not have to leave Europe to find murder being used as a political weapon. We should not forget that before the referendum, on 16 June 2016, the British Labour MP Jo Cox, who was in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union, was murdered. Several witnesses said that the perpetrator shouted “Britain First!” (the name of a far-right party that opposes immigration), as he attacked her.

Why these setbacks, this return to populism, to far-right views, to anti-Semitism, to the fear of otherness and immigration?
If we look at the history of the 20th century we can recognize a period similar to the one we are going through in the 21st century. Ten years after the financial and economic crisis of 1929, the decade prior to the start of the Second World War started in 1939, Europe experienced the rise of populism, anti-Semitism, and the fear of ‘otherness’, which culminated in the Holocaust – a terrifying event. Ten years after the 2008 financial Eurozone crisis (coupled with other factors, obviously) we are faced with the rise of the far right, populism, and the same fear of ‘otherness’, now more far-reaching and including immigrants, women, black and Romani people.

What do these two periods have in common?
Both were triggered by a serious crisis of capitalism, a financial and economic crisis, which led to high unemployment, bankruptcy, fear, and insecurity. In this sense, we can say that there is a structural dimension to this escalation.

In fact, in the face of another financial and economic crisis of capitalism, traditional political forces cannot respond to the deterioration of living conditions for millions of people. Even though it is experienced differently from country to country, the crisis is global. It happened in rapid succession, hitting every country, due to the interdependence of economic exchange in the global markets. The vulnerable and dependent are more severely hit, even though significant segments of the middle class suffer too. For many, the threat of unemployment contributes to this fear – the realization that they cannot control their destinies gives rise to feelings of impotence.

Given the complexity of these problems, authoritarian and revanchist discourses became popular, since they lessen the complexity by identifying great enemies – the “corrupt”, immigrants, Muslims, blacks, Romani people, leftists, women, gays, transgender, queer and lesbians, and non-believers, i.e. those who have become today’s others alongside the Jews.

Politics makes even more opaque, the different views on how to revert the crisis which transform every debate into a painful parade of perspectives. Faced with the fragmented solutions of traditional political parties, insecurity and conflict, people find the answers given by religious and/or authoritarian leaders more appealing. Even if we know that powerful economic and military interests sustain these leaderships, the truth is that the poor and vulnerable generally believe that these leaders are the solution to their problems and that is why they support them.

Therefore, structural factors like the financial and economic crisis combine with subjective and emotional ones. The authoritarian leaders call on these basic and atavistic feelings, exploiting fear and insecurity, and fueling hate.

But why do these leaders resort to sexism, racism and homophobia too, attacking gender equality, or even openly defending the use of violence?

Why is gender equality under attack? Why is it that even in countries where these policies are not as expressive there is a kind of backlash, or what some male and female authors call “anti-genderism”?
We can say, following Judith Butler, that Trump’s election was a surprising or unexpected reaction to Obama’s election and to the possibility of a woman being elected (Hilary Clinton in the end received more votes than Trump displaying a major anomaly in the US Presidential election system). More precisely, the factors of the 2008 crisis that we have identified above – unemployment, poor living conditions, lack of prospects, – could have pushed segments of the impoverished white middle class and other popular sectors into positions of resentment, of racist and sexist revanchism. Or as J. Butler stated:

“We did not know how widespread anger is against elites, how deep the anger of white men is against feminism and the civil rights movement, how demoralized by economic dispossession many people are, how exhilarated people are by isolationism and the prospect of new walls and nationalist bellicosity. Is this the new ‘whitelash’? Why did we not quite see it coming?”.[1]

In other countries, such as Brazil, we can also hypothesize that the relative progress in terms of women’s and LGBT rights, the advances in the fight against gender violence (in the form of legislative changes, e.g. the Maria da Penha Law), the relative breakthroughs in education for gender equality in schools might have sparked the same reactions of resentment and rage, which have been fully taken advantage of by some religious groups.

In this case the sexist rage against Dilma’s election in Brazil was visible in her removal. Here, economic and political interests knew how to profit from atavistic feelings again, resorting to the horrors of the military dictatorship and capitalizing on them.

Without a doubt, some people have not forgiven Lula and Dilma for showing that it is possible to take people out of poverty and to lessen the country’s glaring level of inequality.

Of course, these attacks provoked vigorous reactions, with people demonstrating in the streets. Both in the U.S. and in Brazil, we saw women and young people protesting. But in both cases, there were also “pro-dictator” demonstrations, revealing political and social fractures. This happened in many other countries, such as the U.K., Hungary, Poland, among others.

In Spain too there has been progress in terms of gender equality in the last few years. Recently there have been large demonstrations and public protests that reverted some court rulings, such as the infamous “la manada” rape case; but nationalist and fascist movements have also grown, such as Vox, which not only glorify the dark times of Franco’s dictatorship but are also explicitly against gender equality.

Therefore, this surge of attacks against gender equality, human rights, and even the attempt to deny the existence of racism may be explained by factors shared with other historical periods – unemployment, lack of prospects, despair, a dearth of policies that address the population’s problems –  tend to push large segments of the population to support authoritarian leaders. But there are also new factors.

What is new about the present time is that the pretexts for the attacks are directed towards the advances achieved in some countries precisely in the fields of gender equality, human rights, or the fight against racism and xenophobia, which are now “demonized”.

And there are two reasons that might explain why these are the new pretexts. Firstly, the mobilization of the aforementioned atavistic feelings through a narrative that evokes an idealized past, when these “modern notions” did not exist yet.

When we try to explain, for example, why a man might chase and murder his ex-wife after she leaves him against his will, we are certainly faced with the ‘primitive’ expression of resentment, loss of control and ownership, an extreme example of male domination, which, when questioned, only knows how to respond with violence.

What is different from the past, in our cultural context, is not that there is more violence today – it is just that women are more likely to react to it and refuse to tolerate it. And unfortunately, they are still paying a steep price for daring to do that.

The same could be said about homophobic reactions to clear public demonstrations of gay, lesbian, trans and queer movements.

But, secondly, we must admit that despite our hope invested in the fight against violations of human rights, and the few victories obtained in the legal and political spheres, the truth is that these victories and movements that sustain them are relatively recent, if we compare them with the domination of women across millennia, or the wounds created by slavery and colonial histories throughout the centuries.

But let us go back to Butler’s statement.

We did not know […] how demoralized by economic dispossession many people are. Is this the new ‘whitelash’? Why did we not quite see it coming?”
This question contains a reflection on what might have failed in the analyses made by different feminisms. What have we missed?

From our perspective, this refection awakens an old question that has been widely debated in the context of gender, feminist and women’s studies. It is the question of giving relevance again to identitarian issues and to social and economic contexts in order to reject the simplistic logic of either/or. In other words, without understanding how, or in what contexts, identities are lived and experienced, we miss out on important ways to know reality. Therefore, we have to be aware of and interested in the everyday lives of men, and women of black people, white people, gays, lesbians, trans, queer, or any other identitarian affirmation (or their rejection), suffering the effects of globalization and the difficulties of the present time in various contexts.

This is not because economic or social dispossession is the predominant factor among other identitarian characteristics, or because these are more important than other aspects; but because the different types of inequalities intertwine and can only be understood if analyzed in context, combining structural dimensions – social and economic – with institutional and circumstantial dimensions, on the one hand, and with the symbolic and emotional planes, on the other.

If Butler’s perspective had already helped us recognize the limits of identitarian categorizations, highlighting fluidity, the need to pay attention to the suffering of others and to multiple interdependences, then Nancy Fraser’s more recent approach provides a possible answer to the questions raised.

In fact, for Fraser, an analysis of the realities of gender discrimination and social justice must combine three factors, three Rs: the issue of redistribution, which broadly relates to social inequality, the issue of recognition, or status, which refers to dignity and the right to sexual freedom, sexual orientation and gender expression, and the issue of representation, which refers to political representation and power.[2]

In this sense, the period we are going through demands that we understand the different levels of inequality and the way in which they interact. This includes inequality of resources, but also vital and existential inequalities, as Ferreira de Almeida proposes, drawing on Therborn.[3]

And as Fraser insists: “This does not mean muting pressing concerns about racism or sexism. But it does mean showing how those longstanding historical oppressions find new expressions and grounds today, in financialized capitalism. Rebutting the false, zero-sum thinking that dominated the election campaign, we should link the harms suffered by women and people of color to those experienced by the many who voted for Trump”.[4]

But these generic answers will not suffice. In fact, if we want to face these difficult times we have to count on research produced in many other regions, which have been contributing to gender issues for a long time (with little visibility, since they do not come from Europe and the U.S.).

In Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, all over Latin America, but also in Africa, there are important insights from both senior and junior colleagues, different versions of black feminism, LGBT and trans movements, whose contributions are essential if we want to fully understand the different realities and contexts. In Portugal too, obviously. Even though the Interdisciplinary Center for Gender Studies (CIEG) is recent, research on gender, feminist and women’s issues has been developed in the country by many female and male researchers, both older and younger. We strive to give national and international visibility to this production in our congresses.

On the one hand, we give visibility and contribute to the scientific field of Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies in Portugal, but we are also making it international.

On the other hand, being a meeting point of female and male researchers from various continents – Europe, U.S., Latin America, Africa, Australia –these regular gatherings and discussions may produce advances in this scientific field. In this way, we can improve our capacity for critical and reflective interpretation and intervention in the different fields where our action is developed.

But alongside research we debate public policies and discuss the consequences and advantages of adopting a particular approach or way of proceeding. Therefore, we benefit from the different approaches brought by the participants – researchers, but also politicians and activists – and from the different experiences developed in many countries.

It is equally crucial that through the results of our research and the collective reflection developed in the congresses we give visibility to the many types of inequality and forms of discrimination (both direct and subtle).

For example, even though the fact that women cannot reach decision-making positions is illustrative of patriarchal power and women’s inferior status, we all know that these valid demands are much more visible than other forms of discrimination, e.g. the low salaries earned by the vast majority of poorly-skilled women, or more direct or subtle forms of discrimination, e.g. covert racism and homophobia.

Since privilege is often invisible, we must raise awareness and expose these unfair realities experienced by so many every day.

We have no illusions that it is not enough to show what our results seem to be “shouting”, that the pressure made by social movements and activisms is essential for things to change, that we need top-down public policy measures in order for that transformation to take place, the truth is that, as recent history seems to have taught us, all of these actions need to be complemented by a work of constant and assertive persuasion if we want these changes to be sustained.

[1] Butler, Judith (2016) A statement from Judith Butler, in e-flux, November 2016  
[2] Fraser, Nancy (2013) Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, London: Verso.
[3] Almeida, J. Ferreira (2013), Desigualdades e perspetivas dos cidadãos. Portugal e a Europa, Lisboa: Mundos Sociais.
[4] Fraser, Nancy (2017) The End of Progressive Neoliberalism


Anália Torres, holds a PhD in Sociology and is a Full Professor of Sociology at ISCSP-ULisboa, and coordinator of the Sociology Dept. She is the founder and coordinator of CIEG, Interdisciplinary Center for Gender Studies. She was President of ESA, European Sociological Association (2009-2011) and APS, Portuguese Association of Sociology (2002-2006). She has led national and international research teams on: family, gender, marriage, divorce, sexual harassment and bullying, work and family, drug addiction, children and youth protection.