Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres

Each of the essays in this collection could be the subject of its own blog post, but I will try to focus on specific sections and theories that I found particularly interesting. Firstly I will say that reading theory on “third world women” in the “third world” is particularly jarring. Not only because I feel compelled to hide the cover and title of this book from other coffee-shop goers (seriously), but because I feel I can understand some of the material in a more direct way than if I were reading the same essays in New York.

The long and wordy but very well-written introduction by Chandra Talpade Mohanty will be the subject of this post. This introduction provides an apology/alternative for the various implications of and historical associations with the term “third world.” Mohanty emphasizes and reemphasizes the problematic nature of the term “third world,” appealing to the reader not to interpret its usage as an unqualified acceptance of its implied inclusivity and essentialism. She also reinforces a third-wave rejection of white, Western feminism’s claim on “womanhood” as a universal quality:

“Neither the authors in this collection nor I posit any homogenous configuration of third world women who form communities because they share a ‘gender’ or a ‘race’ or a ‘nation.’ As history (and recent feminist scholarship) teaches us, ‘races’ and ‘nations’ haven’t been defined on the basis of inherent, natural characteristic; nor can we define ‘gender’ in any transhistorical, unitary way.” (5)

The introduction sets the stage for the following essays, which cover widely varying subjects and locations. The only thread that ties all of the texts together is the imaginary concept of the “third world woman.” Mohanty is careful to explain that “third world” encompasses not only women living in “underdeveloped” countries, but also women of color living in privileged countries. In this way, she abolishes the geographical specificity of this tricky term and instead uses it to denote women anywhere who are oppressed by other factors in addition to gender (race, class, sexuality). Mohanty criticizes any discussion of women “as a stable category of analysis” and advocates for work “demonstrating the production of women as socioeconomic political groups within particular local contexts” (64). Most of the essays included in the book limit their discussion to a very specific set of people and make sure to situate their analysis within a historical context. The introduction is very anti- second wave, white, Western, middle class, exclusionary feminism. It challenges the notion of gender as unifying past all other boundaries and rejects “sisterhood” as a useful tool for uniting women of different backgrounds, races, sexualities, classes, education levels, etc.

Although dated by about 20 years, this introduction was very instructive for me. It allowed me to read a coherent critique of second wave feminist thought that foregrounded intersectionality (thanks Hannah!) as the basis for other modes of feminist inquiry. This introduction also helped shed light on my recent disappointment on finding certain reputable universities lacking in graduate programs and departments in women’s/feminist studies. Mohanty strategically posits feminism as a lens through which to understand and analyze other types of discourse:

“For feminist scholarship, like most other kinds of scholarship, is not the mere production of knowledge about a certain subject. It is a directly political and discursive practice in that it is purposeful and ideological. It is best seen as a mode of intervention into particular hegemonic discourses”. (53)

She poses feminism as a perspective rather than a subject, which I think is useful and eye-opening. Viewing feminism as “a mode of intervention” rather than as an isolated topic allows you to incorporate feminist thought into nearly all other areas of study, which is comforting and inspiring to one in the process of researching graduate programs where feminist studies is all too frequently absent.

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About Madeleine Gyory

Madeleine is a social media butterfly who tweets (and does some other things) for the Women's Media Center, a media advocacy non-profit based in NY. She loves reading, particularly stories by and about women. She graduated from Barnard College, and has spent time teaching English in Ecuador. Her favorite writers are Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
This entry was posted in 1990s, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Non-Fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres

  1. nasha says:

    I kind of love the idea of feminism as a mode of intervention. Never heard it described that way before, but it makes complete sense

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