Review: Feminisms: A Global History by Lucy Delap
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Feminisms: A Global History by Lucy Delap is a historiography that traces several feminist movements across global history and explores the diverse and radical roots of the same. The book comprises of eight abstract themes: dreams, ideas, spaces, objects, looks, feelings, actions and songs which each draw from unique and often unheard-of sources to explore the global yet localised feminist movements across time and space. Using innovative sources of research such as political songs, posters and memoirs, Delap takes the readers through multiple visions of not just women’s freedom and emancipation but also multiple visions for feminist societies.
One of the points that the author reiterates throughout the book is that feminism did not strictly originate from the west (Euro-America) and that it has its roots across the globe. In her own words, “histories of feminism cannot be located only within single nation states, regions or empires” (18) and “the assumed priority of white, educated Euro-American women has turned out to be a myth” (20). She makes it a point to acknowledge that ‘feminist history has often been structured around a limited cast of mostly white and educated foremothers’ (15) and ensures that the stories told in this book are not reduced to a specific ‘type’ of feminism. Indeed, the stories and voices of women (and men) from Japan to India, China to Nigeria and Argentina to Egypt are explored and told with authenticity. Unlike many of her fellow western counterparts, Delap is correct to point out the influence of colonialism, racism and imperialism that colours the work of many ‘feminist’ icons from Euro-America whose legacies are revered today. As Delap aptly summarises, “feminism is better understood as a conversation rather than an import; but a conversation with many registers” (20).
Another interesting approach to this book is that the author explores histories of doing feminism, particularly in the global south, moving beyond movements or people which have explicitly defined or labelled themselves as being feminist. As such, the readers on this feminist journey are introduced to figures and events that may not have necessarily been classified as feminist in their time. For example, Delap notes that the protests in December 1929 by Igbo women in British-governed Nigeria contributed to anti-colonial movements and defended the marketplaces as a place where Igbo women could exercise their agency and freedom of economic status. She notes that “the women’s protests were rooted in traditional Igbo moral economy and insult traditions rather than a recognisably feminist repertoire. Nonetheless, the women’s leadership and solidarity resonated with feminist approaches” (119). Through such instances, she shows that there is no one-size fits all approach to feminism and that the very idea of feminism means something different to different people across history.
Just as Delap addresses the powerful contributions of feminisms across time and space, she also delves into feminisms with limitations, exclusions, contradictions and complicities. Take for example, the tensions between global south and global north feminists at the UN Conference on Women in 1975 at Mexico City. Indigenous feminists, global south feminists and feminists of colour “whose anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist perspectives were pitted against forms of feminism associated with an agenda of privileged, ‘first world’ women’s rights” (255-256). For instance, British activist Eleanor Rathbone’s racist and imperialist framing of the patriarchy imagined “the East as a site of women’s subordination and confinement by men” (74). This “made it hard for many feminists in imperial nations to see women in the Middle East, South and East Asia as potential agents of feminism” (75). By painting a truthful, difficult-to-digest and less flattering/rosy picture of global feminist history, Delap provokes contemporary feminist activists to reflect on their own prejudices and provides a corrective to contemporary and mainstream ideas of feminism which are often sanitised and homogenised.
Delap invites us to think about not just multiple feminisms in terms of means and ends, but also how humans have resisted and challenged the idea of gender as an organising principle of humanity. She points to the examples of early modern Japan’s opportunities for third-sex monks and Native American societies’ organisation of multiple genders as testimony to historical accounts of societies rejecting the idea of a gender binary. She acknowledges the oft-controversial stance of essentialist and exclusionary forms of feminism advocated by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), but invites readers to think about the contributions of authors such as Raewyn Connell and Judith Butler in disrupting the mainstream discourse of gender as bio-genetic. Intersectionality of gender with race, caste, religion, class, gender, age, ability and other social/identity markers is another recurring point throughout the book. In another example, the feminist works of Ifi Amadiume and Oyeronke Oyewumi, who wrote about African perspectives on non-binary accounts, highlight how inequities caused by the intersection of gender with different socio-economic factors create unique circumstances of oppression and discrimination.
Ultimately, Delap’s overarching goal with this book is to invite readers to think of global feminisms as interconnected across history and around the world. She diffuses the idea of “’mosaic feminism’, built up from inherited fragments but offering distinctive patterns and pictures” (20). She insists that “our account of feminisms must acknowledge what (Mrinalini) Sinha terms the ‘discrepant histories of different women’s movements’, marked by contests, conflicts and power play” (22). Feminism has never been a linear, uniform and static movement. It has spanned a global canvas, over 250 years of history and multiple evolutions, definitions, iterations and innovations. Feminisms: A Global History is an impressive attempt to dissect the complexity of feminist pasts but arguably, it is only the tip of the iceberg.