Social movements are shaped by gender systems and they also are a source of social change in gender. Some social movements directly attempt to change gender relations; these movements, particularly women’s movements, have been the focus of considerable scholarship. Increasingly, scholars also recognize the gendered nature of other social movements and the impact of systemic inequalities of gender on the opportunities, constraints, and forms of social movements in general.
Research on gender and social movements has proceeded through several stages. Initial works focused on documenting women’s movements, including feminist and non-feminist movements, and explaining their emergence and development. A second phase of work began to analyze gender in social movements more broadly, including masculinity, and to analyze the intersections between gender, race, class, and nationality in social movements. Most recently, numerous scholars have begun to examine the ways that movements are gendered in their origins, collective identities, frames and discourses, organizational structures, tactics, and political and cultural opportunities. In doing so, they contribute to a rethinking of the basic concepts of the field of social movements. These phases are similar to those for scholarship on gender more broadly, which initially focused on documenting women’s experiences and remedying male bias, next on gender as an institution and the intersections between gender and other major forms of social inequality, and lastly on reformulating basic sociological knowledge and theory based on a perspective that makes gender central. Sociological work on gender and social movements thus reflects the influence of the feminist movement on the academy.
Many social movements have targeted the social structures, culture, and interactional norms around gender. These include feminist movements, which in many countries focused first on gaining basic political rights such as the vote and the right to own property, and then progressed in later waves to addressing other forms of inequality between women and men ranging from responsibility for child raising and household labor, discrimination in paid employment, sexuality, reproductive rights, health care, stereotyping in the arts and popular culture, election to public office, and so on. Parallel to these movements are anti-feminist movements, which tend to emerge in response to feminist movements and also target gender directly in an attempt to forestall or roll back changes.
Other movements have been organized around gender, without taking gender as a central or explicit target. For example, women’s temperance and social reform movements in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the United States organized women based on their social responsibilities for morality, childrearing, and the promulgation of religious values. Women have organized in ‘‘mothers’ movements’’ to challenge governmental killings and disappearances of their children (such as the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina), or to fight against environmental degradation or for better public education. Such ‘‘maternalist politics’’ can uphold traditional definitions of women’s place while simultaneously expanding those definitions, bringing women into the public sphere and often changing activists’ own family relations and identities. Men’s movements, such as the mythopoetic movement, also organize men around some traditional definitions of masculinity while simultaneously stretching those definitions by, for example, encouraging men to express emotions more freely (Schwalbe 1996).
Further, movements do not have to be oriented around gender to be shaped by it. Because gender is a central feature of social structure, culture, and daily life, all movements are gendered. The major elements of social movements are their emergence and recruitment, collective identities, frames or discourses, organizations, tactics or actions, and external contexts or political opportunities. Each of these elements is gendered.
First, movements’ emergence and processes of recruitment are gendered because the status of women and men shapes their differential ability and willingness to organize on their own behalf. Gendered factors such as family structures and responsibilities, access to higher education, paid employment, and fertility rate all affect recruitment and participation in activism. These factors all vary according to race, class, and nationality as well as gender, and also change over time; such variations account for some of the differences in the level and form of women’s mobilization cross culturally and historically. Further, social movements emerge along gendered lines because they emerge from gendered preexisting organizations and networks (Taylor 1999). For example, feminist organizing during the late 1960s in the US emerged partially from the Civil Rights Movement, in which women gained organizing experience and an ideology opposing inequality, but also faced gender barriers to full participation. However, grievances and networks based on race and class cross cut those based on gender. For African American and Latina women during the same era, their connections to mixed sex movements around race mitigated their interest in a mixed race movement around gender. Instead, they advocated for women’s interests within mixed sex movements (Roth 2004). Similarly, international women’s conferences sponsored by the United Nations have illustrated how women in third world countries define their interests quite differently from those in the highly industrialized global North. Second, movements’ collective identities, or group definitions, are gendered. Some social movements directly try to change the definition associated with their group, as feminist movements, for example, try to change what it means to be a woman. Beyond this, movement participants bring with them a gender consciousness that affects the collective identities they construct, and they draw on ideas about gender from both dominant and oppositional cultures. For example, environmental or peace activists may define themselves as mothers concerned about the well-being of children and future generations, and participants in antiglobalization protests may draw on masculinity to define themselves as warriors standing up to the police, or they may draw on feminist and queer politics to define themselves as rejecting the dominant gender order along with capitalism.
Third, social movements construct interpretive frames to explain their grievances and issues, addressing their causes and calling for action. In doing so, they draw on mainstream discourses and also challenge and extend those discourses. Mainstream frames and discourses are built around particular definitions of the nature, roles, and responsibilities of women and men, and social movements include elements of these mainstream frames and discourses and construct alternatives. Often they may do both, as in the case of maternalist movements that draw on women’s special place as mothers to argue for a greater influence by women on national affairs.
Fourth, social movements’ organizational structures are gendered. For example, the American Civil Rights Movement assigned formal leadership to men while assigning women to more informal leadership roles (Robnett 1997). Recognizing these differences entails not only recognizing discrimination within the movement and bringing to light the previously unacknowledged role of women, but also redefining theories of leadership to include the ways that women exercise influence outside of official leadership positions. Beyond leadership, women and men may take on different tasks within movement organizations, with women taking more responsibility for activities such as providing food for events or monitoring the emotional climate at meetings, and men under taking more public speaking, drafting of position papers, or providing ‘‘peacekeeping’’ at public demonstrations. Gendered divisions of labor within movements vary considerably across time, space, and among movements, of course. In movements that explicitly challenge the gendered status quo, such differences may be much less marked or even at times inverted; while in movements that seek to restore traditional gender roles, they may be exaggerated.
Fifth, tactics and strategies are affected by gender. Women and men may draw on established social activities in order to work for change, as in men’s use of violent intimidation compared with women’s reliance on boycotts and vicious gossip in the US racist movement of the 1920s (Blee 1991). Here, too, incorporating tactics grounded in traditionally feminine activities into social movement theory suggests a broader definition of tactics and strategies that includes actions previously not seen as part of social movements.
Sixth, gendered external social structures and mainstream culture delimit the opportunities and constraints for social movements. Political opportunities are affected by gender because women and men have differential access to the state, both as elected officials and as outside activists. On a subtler level, the state and other major social institutions operate through gendered structures, procedures, and discourses (sometimes termed gender regimes). When activists target or enter institutions, therefore, they face particular opportunities or barriers depending both on their actual gender and on the way their movement engages with or challenges existing notions of gender. For example, in working to change discourses about gender in the Catholic Church, women were able to draw on the institutional base of female religious orders but were limited by their structural sub ordination. As a result, they focused on discursive rather than structural change (Katzenstein 1998). Mainstream culture affects how movements’ claims are received, as well, with activists who challenge accepted notions of gender being more likely to be marginalized. Men who openly display affection toward each other and lobby for an expansion in the definition of masculinity, for example, are the subject of considerable ridicule (Schwalbe 1996), while women who lobbied for restrictions on hunting were viewed as hysterical females treading into waters where they did not belong (Einwohner 1999).
In addition to being shaped by gender, social movements are an important force in changing gender systems. Feminist movements in the US and Western Europe have produced considerable change in cultural beliefs, the structure of paid employment, women’s access to higher education, and basic rights such as the vote, credit, and property ownership. In many countries, women’s activism has produced constitutional guarantees for women’s minimum representation in elected office. Further, social movements have contributed to changes in the cultural codes and interactional norms that define gender. At the same time, these changes have been contested by anti-feminist movements.
Several lines of research are promising. First, more analyses of the gendered dimensions of men’s and mixed sex movements will augment the extensive work on women’s movements. Second, work on cases outside the US and Western Europe is examining the gender dimensions of a variety of movements. Because gender systems vary comparatively, this work promises to expand theorizing on the topic. Third, efforts to reconceptualize social movement theory based on this work have begun, and promise to produce a richer and more inclusive theoretical model.
- Banaszak, A. (1996) Why Movements Succeed or Fail: Opportunity, Culture, and the Struggle for Woman Suffrage. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
- Blee, (1991) Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Einwohner, R. (1999) Gender, Class, and Social Movement Outcomes: Identity and Effectiveness in Two Animal Rights Gender and Society 13(1): 56-76.
- Katzenstein, M. F. (1998) Faithful and Fearless: Moving Feminist Protest Inside the Church and Military. Princeton University Press,
- Kuumba, B. (2001) Gender and Social Movements. Alta Mira, New York.
- Robnett, (1997) How Long, How Long? African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Roth, (2004) Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave. Cambridge University Press, New York.
- Schwalbe, (1996) Unlocking the Iron Cage: The Men’s Movement, Gender Politics, and American Culture. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Staggenborg, (1998) Gender, Family, and Social Movements. Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Taylor, V. (1999) Gender and Social Movements: Gender Processes in Women’s Self-Help Move Gender and Society 13(1): 8-33.
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