International Women’s Day 2018: On feminism’s political message and its past, present, and future.


As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is hard not to be struck by how ubiquitous the political message of feminism is. Until recently, announcing one’s feminist credentials elicited looks of surprise, incomprehension, or outright hostility. Fast forward to 2018 and Sweden has a foreign minister who is keen to propagate feminist foreign policy. The power of feminist ideas is not limited to the rarefied field of policymaking by world leaders, either. Popular culture also pulsates with calls to action from the hashtag feminism of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns. In our book Governance Feminism, we track this shift in the fortunes of feminism. From waiting with placards in hand outside the theatres of male power – whether they be legislatures, courts, international organizations, or corporations – feminists now walk the halls of power. By no means all feminists: some forms of feminism disqualify their proponents from inclusion in the power elite. But you can get a job in the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Criminal Court, the local prosecutor’s office, and the child welfare bureaucracy for espousing various strands of feminism. Feminism is certainly no longer a dirty word.

We label this form of feminist influence “governance feminism.” By that we mean every form in which feminists and feminist ideas exert a governing will within human affairs. We ask exactly what forms of feminism “make sense” to power elites as they gradually let women in? What happens when feminists and feminist ideas find their way into legal institutions and change legal thought and legal operations? Whose nongovernmental organizations get funding from international aid and development agencies and from ideologically driven private donors? Once feminists gain a foothold in governance, what do they do there and which particular legal forms are they most heavily invested in? What are the distributive consequences of the partial inclusion of some feminist projects? Who benefits and who loses? Can feminism foster a critique of its own successes? And if so, how can this feed back into feminist struggles?

Our study of governance feminism spans two books – Governance Feminism: An Introduction and Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field. In Governance Feminism: An Introduction, we focus on efforts feminists have made to become incorporated into state, state-like, and state-affiliated power. Janet Halley takes stock of prior attempts to understand some dimensions of feminist influence including femocracy and state feminism before setting out the theoretical framework for governance feminism and mapping the spectrum of feminists’ relationships with power. Significantly she discusses the resistance that feminists have offered to the concept of governance feminism. If there is one takeaway from our book, it is that governance per se is not bad. As Halley points out, describing governance feminism does not mean denouncing governance feminism. There are victories that governance feminism secures which are beneficial for women on the ground. But then there are costs to these victories borne by both women and men. How do we assess these costs and benefits? Halley offers distributive analysis as a method through which feminists can weigh these costs and benefits, whether in the legislative arena or in achieving institutional reforms. The remaining chapters of Governance Feminism: An Introduction illuminate the core themes of governance feminism in three case studies: the context of wide-ranging rape law reforms in India in 2013 (Prabha Kotiswaran), the influence of neoabolitionist feminism in anti-trafficking reforms in Israel (Hila Shamir), and the transnational influence of U.S. feminists’ rhetoric and legal argumentation on reproductive rights (Rachel Rebouché).

In our second book, Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field (forthcoming in early 2019), we go beyond feminism’s relationship with state power to grasp the full range of arenas where feminist ideas have traction. Our contributors to this co-edited volume start by outlining the large role that crime and punishment, largely focused on sexual or gender-based violence, play in governance feminist projects of recent decades. They then offer insights on feminists’ use of unspectacular bureaucratic tools which offer much-needed political leverage. Authors also explore the political dynamics, strategic and tactical dilemmas, and ethical challenges that feminists and LGBT activists must negotiate to play on the governmental field. Last but not the least, our contributors consider feminist interventions in postcolonial legal and political orders where they work within the postcolonial state, inside the global network of UN agencies and NGOs, and in policy spaces opened up by conflict, post-conflict and occupation.

We celebrate this International Women’s Day with our take on feminism and the publication of our first book. We hope that, even as we continue to struggle for our collective feminist futures, we can pause to ask ourselves if we are finally ready to go beyond, in Max Weber’s terms, an ethics of conviction in our political lives to embracing an ethics of feminist responsibility.


Janet Halley is Royal Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Prabha Kotiswaran is reader in law and social justice at the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London.

Rachel Rebouché is professor of law at Temple University Beasley School of Law.

Hila Shamir is associate professor of law at Tel Aviv University Buchman Faculty of Law.

“What happens when feminist critique inverts into governing norms? What kind of feminism becomes law and what becomes of arguments among feminists when it does? How are feminist challenges to male super-ordination transformed and distributed by bureaucratization and NGO-ification? How might we honestly assess feminism that governs? In this deeply intelligent, reflective, and pedagogical work, four feminist legal scholars probe these theoretical and empirical questions. No reader will favor every move, but all will be usefully provoked and instructed.”
—Wendy Brown, University of California, Berkeley

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