3 The Enduring Struggle: Findings from the History of Women’s and Gender Studies in the Global South


Illustration of author Adrianna L. Ernstberger wearing a face mask with feminist sayings on it
Adrianna L. Ernstberger by Nicole Carter

By Adrianna L. Ernstberger, Marian University

“Feminism has taught many of us to value the enduring sense of being in struggle, which makes the struggle today within Women’s Studies a project of possibility in a strange utopian sense”

~ Robyn Wiegman (2002, 2).

Women’s and Gender Studies (hereafter referred to as WGS) is an interdisciplinary academic field that interrogates the social construction of gender, the lived experiences of women, and how identity, power, and privilege impact our lives.[1] WGS arose in response to the growing need to further understand the nature of women’s oppression and uncover methods to resist sexism, gender-based violence, and economic inequalities. It evolved to challenge systemic social injustices across intersectional identity markers such as race, class, sexual orientation, and physical ability to name but a few. The history of the discipline’s emergence warrants continued exploration, not only in the name of archival record keeping, but also given that fifty years after WGS entered US colleges and universities, its legitimacy and necessity are still challenged–both in and outside of the academy.

The history of WGS has almost exclusively been written using the nation-state as the unit of measure and, in most of those cases, focused almost exclusively on the Global North.[2] The result is an imprecise history that features the lives of WGS pioneers and the institutional histories from the Global North as the dominant narrative of the birth and coming of age of this ever-evolving discipline.[3] More troubling still, depending on who writes the histories, often the “pioneers” are identified as predominantly white. The focus on WGS framed within the context of the Global North—mostly analyzed country by country—has prevented a genuinely global analysis of WGS from coming into view. Moreover, a bias towards histories of the Global North has also served to cast the history of WGS programs in the Global South into its shadow, reifying the neo-colonialist impression that WGS and feminism are products of a modernity imagined as wholly or predominantly “Western” in nature.

It is very difficult for Global North scholars to pinpoint an exact number of current or former WGS programs in the Global South due to a combination of factors, including: Political instability, lack of access to non-digital records, loss or destruction of records, and language barriers. Regardless of these challenges, it is clear that WGS has deep and far-reaching roots throughout the region, with WGS degree-granting programs currently operating on six continents and in no less than fifty-three countries.[4] In order to explore these histories, I traveled to eight countries (Cuba, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Uganda) to speak with WGS founding pioneers and learn about the birth of the discipline in the Global South.[5]

Several key findings emerged from my research which indicate the significant impact that WGS has had in the region socially, politically, and economically. Herein this essay I focus on just one of them: transnational feminism. In each of the aforementioned countries, transnational feminism was intrinsically tied to the conception, development, and institutionalization of WGS. That may not sound particularly groundbreaking, as “transnational feminism” is a widely used concept and phrase at this point in the discipline’s history. However, the history of WGS in the Global South clearly indicates the centrality of transnational feminist ideology, pedagogy, scholarship, and activism from its inception. This trajectory is in direct contrast to WGS in the Global North. According to Beverly Guy-Sheftall, WGS in the US did not start to “internationalize” until the early 1990s, in what she considers the third phase of the field.[6]

WGS in the Global South is firmly entrenched in transnational feminist networks to incorporate local, regional, and international partnerships. Regional and international conferences serve a vital role as a site for transnational feminism and for the development of transnational feminist networks, both of which have been central to WGS in the Global South from its inception. The significance of such sites as initial fomenting grounds for the establishment of WGS programs became clearer as I spoke with each new founder and researched each new program, be it in Africa or Latin America. For example, Professors Deborah Kasente and Maxine Ankrah, pioneers of WGS at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, both reflected on the 1985 Third United Nations Women’s Conference in Nairobi, Kenya as the place where WGS in Uganda, or at least the dream of a Ugandan WGS program, was born. Almost thirty years later and Ankrah’s excitement about the conference and the events that followed was evident when she stated, “We came out of Nairobi on fire!”[7]

Likewise, after attending the Second United Nations Conference on Women in Copenhagen in 1980, Latin American feminists sought to develop a transnational feminist network of scholars and activists in Latin America and the Caribbean to better understand and combat women’s oppression. Thus, in July of 1981, the first Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro was held in Bogotá, Colombia.[8] Participants in the 1981 Encuentros became WGS pioneers throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in places such as Chile, Trinidad and Tobago, and Mexico. In November of 2017, the Fourteenth Encuentro took place in Montevideo, Argentina, where over twenty-two hundred people from all over Latin America and the Caribbean gathered to continue working towards the realization of women’s human rights using the mantra, “Diverse but not Dispersed,” to highlight the multiple identity markers contributing to this work.[9]

In addition to acting as foundational locations, transnational feminist conferences were also platforms to launch newly established WGS programs at various universities throughout the Global South. In 1987, the inaugural act of the newly created “Women’s Studies Unit” in the Center for Extension and Continuing Education at Universiti Putra Malaysia hosted the first transnational conference on Gender and Technology in South East Asia.[10] This commitment to transnational feminist dialogue continues in the Middle East and North Africa with the 1st International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women: Women’s World hosted by the newly established Women’s Studies Program at Haifa University in 1981. This pattern continues throughout the Global South, with an understandable surge in the year following the 1985 United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi.[11]

In addition to utilizing international and intraregional conferences as opportunities to open dialogue and inform WGS development throughout the Global South, we can see that WGS students, scholars, and activists have strong ties to transnational feminist networks and have since the inception of their programs. In each of the eight countries where I spoke with WGS scholars and activists, it was clear that their work was informed by their affiliation with both local and transnational feminist networks in a way that differentiated them from their Global North compatriots. In Cuba, Norma Vasallo Barrueta, one of the founding pioneers of the “Women’s Studies Group” established in 1987, and current President of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Havana, pointed to the significance of these affiliations, and their resultant relationships, in the development of WGS in Cuba. I heard this echoed repeatedly, often going so far as to mention the same organizations regardless of whether the conversation took place in Manilla, New Delhi, or Beirut. Some of the organizations that came up most often were Development Alternative with Women for a New Era  (DAWN), Women Living Under Muslim  Laws, Women’s Learning Partnership, the Association of Women in Development (AWID), and the Asian Association of Women’s Studies.[12] These networks have informed and supported the development and growth of WGS throughout the Global South.

WGS scholars continue to create new programs in the Global South. In 2015, Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, launched the first course of their new WGS master’s degree program, Gender and Women’s Studies. In a nation known more for its history of denying girls access to education than for progressive women’s rights, this program has amazing potential to educate about and combat gender-based inequalities. The program has not come about without controversy, as at least one male professor is on record stating he does not approve of the program because “women are not, in fact, equal to men.”[13] Zheela Rafhat, an inaugural student in the program, sees a definite need for WGS in Afghanistan: “This gender program is really needed in Afghanistan, because many women do not know about their rights, so through this program, we can make women aware of their rights, which enables them to work and study in this society, and we also want to tell women that you are not only made for housework.”[14] The initial class includes twenty-eight students–eighteen women and ten men–and intends to address issues such as women’s political and social rights, women and conflict, and gender and poverty.[15] Moreover, as the United Nations Development Program explains, “the courses are tailored to the Afghan context and based on best practices in promoting gender equality in Islamic countries.”[16]

Kabul’s example highlights the reality that the history of WGS is far from static. In fact, the discipline is in constant motion, responding to specific political, social, and economic realities. Some WGS challenges are globally universal, such as patriarchal resistance, disciplinary legitimacy, and relying heavily on–often women’s–unpaid labor to facilitate departmental leadership. Yet some challenges are regionally specific. WGS in the Global South faces the constant challenge of capacity building, which is why most programs begin at the graduate level rather than the undergraduate level; a new contingent of WGS scholars must be trained in order to more widely develop the discipline in many areas.

Despite the contested terrain in which WGS operates, WGS scholars in the Global South have successfully institutionalized the discipline through the creation of WGS programs in at least sixty-four countries. The discipline continues to be strengthened and expanded through courses and curriculum that are rooted in local realities, indigenous feminisms, and the voices of local social justice activists. Research Centers throughout the region continue to support faculty, student, and community WGS scholarship through access to resources, mentorship, community programing, political activism, and the physical space needed to host conferences. In spite of limited funding, high teaching loads, and in some cases a significantly smaller pool of publishers, WGS scholars across the Global South continue to contribute to historiography of WGS, while at the same time bringing together people, theories, and primary materials across borders in an effort to further a global dialogue about WGS. (See Darkwah, this collection.)

Nawal El Sa’dawi once reflected that she was accused of being a savage and dangerous woman, to which she replied, “I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”[17] As we continue to document the history of WGS, as we continue to assert our rightful place in the academy as a legitimate space of intellectual inquiry, and as we continue to challenge systemic oppression in all its guises, we cannot ignore that we do so in the midst of the violent debacle that is 2020. Sadly, like other moments in history, this is a time filled with the dangers of fascist leadership, a global pandemic, and increasingly virulent anti-Black racist and gender-based violence. As we seek community and strength, we cannot forget to turn to the pioneers of our discipline. The histories of the academic feminists, the social justice warriors, and grassroots activists that have always been the backbone of Women’s and Gender Studies. When truth is savage and dangerous…we must stay savage, we must stay dangerous.

Work cited:

Alvarez, Sonia E. 2010. “Translating the Global: Effects of Transnational Organizing on Local Feminist Discourses and Practices in Latin America.” In Women, Gender & Politics: A Reader, eds. Mona Lena and Sarah Childs Krook, 63 – 70. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Alvarez, Sonia E. Alvarez, Elisabeth Jay Friedman, Ericka Beckman, Maylei Blackwell, Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, Nathalie Lebon, Marysa Navarro and Marcela Ríos Tobar. 2003. “Encountering Latin American and Caribbean Feminisms,” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 28(2): 537-579.

Bergstrom, Philip, ed. 2004. Women’s/Gender Studies in Asia-Pacific. Bangkok: UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.

Ernstberger, Adrianna L. 2017. “A History of Women’s and Gender Studies in the Global South.” Doctorate, Department of History, Purdue University.

—–. 2020. “A Room, A Chair, and A Desk: Founding Voices of Women’s and Gender Studies in Uganda,” in Journal of International Women’s Studies. 21(2): 4-16.

Friedman, Elisabeth J. 2015. “Feminism Under Construction,” in The North American Congress on Latin America. https://nacla.org/article/feminism-under-construction. [Accessed: 6/10/2020]

Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. 1995. Women’s Studies: A Retrospective. Ford Foundation. New York, NY: Ford Foundation.

Koral, Claudia. 2017, Dec 18. “Feminists: Diverse but not dispersed.” AWID. https://www.awid.org/news-and-analysis/feminists-diverse-not-dispersed. [Accessed: 6/10/2020]

Moghadam, Valentine M. 2005. Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press.

NWSA. “What is Women’s Studies?” National Women’s Studies Association. https://www.nwsa.org/page/AboutNWSA?&hhsearchterms=%22is+and+women%27s+and+studies%22. [Accessed: 6/10/2020]

Rafhat, Zheela. 2015, Oct 25. “Afghanistan’s First Women and Gender Studies Program Now in Session.” By Megan Thompson, PBS News Hour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/afghanistans-first-women-gender-studies-program-now-session. [Accessed: 6/10/2020]

Rivera Berruz, Stephanie. 2020. “Latin American Feminism,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-latin-america/. [Accessed: 6/10/2020]

Sa`dawi, Nawal and Sharif Hatatah. 1983. Woman at point zero. London: Zed Books.

Silius, Harriet. 2005. “The professionalization of Women’s Studies students in Europe: expectations and experiences,” in Doing Women’s Studies: Employment Opportunities, Personal Impacts and Social Consequences, ed. Gabriele Griffin, 111-140. London: Zed Books.

Thambiah, Shanthi. 2000. “Trends in Women’s Studies and Gender Studies in Malaysia,” in Journal of Asian Women’s Studies. 9: 86-93.

UNDP. 2016, July 10. “Gender and Women’s Studies at Kabul University: A Step Towards Addressing the Gender Gap.” Afghanistan, United National Development Plan. https://www.af.undp.org/content/afghanistan/en/home/ourwork/womenempowerment/successstories/AStepTowardsAddressing-GenderGap.html. [Accessed: 6/10/2020]

Wiegman, Robyn, ed. 2002. Women’s Studies On Its Own: A Next Wave Reader In Institutional Change. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

  1. “What is Women’s Studies?” National Women’s Studies Association, https://www.nwsa.org/page/About-NWSA?&hhsearchterms=%22is+and+women%27s+and+studies%22
  2. A very small number of regional histories of WGS outside North America and Europe exist, see for example Philip Bergstrom, ed. Women's/Gender Studies in Asia-Pacific (Bangkok: UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, 2004). More commonly, continent-wide histories have focused on Europe. See for example Harriet Silius, "The Professionalization of Women's Studies Students in Europe: Expectations and Experiences," in Doing Women's Studies: Employment Opportunities, Personal Impacts and Social Consequences, ed. Gabriele Griffin (London: Zed Books, 2005).
  3. The terms “Global North” and “Global South” are geopolitical terms that have been utilized in numerous fields to replace more problematic terms such as “Third World” and “Developing World.” While this terminology is not without critique, it acts here as an ordering system and a conceptual apparatus to help place the world in a manageable framework for analyzing power structures and systems of oppression and liberation.
  4. The scope of my initial research focused exclusively on degree-granting undergraduate and graduate programs. As such, this number does not account for the numerous WGS research centers, certificate programs, and community-based learning initiatives that are very much a part of the larger WGS legacy.
  5. Adrianna L. Ernstberger, “A History of Women’s & Gender Studies in the Global South” (Doctoral Dissertation, Purdue University, 2017).
  6. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Women's Studies: A Retrospective (A report to the Ford Foundation), (New York: Ford Foundation, 1995), 19.
  7. Adrianna L. Ernstberger. 2020. “A Room, A Chair, and A Desk: Founding Voices of Women’s and Gender Studies in Uganda,” Journal of International Women's Studies. 21(2): 4-16.
  8. For a succinct analysis on the role of the Encuentros within a larger view of Latin American Feminisms see Stephanie Berruz Rivera, “Latin American Feminism,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta. (Stanford University, 2020). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-latin-america/. “Encountering Latin American and Caribbean Feminisms,” first published in 2003 remains a canonical text on the emergence of Latin American transnational feminist networks and the First Latin American and Caribbean Encuentro. See Sonia E. Alvarez, et al. 2003. "Encountering Latin American and Caribbean Feminisms." Signs 28(2): 537-79. To access Alvarez’s more recent work on the role of transnational feminist networks in Latin America see: Sonia E. Alvarez, "Translating the Global: Effects of Transnational Organizing on Local Feminist Discourses and Practices in Latin America," in Women, Gender & Politics: A Reader, eds. Mona Lena and Sarah Childs Krook (Oxford: Oxford Press, 2010): 63-70.
  9. Claudia Koral, “Feminists: Diverse but not dispersed,” last modified December 18, 2017, https://www.awid.org/news-and-analysis/feminists-diverse-not-dispersed.
  10. Shanthi Thambiah. 2000. "Trends in Women's Studies and Gender Studies in Malaysia," Journal of Asian Women's Studies 9: 86-93.
  11. For more examples of the connection between emerging WGS programs and international conferences see: Adrianna L. Ernstberger. 2020. “A Room, A Chair, and A Desk: Founding Voices of Women’s and Gender Studies in Uganda,” Journal of International Women's Studies 21(2): 4-16.
  12. This is a very miniscule list of the myriad transnational feminist networks around the world, starting with Association of Women in Development (AWID) founded in 1982. Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) and Women Living Under Muslim Rule, both began in 1984. Followed by Women’s Learning Partnership 2000, and the Association of Asian Women’s Studies in 2007. For a more comprehensive list and analysis of transnational feminist networks, see Val Moghadam’s Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
  13. Zheela Rafhat, “Afghanistan’s First Women and Gender Studies Program Now in Session,” interview by Megan Thompson, PBS News Hour, October 25, 2015, Accessed 6/10/2020, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/afghanistans-first-women-gender-studies-program-now-session.
  14. Ibid.
  15. “Gender and Women’s Studies at Kabul University,” United Nations Development Program, July 10, 2016, Accessed June 10, 2020, https://www.af.undp.org/content/afghanistan/en/home/ourwork/womenempowerment/successstories/AStepTowardsAddressing-GenderGap.html.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Nawal El Sa’dawi, Woman at Point Zero, (London: Zed Books, 1983).

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