Critical Perspectives on "Governance Feminism"

This article appeared in the Dynamics of Global Feminism issue in Spring/Summer 2019.

A Review of Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field By Janet Halley, Prabha Kotiswaran, Rachel Rebouché and Hila Shamir, Editors (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 599 pages.

Eugenia McGill
September 11, 2019

The essays in this edited volume, together with a companion volume, Governance Feminism: An Introduction, provide critical reflections on the politics, ethics and consequences of feminist engagements with international, national and local power structures.1 The editors and other contributors include distinguished academics in law, anthropology, sociology, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. Most of the chapters draw on case studies from the United States, but several also interrogate feminist engagements in law and policy change in Canada, Colombia, France, India, Israel and Palestine, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as well as at the international level.

As outlined in their Preface, the editors define “governance feminism” (GF) broadly, to include “every form in which feminists and feminist ideas exert a governing will within human affairs” and in “human-inflected processes like knowledge formation, technology and even the weather.”2 Building on Michel Foucault’s expansive concept of governmentality, the editors and other contributors consider feminist efforts to engage with both state and non-state power structures. Motivated by the recognition that “feminists now walk the halls of power,” they explore several questions through the collected case studies, including: “Exactly what forms of feminism ‘make sense’ to power elites as they gradually let women in or are forced to make way for them? … 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 distributional consequences of the partial inclusion of some feminist projects? Who benefits and who loses? Can feminism foster a critique of its own successes?”3

The concern about distributional consequences reflects a recognition that “some GF projects [have been] terrible mistakes; others have unintended consequences that are or should be contested within feminist political life.”4 Drawing on Max Weber’s discussion of the importance of an “ethics of responsibility” as well as an “ethics of conviction” in politics, the editors argue for critically assessing whether a particular GF project is truly emancipatory, and if so, for whom?5 This critical gaze is especially important in cases involving any of “the five C’s: collaboration, compromise, collusion, complicity, and co-optation” in governance projects.6

The editors trace their interest in GF to their own discomfort with the rise of “crime-and-punishment solutions” to a variety of issues, including domestic violence, prostitution/sex work and human trafficking, and sexual violence in armed conflict, which have generally been promoted by “dominance feminists” and are increasingly aligned with neoliberal and socially conservative forces.7 This critical perspective on “carceral feminism” is reflected in several of the essays, including Karen Engle’s tracing of the emergence of an international women’s rights agenda focusing on violence against women and sexual violence in conflict; Elizabeth Bernstein’s exploration of the curious alliance between US feminists and evangelical Christians in advocating against sex trafficking in the US and internationally; Leigh Goodmark’s documenting of the unintended negative consequences of criminalizing domestic violence in the United States, especially for immigrant women and for women and men of color; and Libby Adler and Janet Halley’s reflections on the distributional consequences of stringent child support enforcement measures in the United States, especially for low-income fathers.8

Other essays included in the volume illustrate the diversity of GF projects implemented globally and locally; the intra-feminist conflicts and odd alliances they can foster; the non-feminist agendas they can serve; and the unintended consequences that can follow. At the international level, Dianne Otto complements Karen Engle’s discussion of the international women’s rights agenda in tracing the advocacy of feminist peace activists to persuade the UN Security Council to adopt a “women, peace and security” (WPS) agenda, culminating in the adoption of Resolution 1325 in 2000 and a series of subsequent resolutions and implementing measures.9 Despite these achievements, Otto finds that the WPS agenda has only “selectively engaged” with “feminist logics of social justice and peace.”10 In particular, she notes that the emphasis on sexual violence in several of the WPS resolutions reinforces “protective stereotypes of women that underpin and justify military ways of thinking.”11 However, she finds that Resolution 1325 itself, as well as three subsequent resolutions endorsing women’s participation, rights and empowerment in post-conflict state-building, create openings for feminists and their allies to promote more transformative visions of social justice and peace through both grassroots activism and institutional change.12

Also focusing internationally, Aziza Ahmed traces the successful efforts of feminist activists at the height of the global HIV/AIDS crisis to persuade US and international public health organizations to see women as an “at risk group” in need of priority attention. Ahmed finds that this was achieved by framing a “’heterosexual risk narrative’ in which men are the main source of HIV infection for women and violence against women a key means of women’s vulnerability.”13 Ahmed notes the unintended consequences of this narrative, including a simplistic depiction of women as passive sexual beings and victims, and the demonizing of men as “easy targets of blame and criminalization.”14 However, the narrative succeeded in part because it fit neatly into a larger dominance/carceral feminist world view, as well as a neoliberal development framework stressing “individual behavior change over structural responses.”15

The country-focused case studies in the volume illustrate a range of local variations in GF projects and outcomes, as well as their links to global forces and trends. The case studies from Colombia and Sri Lanka, in particular, reflect GF interventions in transitional and post-conflict settings. Isabel Cristina Jaramillo Sierra, for example, explores the role of local feminists in Colombia’s “Transition” following the peace accord of 2005.16 She documents the active role of feminist NGOs, coalitions and researchers in engaging with various transitional institutions, through research and reports documenting the impact of the conflict on women, training of staff in the gender teams set up in national and subnational government offices, litigation to demand special measures to protect and support female victims of the conflict, and direct provision of services to these women. Echoing the concerns expressed by Karen Engle and Dianne Otto in their essays, she also questions the premise underlying many of these GF initiatives – that women have been the worst victims of the conflict and therefore in need of special assistance – which was reinforced by influential reports by both the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Amnesty International. This framing of women as victims of conflict has yielded some immediate humanitarian benefits for displaced women, but Jaramillo Sierra worries that it has also trapped them in a humanitarian/welfare system, and that they may be ill-equipped to participate in the post-conflict reconstruction process ahead.

While GF initiatives in transitional Colombia framed women largely as victims of the conflict, Vasuki Nesiah finds that feminists and their allies in Sri Lanka have drawn on both the sexual violence/victimization and agency/empowerment narratives in the WPS agenda (discussed by Dianne Otto in her essay) to address women’s needs in post-conflict reconstruction: “Rather than focus on victimhood and harm alone, the emphasis has also been on agency and resilience – on women as economic actors…; indeed, the backdrop of victimization gives added moral impetus to policy initiatives advancing empowerment.”17 However, the focus is mainly on economic empowerment through improved access to property, credit and entrepreneurship – drawing on the “women’s economic empowerment” discourse increasingly favored by development banks and agencies, governments and private sector actors in international development. Nesiah focuses specifically on an Owner Driven Housing Assistance (ODHA) program supported by multiple donors as well as the World Bank, UN-Habitat and the Sri Lankan government. This program aimed to provide individual home-building grants and micro-loans to residents in conflict-affected areas. The program, responding to government, UN and NGO calls to address the needs of “war widows,” prioritized femaleheaded households for assistance. However, because the grants were insufficient, most households needed to take out loans to cover the balance of the construction costs, and most female borrowers were unable to repay the high rates of interest on the loans. The government belatedly provided debt forgiveness and introduced interest rate caps on loans to war-affected women, but the sad irony remains that the ODHA initiative actually increased rather than decreased women’s housing and financial vulnerability. Nesiah cautions that post-conflict development projects such as ODHA, which attempt to advance GF goals of women’s empowerment through unregulated market mechanisms, risk exacerbating women’s economic vulnerability and disempowering them further. Nesiah’s essay echoes a wider feminist critique of “women’s economic empowerment” initiatives in international development, and longstanding feminist critiques of microcredit schemes. 18,19

Other case studies explore the benefits and costs of GF initiatives for different stakeholder groups. In two essays, Darren Rosenblum and Maleiha Malik explore how the concepts of universalism and parity have been used both to increase French women’s representation in elected assemblies and to ban the wearing of headscarves by French Muslim women. Prabha Kotiswaran documents the competing interests and strategies of Indian women’s movement members, anti-prostitution/anti-trafficking NGOs (both feminist and non-feminist), and sex workers’ groups in shaping changes in Indian laws against rape and trafficking. In Pakistan, Vanja Hamzić laments the passing of politically active feminist collectives and the rise of a homogenous and elite class of “feminist experts” who work in consonance with government, donors and civil society actors to pursue neoliberal agendas, to the exclusion of other feminist perspectives. Aeyal Gross documents various manifestations of “gay governance,” including the United Kingdom’s and United States’ promotion of LGBT rights through their foreign policies and foreign assistance, and Israel’s advancement of LGBT rights to burnish its credentials as a liberal democracy, and to draw a contrast to its less “liberal” neighbors. Rema Hammami also explores how the publication of survey data on domestic violence in Palestine– based on a methodology that has been subject to criticism–led to various government, donor and NGO initiatives to address domestic violence, but also reinforced “meta-narratives of Arab/Muslim patriarchal violence as represented in the violent pathologies of Palestinian manhood,” with wider geopolitical implications.20

The varied essays included in Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field resonate with the overall theme of this journal issue, and with several of the contributed articles. This edited volume and its companion, Governance Feminism: An Introduction, also are valuable additions to the broader literature on gender and governance. The editors acknowledge some feminist resistance to the project of “describing and assessing the consequences of feminist engagement with [power]”– for example, from those who view any “involvement in governance [as] intrinsically bad,” or who view the feminist gains from this engagement as too small and fragile to subject to scrutiny.21 The essays included in both volumes–completed soon after the US election of 2016–also do not grapple with the recent rise of nationalist politics and the related backlash against feminist achievements in many countries, and the implications for GF projects going forward. Even so, the editors and other contributors make a compelling case for clear-eyed assessments of the positive and negative consequences of GF initiatives. This is part of the “ethics of responsibility” for feminists engaged in politics at any level, and essential to learn from past mistakes and missteps. Feminists may draw different conclusions from these assessments, based on their own assumptions and priorities. But there is still merit in systematically considering “distributional consequences, not in terms of theoretical absolutes, when considering the value of any particular feminist success and the danger of any particular feminist defeat.”22 In terms of methodology, any distributional analysis should be framed broadly to consider a wide range of potential stakeholders, indirect as well as direct impacts, and unintended as well as intended consequences. Including perspectives from diverse stakeholders and observers will also help to mitigate bias in assessing a particular GF initiative.

Despite the breadth of case studies included in Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field, the editors acknowledge gaps in coverage, especially related to GF projects addressing paid and unpaid work, as well as other economic issues. Except for the essays on French gender quotas, there is also little attention to global and national projects to increase women’s representation in elected assemblies and other formal governance structures, perhaps because the topic has been explored extensively by other researchers.23 There is also a regional gap in terms of documenting African GF experiences. Looking ahead, there will be numerous opportunities to critically assess GF engagements in other areas, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the related Sustainable Development Goals, the recent articulation of “feminist” approaches to foreign policy and foreign aid, and the increasing engagement of private sector actors in “gender equality and women’s empowerment” projects. 

Eugenia McGill is a Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of International and Public Affairs and the Interim Director of the Economic and Political Development Concentration at Columbia SIPA. Her research interests include the social impacts of globalization, development interventions, and development finance, particularly gender-related impacts, as well as innovative and inclusive approaches to development planning.



 1 Janet Halley, Prabha Kotiswaran, Rachel Rebouché and Hila Shamir, Governance Feminism: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

 2 Janet Halley, Prabha Kotiswaran, Rachel Rebouché and Hila Shamir, eds., Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), xii.

 3 Ibid. In the companion volume, the authors also define “feminism” broadly, as “a sustained disagreement about sex, sexuality, gender, and the family among people who share a central, sometimes pivotal or indispensable commitment to the emancipation of things F – women, femininity, female or feminine genders, mothers, daughters, girls.” Governance Feminism: An Introduction, 24.

 4 Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field, xiii.

 5 Ibid, xvi-xviii.

 6 Ibid, xvii.

 7 Ibid, x-xi. In the companion volume, the authors trace the emergence of “dominance feminism” from its radical US feminist roots in the late 1960s, and with its singular focus on countering male domination through transformative shifts in power dynamics and norms/values. They also trace the “uneasy but effective alliance” of dominance feminism with liberal feminism, especially in law reform projects, and the sidelining of socialist feminism in the US and elsewhere. Governance Feminism: An Introduction, 31-47.

 8 The term “carceral feminism” was introduced by contributor Elizabeth Bernstein. See Elizabeth Bernstein, “The Politics of Sex, Rights, and Freedom in Contemporary Anti-trafficking Campaigns,” in Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field, 32, 37-41.

 9 Karen Engle, “Feminist Governance and International Law: From Liberal to Carceral Feminism,” in Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field, 3-30.

 10 Dianne Otto, “Contesting Feminism’s Institutional Doubles: Troubling the Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda,“ in Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field, 200-201.

 11 Ibid, 203. Otto singles out Resolutions 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1960 (2010) and 2106 (2013) for their almost exclusive focus on sexual violence in conflict. In 2019, the Security Council adopted a ninth WPS resolution, Resolution 2467, which also focuses almost exclusively on sexual violence in conflict, bringing the total to five out of nine resolutions.

 12 The four Security Council resolutions advancing a positive role of women in post-conflict statebuilding include Resolutions 1325 (2000), 1889 (2009), 2122 (2013) and 2242 (2015).

 13 Aziza Ahmed, “Feminism, Law, and Epidemiology in the AIDS Response,” in Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field, 181.

 14 Ibid.

 15 Ibid.

 16 Isabel Cristina Jaramillo Sierra, “Finding and Losing Feminism in Transition: The Costs of the Continuum Hypothesis for Women in Colombia,” in Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field, 434-478.

 17 Vasuki Nesiah, “Indebted: The Cruel Optimism of Leaning in to Empowerment,” in Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field, 518.

 18 For feminist critiques of “women’s economic empowerment” initiatives, see, e.g., Sylvia Chant and Caroline Sweetman, “Fixing women or fixing the world? ‘Smart economics’, efficiency approaches and gender equality in development,” Gender & Development, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2012); Rosalind Eyben and Rebecca Napier-Moore, “Choosing Words with Care? Shifting meanings of women’s empowerment in international development,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009).

 19 For feminist critiques of microcredit schemes, see, e.g., Robin Isserles, “Microcredit: The Rhetoric of Empowerment, the Reality of ‘Development as Usual’,” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3/4 (2003); Christine Keating et al., “The Rationality of Empowerment: Microcredit, Accumulation by Dispossession, and the Gendered Economy,” Signs, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2010); Kate Maclean, “Capitalizing on Women’s Social Capital? Women-Targeted Microfinance in Bolivia,” Development and Change, Vol. 41, No. 3 (2010); Megan Moodie, “Microfinance and the Gender of Risk: The Case of,” Signs, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2013).

 20 Rema Hammami, “Follow the Numbers: Global Governmentality and the Violence against Women Agenda in Occupied Palestine,” in Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field, 497. Hammami draws on Sally Engle Merry’s critique of internationally agreed indicators of gender-based violence. Sally Engle Merry, The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). This also resonates with a broader critique of the politics underlying development goals, targets and indicators. See, e.g., Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and Desmond McNeill, eds., “Special Issue – Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring the SDGs,” Global Policy Journal (January 2019).

 21 Global Feminism: Notes from the Field, xiv-xv. 

 22 Ibid, xi.

 23 See, e.g., Susan Franceschet et al., eds., The Impact of Gender Quotas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Mona Leena Krook, “Electoral Gender Quotas: A Conceptual Analysis,” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 47, No. 9 (2014).