The Gendered Politics of Seriousness

Seriously! Investigating Crashes and Crises as if Women Mattered

By Cynthia Enloe

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013, 242 pp., $29.95, paperback

Seriously! is an engaging contribution to debates over globalization, gender, international politics, and feminism that tackles head on the questions of who and what get taken seriously, why, and why these matter. Or as the author asserts, it is about “the gendered politics of seriousness.”  Cynthia Enloe is the author of several groundbreaking books on gender, globalization, and militarism—subjects that most would definitely label as “serious.” But in this book she weaves her personal experiences together with case studies (such as one on the banking crash of 2008) and conversations with other feminists (such as with Cynthia Cockburn on peace movements) to illustrate how difficult it is to get women’s experiences and feminist analysis taken seriously, and why the omission has “significant consequences.”

Enloe grabs our attention with a startling confession: “I spent a long time—too long—not taking women seriously.  That means I did not think I would gain anything analytically by paying close attention to women.” As one of the first female political scientists of her generation working on international relations, Enloe delineates both the overt and subtle pressures on her and other women not to focus on gender, for fear of becoming tainted by feminism, or femininity, which connote unserious matters. She chronicles her own journey from studying how men of various backgrounds shape politics in Malaysia, to waking up to the absence of women’s voices in her field, to realizing that female experiences are profoundly important to every political, economic, and cultural question. This process changed her scholarship and her teaching, making her more of an activist and pushing her to write in a lively manner accessible to many audiences, something she has mastered here and elsewhere.

Enloe’s experience is of course both personal and political, both specific to her and common to many women as they encounter feminist ideas and movements. Many feminists will recognize her process and recall their own frustrations as they sought to be taken seriously, especially when they crossed over the line from discussing “women’s issues” to developing feminist perspectives on “larger issues” of global politics. Watching Enloe’s thought process as she learns and creates ways to bring women into discussions of “non gender-specific” topics—often with women activists overseas—gives depth as well as integrity and often humor to the story.  We see her struggle to do this in her first feminist book on women and militarism, Does Khaki Become You? (1983), and her mastery of it in her classic Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (1989). Her description of her process is itself a primer on how to do it.

One of Enloe’s key methodological conclusions—that “the mundane matters”—constitutes her third chapter, “Why Feminists Take Daily Life Seriously.” Here, she shows how the power and dynamics in so-called private, trivial interactions, in sites from the family and community to multinational factories in free trade zones, is causally connected to power in national and interstate public spheres.  The book comes alive with her use of detailed examples.  “Diving deep into the particular, I gather the most valuable clues about the elusive big picture,” she explains.

Enloe argues that the lives of women matter in and of themselves, and that we must learn to understand the role of gender—of masculinity and femininity—in each specific cultural context. If we don’t understand this, not only will we not understand women, we will also fail to fully understand what men do—because male behavior, too, is shaped by gender and various forms of masculinity.

One of the book’s key chapters is “Masculinities in the Banking Crash of 2008,” which is based on feminist case studies that explore this theme.  It looks at the accusation of sexual misconduct against the French economist and politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund, and also compares the responses to the 2008 crash on Wall Street in the US, the United Kingdom, and in Iceland, to discover the role gender played in the crisis. Carefully avoiding biological determinism, Enloe cites feminists’ research on varying expressions of masculinities in different national cultures and workplaces—such as rewards for hyper-risk taking, and environments that are hostile to women. “The genderings of politics inside institutions cannot be fenced off from the politics outside those institutions,” she writes. Thus, the forms of masculinity in different workplace cultures—along with other factors such as attitudes toward government regulation—contributed to the evolution of the crisis and to how it was handled in each country. 

The failure to take gender into account has major, real-life consequences, Enloe says: “[T]he results can be inadequate explanations, poor decisions, flawed policies, failed efforts, and perpetuated injustices.” Such an assertion—that for the UN and governments to improve the lives of women and to implement positive solutions to world problems, feminist analysis and women’s experiences must become part of its policy-making debates—has also been at the core of feminist efforts to influence global debates through the UN over the past three decades. This is as true globally as it is locally.

My experience in the Global Campaign for Women’s Rights as Human Rights bears out Enloe’s analysis.  Our feminist strategy was to have the violations women experience, at the everyday level of domestic violence or the withdrawal of state social services, taken more seriously, by placing them in the context of human rights—which the world views as important. By utilizing the “serious” mechanisms for state accountability set up by the UN and regional human rights bodies, we aimed to pressure governments to pay attention to women’s lives and problems. Feminism brought new questions and approaches to human rights theory and practice: the idea that “women’s rights are human rights” brought women into a “serious” framework and in turn made that frame evolve and change, in order to produce more accurate documentation and more effective remedies and policies, for both women and men. Feminist understanding of the public-private split has brought greater attention to how to implement due diligence and other forms of accountability for nonstate actors, especially regarding violence against women and sexual rights, but also in relation to food security, employment, housing, and other socioeconomic rights.

In an insightful conversation recorded in Chapter 7, Enloe and Nadine Puechguirbal, an adviser on gender to the UN, discuss Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, as well as gender and peace keeping in Haiti. I wished for more of this kind of reflection; I would have liked to hear about how SCR1325 is linked to the larger picture of feminist work at the UN, in particular, to the UN World Conferences on Women during the 1990s.  Breakthroughs in the inclusion of feminist perspectives in UN discourse, in areas such as development, health, and human rights, have created pressure on the Security Council to act on SCR1325 and follow up resolutions since 2000. (That I want more of Enloe’s insights in this area is a sign of just how good the book is.)

In Chapter 8 Enloe creates an imaginary dinner party that brings together contemporary Egyptian feminists with women’s rights advocates from previous revolutions in Egypt, as well as from those in Algeria, Russia, France, the US, Turkey, Nicaragua, Chile, Vietnam, and China. Through their interactions, Enloe examines a number of timely and timeless issues feminists face when seeking to make women’s rights part of national agendas: when and how do we best push forward women’s specific demands as women within the overall struggle? How can we ensure that the women who are mobilized for the revolution are not then asked to step back when the new powers and state structures are consolidated? How can we build transnational alliances in the midst of unequal power, and when national conflicts and global structures of colonialism and/or imperialism distort these relations? How can we ensure that changes are not just shifts in which patriarchies and masculinities are dominant? Enloe wisely does not try to answer these questions but instead provides insightful reflections on how these issues are culturally and historically specific, yet at the same time almost universal in their recurrence.

Other important strategic issues for contemporary feminism are introduced in various contexts throughout the book. For example, Enloe makes a clear and passionate case for the importance of gender-disaggregated data and why it matters to making effective change—something feminists have been pushing hard for both in the UN and in individual countries. She also alerts us to the danger of using “instrumentalism” alone to put women on the agenda, as in this cogent example:

If we argue that our research on war-related domestic violence should be taken seriously … because the military’s effectiveness is jeopardized … then we imply that women’s experience of domestic violence ... does not matter for its own sake.

This is indeed a major challenge, as more mainstream attention is being paid to women but often in a reductionist or limited way. As we demonstrate that paying attention to women can help policy makers reduce other problems, too—which it often does—we must make sure that we do not lose sight of the fact that “women’s well being matters for its own sake,” writes Enloe.

Enloe also touches upon the tension between women-specific work and autonomous groups, and coalition building and engagement with men and mostly male dominated groups. This discussion takes various forms, including debates over terminology, such as whether to say “violence against women” or “gender-based violence,” and how men can be “feminist.” Too often our feminist debates over strategy consume much energy, become academic and bitter rather than informative, and turn off potential allies, both female and male.  But as Enloe shows here, we need a respectful and productive fusion of the alternatives—a “both/and” relationship—even as we passionately debate the issues. 

Enloe challenges us to think about how to apply feminist gender analysis to global crises and elucidates many of the roadblocks along the path.  This book should be read by all who care about international issues as they affect our lives locally and globally. It will make you want to read more of Enloe’s work (if you have not already) and to sit down with friends, family, and colleagues for a very long and spirited conversation.

Charlotte Bunch, founder of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, has been an activist, writer, and organizer in the feminist and human rights movements for more than four decades. A Board of Governor’s Distinguished Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies, she is on the board of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development and a member of the Global Civil Society Advisory Group to UN Women.  She has written numerous influential essays, edited nine anthologies and authored Passionate Politics: Feminist Theory in Action (1987) and Demanding Accountability: The Global Campaign and Vienna Tribunal for Women's Human Rights (1994).

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