Amrita Basu, Domenic J. Paino 1955 Professor of Political Science, and Sexuality, Women's and Gender Studies
Amrita Basu, Domenic J. Paino 1955 Professor of Political Science, and Sexuality, Women's and Gender Studies.

Book cover of Women’s Movements in the Global Era: The Power of Local Feminisms by Amrita Basu As the daughter of two parents who worked for the United Nations—her father on economic issues, her mother on women’s issues—Amrita Basu has always had a global outlook. And as The Domenic J. Paino 1955 Professor of Political Science, and the chair of Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies, she brings that largeness of perspective to bear. Indeed, her latest anthology is Women’s Movements in the Global Era: The Power of Local Feminisms (2017).

 


Ayanna Pressley
Historic numbers of women were elected
to Congress in Nov. 2018, including
Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts.

In the wake of the midterm elections, we asked her to give us a more worldly sense of women in politics and culture today.

KW: What do you make of the midterm election results? And what do they say about the state of women in politics?

AB: I think the performance of women was the most exciting and positive thing to come out of these elections. Women flipped the house and their role was crucial, and it seems clear that #MeToo and the Kavanaugh hearing had something to do with that. And the precedents! More Native American women, Muslim women, LGBTQ candidates than ever.

KW: What is your main takeaway from the Congressional hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh?

AB: The hearings were deeply troubling for millions of women and men, and particularly for women who are survivors of sexual assault. But then if one takes a step back, Kavanaugh’s nomination was disturbing to feminists even before charges of sexual assaults emerged because the question of reproductive rights was on the line. Then one has to place Kavanaugh’s nomination in the context of everything that’s happened prior to and after the 2016 elections, particularly the sexism toward Hillary Clinton.

Christine Blasey Ford
Christine Blasey Ford

KW: To take the long view, the Seneca Falls Convention was in 1848—but women didn’t get the vote until 1920. It makes you realize how long women have pushed for their rights, and how recalcitrant the opposition is.

AB: It also points to the disjunction between powerful popular protest within civil society and some very undemocratic features of American politics. Like the nomination of a justice to the Supreme Court, the electoral system, and the number of senators each state is able to send. A strong and vibrant civil society is not always sufficient to bring about institutional change at the top.

KW:  But, as you say, more women are running for office. Maybe that can nudge change at the top?  

Deputy Speaker of Swedish Parliament, Esabelle Dingizian Holds Meeting on Gender Policy Issues in Georgian Parliament in April 2018
In Sweden, 46 percent of the members of the Riksdag, the national
legislature and supreme decision-making body, are women. This is
the world's fourth highest proportion of females in a national legislature.

AB: There’s a shift in feminist thinking because, in the past, the feminist movement in the U.S. was somewhat skeptical about electoral politics. It felt the more effective venues for change were on the streets, in cultural life, rather than in institutions.   

But outside the U.S. there was a big push for proportional representation for women in many parts of Europe and Asia. There, the thinking was that you need to have a critical mass of women in office for women’s voices to be heard and for women to become a political presence.

KW: Now I’ll ask you to do the impossible. Can you give us a summary of how women’s movements look outside the West?

AB: Women often become involved in political struggles first when they’re facing state repression. It’s striking to me in Women’s Movements in the Global Era, how many writers cover women’s activism in anti-colonial nationalist movements, particularly in Asia and Africa. When there was mass mobilization against an external, repressive colonial state, there was more acceptance on the part of men for women to participate in political life.

KW: Because they were helping the cause?

AB:  Yes, but when women became more active in the public sphere, they began to raise questions about their own rights. They began to say, “Why are there not more women in leadership positions? Should we only be fighting for national independence, or also for the right to vote?” And nationalists often pay attention. India is a great example of that, as women gained voting rights as soon as India achieved independence in 1947. Or in South Africa, as a result of the anti-apartheid struggle, there’s a whole slew of rights for women that are written into the constitution.

Women waiting to vote in New Delhi, 1952
A long queue of women voters are seen waiting for their turn to cast their votes at a polling booth at Modern High School, in New Delhi, 1952. (photo credit)

KW: Last year, you taught a course called “Political Identities.” How has your own personal experience influenced your political identity?

AB:  I was born in the States and then lived when I was very young in Egypt, Libya, Thailand and we spent summers in India, where my parents are from. I think who we are as academics is so autobiographical. In my case, I was very influenced by having a mother who was very committed to global feminism.



KW: I read that she took you to Mexico City for the first-ever World Conference on Women, in 1975.

AB: I went with her to a number of these women’s conferences. It was part of what I grew up with. In college, my senior thesis was on international feminist issues. I did a double major with women’s studies. The influence of my mother is huge, and through her, I met so many powerful and impressive women and had feminist mentors in school too. I have a very strong commitment to reflecting on gender, equality and feminism in my scholarship, but also to supporting women within the academy and outside of it. I guess it’s always been part of my life.

First International Women's Conference in Mexico City
The UN World Conference of the International Women’s Year opened in Mexico City on June 19, 1975. (Photo Credit.)

KW: Can you tell me a bit about your father?

AB: When my sister and I were both born, I think he was a little disappointed, and his father certainly was, because there’s such strong son preference in India. But he was very progressive, and really supported and encouraged us.

KW: Do you have sons or daughters?

AB: Sons. Two sons, and a grandson, so this continues! I had no sense of what it would be like to raise sons. Now I really appreciate the vulnerabilities and sensitivities of young men, and it’s given me more compassion. The easy caricaturing of men-versus-women, once you have sons, it just falls away.

KW: In your introduction to Women’s Movements in the Global Era, you talk about how movements against sexual violence often succeed better than pushes for systemic change toward women’s equality. Can you explain that further?

AB: In so many women’s movements, the issue of sexual violence has been crucial. In India, one of the first issues that second wave feminists from the 1970s took on was sexual violence. This was in the context of rape of women in police custody and brutal forms of violence against low-caste women. In the United States, too, the creation of battered women’s shelters, the issue of domestic violence, was at the forefront of feminist organizing. When you can readily identify a harm and the harm is physical, it’s dramatic and people respond to it.

KW: And men want to defend the women in their lives. What was that old line? “If you want to see a feminist, look at a man who has a daughter.”

Amrita Basu (l) with her mother Rasil Basu (center) and sister Rekha Basu (r).
Amrita Basu (l) with her mother Rasil Basu (center) and sister
Rekha Basu (r).

AB: Actually, there have been some interesting studies of this. Research on the U.S. shows that the attitudes of prominent male politicians towards gender issues are influenced by whether or not they have a daughter. So feminists have been able to identify this as an issue which is a galvanizing call to action.

It’s harder to identify the harms done by structural inequalities, which are interwoven with gender, but that becomes a complicated academic analysis. It’s not one that gets people out to protest.  

KW: How would you characterize how women’s movements and LGBT advocacy work together or perhaps don’t?        

AB: There has been some tension between LGBTQ activists and feminists, particularly around transgender issues, which is really unfortunate, because the two struggles should go hand in hand and support each other. But I thought the Women’s March on Washington was inspiring because it was addressing a whole range of questions, not only to do with straight women but also LGBTQ groups, people of color, so the hope is that this kind of coalitional politics will continue.

LGBTQ supporter wears a rainbow striped American flag at the Women's March in Washington, D.C. 2017. At the micro level at Amherst College, a lot of students who are interested in feminism are also the ones interested in LGBTQ issues. We as a department have become a department of sexuality as well as women and gender studies because that’s become increasingly important to the field.        

KW: What most excites you about working at Amherst these days?

AB: I’m energized by teaching students here. I find them savvy and attuned to what’s taking place in the world. Compared to the time I started teaching here, they have more of a global perspective and more understanding of racial and gender inequality. They’re also able to intertwine analytical concerns with personal issues.   

KW: I’d like to end by quoting your own writing: “Despite the strengths of women’s movements, gender inequality is systemic, severe and pervasive throughout the world. Many feminist demands remain unfulfilled. Many achievements have been reversed.” I’m going to ask you to go out on a limb. Are we at a time to feel discouraged, or to feel hopeful?

AB: It’s such a difficult question because I feel both. We’ve seen that the gains of feminism are not linear. We’re not going from success to greater success, in part because with achievements comes a backlash against it.

KW: Backlash seems almost organic to the process.

AB: Yes, but it also doesn’t seem that all of those gains can and will be reversed. We make progress and then we face setbacks, but that progress, those struggles, are not going to stop. Right now, we’re living through such difficult times. But if you look at the numbers of women running for electoral office, the mobilizing of women, transnational connections they’re forging, the use of social media to advance feminist goals, all those things are sources of hope.   

Then there is the change in the age of women who are getting involved. Not long ago, younger women had this sense that feminism was passé, that women had made the gains they needed.  

KW: Right, “feminism” is what your mother’s interested in.

AB: Right. But now, with #MeToo, the Women’s March on Washington, what I see on college campuses is that younger women are getting involved. They are perhaps defining issues in different ways than an older generation of feminists did, but I think that activism is something to be celebrated. So, in the long run, I don’t feel pessimistic.