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Social movements can be deﬁned as collectivities acting outside institutionalized channels to promote or resist change in an institution, society, or the world order. Although there are a diversity of theoretical approaches to the study of social movements, until recently mainstream theory and research in the ﬁelds of social movements and political sociology have ignored the inﬂuence of gender on social protest. Beginning in the 1990s, scholars trained in the gender tradition that ﬂourished in the social sciences during the 1980s turned their attention to questions pertaining to the gender dynamics of a variety of historical and contemporary movements. As a result, a thriving body of research demonstrates that gender hierarchy is so persistent that, even in movements that do not evoke the language of gender conﬂict or explicitly embrace gender change, the mobilization, leadership patterns, strategies, ideologies, and outcomes of social movements are inﬂuenced by gender and gender diﬀerences. This research paper delineates the way gender relations and hierarchy inﬂuence various social movements, including feminist, antifeminist, men’s, labor, civil rights, gay and lesbian, nationalist, rightwing, and fascist movements. It ends by discussing the broader implications of integrating gender to mainstream theories of social movements.
1. Linking Gender And Social Movement Theories
Notions of femininity and masculinity, the gender division of labor in private and public spheres, and the numerous institutions, practices, and structures that reinforce male dominance are not expressions of natural diﬀerences between women and men. Rather, the gender order is constructed socially and gender is a pervasive feature of social life. Although gender scholars fairly universally adopt social constructionist perspectives to understand gender relations, there is considerable variation in the epistemologies, contexts, and levels of analyses of the various theories that have developed to explain gender hierarchy. The most sophisticated conceptualizations treat gender as an element of social relationships that, like race and class, operates at multiple levels. Gender categorizes and distinguishes the sexes and ranks men above women of the same race and class (Lorber 1994). Multilevel frameworks seek to avoid universal generalizations that are impervious to the historicity and contextualized nature of perceived diﬀerences between the sexes by conceptualizing gender as operating at three levels. Multilevel approaches, ﬁrst, view gender as organizing social life at the interactional level through the processes of socialization and sex categorization that encourage gender-appropriate identities and behavior in everyday interactions. Second, multilevel theories emphasize the complex ways gender operates at the structural level, so that gender distinctions and hierarchy serve as a basis for socioeconomic arrangements, the division of labor in families, the organization of sexual expression and emotions, work and organizational hierarchies, and state policies. Finally, multilevel theories attend to the cultural level, speciﬁcally to the way gender distinctions and hierarchy are expressed in ideology and cultural practices, such as sexuality and language, as well as in the symbolic codes and practices of institutions such as art, religion, medicine, law, and the mass media.
Recent writings on social movements treat the social construction of gender as taking place at these three respective levels. The signiﬁcance of gender is more apparent for some movements than for others. Its relevance is obvious in the case of women’s movements targeting discriminatory policies and practices pertaining to employment, family, reproduction, and sexuality. Nevertheless, gender is also constructed in movements that do not explicitly evoke the language of gender conﬂict. One example is McAdam’s (1992) landmark study of the US 1964 Freedom Summer campaign, when white college students spent the summer in the South participating in the US civil rights movement. The traditional sexual double standard meant that women were less likely to be recruited to the Mississippi project than men because of the taboos associated with interracial sexual relationships, especially those between Black men and white women. Those women who managed to make it to Mississippi were more likely to be slotted into traditional female roles—speciﬁcally, clerical work and teaching rather than canvassing and voter registration. Furthermore, the biographical consequences of participation differed for men and women. Men were more likely to remain activists over the course of their lives than women, and women who participated in Freedom Summer were less likely to marry than men. To provide another example, masculinity is integral to nationalist politics in the contemporary world (Nagel 1998). Gender hierarchy is expressed in forms such as the construction of patriotic manhood and exalted motherhood as icons of nationalist ideology. The relevance of gender can also be seen in the domination of masculine interests in the ideology of nationalist movements and sexualized militarism that simultaneously constructs the male enemy as over-sexed and under-sexed (as rapists and wimps) and the female enemy as promiscuous (sluts and whores).
A systematic incorporation of gender into an understanding of social movements requires that we examine the way gender processes are embedded in the factors that trigger and sustain social movements. The most inﬂuential theoretical perspectives on social movements combine the insights of classical collective behavior theory, resource mobilization theory, and new social movements theory (McAdam et al. 1996). They emphasize three factors that explain the emergence and development of any movement: shifting political and social opportunities and constraints; the forms of organization used by groups seeking to mobilize; and variations in the ways challenging groups frame and interpret their grievances and identities. Let us examine the way gender comes into play in each of these three broad sets of conditions that are relevant to the emergence and operation of social movements.
1.1 Political And Cultural Opportunities And The Gender Regime Of Institutions
One of the major premises of social movement theory is that changes in the larger political and cultural context can stimulate or discourage people from participating in collective action. Shifts in gender diﬀerentiation and gender stratiﬁcation in the particular sociohistorical context have been important facilitating conditions for the emergence and operation of feminist movements. In modern welfare states, public policy with respect to pregnancy and mother-hood historically has been formulated either by treating women and men the same with gender-neutral policies or by recognizing women’s special needs as child bearers and mothers and providing femalespeciﬁc beneﬁts. In the US, during the early twentieth century, government support of maternity often took the form of ‘protective legislation’ that regulated women’s hours, working conditions, and prohibited women from working in occupations thought to be dangerous. While nineteenth century feminists, by and large, supported special female legislation and other policies consistent with women’s primary identity as mothers, by the late 1960s the feminist campaign to formulate public policy switched to the sameness side of the sameness diﬀerence divide, reﬂected in campaigns for policies such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Feminist movements in the US historically have targeted gender inequality in a wide range of institutions, including medicine, religion, education, politics and the law, the military, and the media. For instance, feminists criticized the medical system’s bias against women in medical research, the labeling and classiﬁcation of medical conditions, and doctor/patient relationships. The entry of larger numbers of women into the medical ﬁeld beginning in the 1970s and 1980s facilitated the growth and expansion of feminist women’s health centers and women’s self-help movements focused on conditions unique to women, such as rape, battering, breast cancer, childbirth and pregnancy, and postpartum illness.
1.2 Gendered Mobilizing Structures
Expanding political and cultural opportunities create possibilities for collective action, but the emergence of a movement depends upon whether aggrieved groups are able to develop the organization and solidarity necessary to get a challenge underway. Gender diﬀerences and relations ﬁgure heavily into the pre-existing mobilizing structures or nonmovement ties that exist among individuals prior to mobilization and the organizational form a movement takes once it is underway. Gender, racial, class, ethnic, and other inequalities are often embedded in the informal networks, clubs, and formal organizations that provide the incentives for people to take the risks associated with participating in protest groups. In her study of African American women’s participation in the US civil rights movement, Robnett (1996) identiﬁes a distinct form of grassroots behind-the-scenes leadership carried out by women who were prevented from occupying formal leadership positions by the exclusionary practices of the Black church. Gender divisions can also facilitate mobilization. For example, sex-segregated women’s colleges, clubs, associations, and informal networks historically have been fertile grounds for the growth of feminism. Blee’s (1991) research on women in the 1920s Ku Klux Klan provides further evidence of the importance of sex-segregated networks. She reveals how women drew upon family ties and traditions of church suppers and family reunions to mobilize. She describes the way Klan women deployed women’s gossip in the form of ‘poison squads’ to spread a message of racial and religious hatred.
The connective structures that link leaders and followers and diﬀerent parts of a movement, allowing them to persist, can also be gendered. Some scholars have argued that there is no particular structure essential to a feminist organization. Others, however, ﬁnd that some feminists’ beliefs in fundamental differences between female and male values have led to feminist organizations with distinctive emotion cultures that dictate open displays of emotion, empathy, and attention to participants’ biographies. By contrast, the large-scale all-male meetings of the Promise Keepers, a mostly white, middle-class, and heterosexual men’s rights movement that arose in the late 1990s to reassert essentialist views of women’s and men’s roles in the family, were steeped in an aura of powerful masculinity, holding meetings in stadiums associated with organized sports events (Messner 1997). Gender can also be a subtext in the organizational logic, beliefs, and practices of movements that do not make explicit gender claims. Einwohner (1999) found that prevailing ideas about gender and gender diﬀerences are a driving force behind the largely female composition, emotion-laden strategies, and negative reactions of the public to the contemporary animal rights movement. The well known decentralized grassroots Alinsky model that inﬂuenced early social welfare activism since the early 1970s, according to Stall and Stoecker (1998), is organized along an essentially masculine logic that views community organizing as a means to power, in contrast with ‘the women-centered model,’ which treats community building as a goal of organizing. Brown (1992) implicates gendered organization in the decline of the Black Panther Party. She recounts the way the male power rituals of the Party—speciﬁcally its military structure, use of violence and aggression, and promotion of sexual rivalries—not only excluded women from the Black power struggle but planted the seeds of its destruction.
As this last example illustrates, gender inequality often persists within social movement organizations as Fonow (1998) reports in her research on women’s participation in the 1985 Wheeling–Pittsburgh steel strike. In this case, major strike activities—picket duty and meal preparation—reﬂected a gender division of labor. While working kitchen duty helped mobilize the support of the larger community by bringing together the wives and families of workers and nonworkers, the exclusion of women steelworkers from the picket lines—seen as an expression of ‘virile unionism’— undermined solidarity between men and women steelworkers.
1.3 Gender And Framing Processes
Social movements often appropriate gender ideology to legitimate and inspire collective action and to identify a challenging group’s commonalities. Contemporary scholars of social movements rely upon two concepts for analyzing the unique frames of understanding that people use to deﬁne their shared grievances: collective action frames and collective identities. To the extent that gender operates as a constitutive element of social interaction and relationships, it is not surprising that images of masculinity and femininity appear in the language and ideas social movement activists use to frame movement demands and injustices. Gender dualism, for example, was woven tightly into German National Socialism. Not only was masculinity gloriﬁed and male bonding considered the foundation of the Nazi state, but gender-linked oppositions served as the metaphor for the polarization of Jews as weak and emotional and Aryans as strong and rational. The language of gender diﬀerence and power is pervasive in contemporary women’s self-help movements and serves as a major framework for understanding the problems that trouble women. In the postpartum self-help movement, gender plays a pivotal role in mobilizing participants. Activists linked postpartum illness to women’s responsibilities for parenting, to ideas that mothers (not fathers) have to be self-sacriﬁcing, and to the gender bias of the largely male medical establishment (Taylor 1999). Social movement scholars use the concept of collective identity to research the question of how challenging groups deﬁne and make sense of the question ‘who we are’ and the complex and changing process collective actors use to draw the circles that separate ‘us from them.’ Gender diﬀerence in virtually every culture is key to the way actors identify themselves as persons, organize social relations, and symbolize meaningful social events and processes. That means that the identities that social movements of all kinds create and recreate are bound to be molded, at least in part, by gender meanings and practices. For example, Taylor and Whittier (1992) argue that in the lesbian feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the drawing of boundaries between male and female promoted the kind of oppositional consciousness necessary for organizing one’s life around feminism. Similarly, some branches of the contemporary breast cancer movement frame women’s commonalities in gender terms by connecting the experiences of breast cancer survivors to the societal emphasis on women’s breasts as crucial to women’s attractiveness to men. At the same time, such activists point out, the medical establishment has provided less funding and attention to breast cancer than to diseases that aﬀect men more than women (Klawiter 1999). If gender symbolism plays an important role in the socially constructed solidarities that mobilize collective action, the development of gender solidarity is never automatic, even in women’s movements. Analyzing African American women’s autobiographies written before 1970, Brush (1999) shows that the messages that came from the civil rights movement encouraged them to interpret their grievances in terms of race rather than gender, while the women’s movement made gender seem irrelevant to Black women’s experiences. The tendency to see the generic ‘Black’ as male and the generic ‘woman’ as white shows that using gendered meanings to construct a group’s commonalities can exclude some people, since deciding who ‘we’ are also entails deciding who ‘we’ are not (Collins 1990).
Gender as a set of cultural beliefs and practices ﬁgures heavily into many of the identity movements that have swept the political landscape in recent years. In attempting to privilege white racial identity, the contemporary white supremacist movement not only presents a range of racial enemies but deploys gender metaphors—e.g., treating the Black male body as dangerous and animal-like and the white female body as always at risk and in need of protection—to appeal to the growing number of disillusioned white males who feel threatened by what they perceive to be the successes of social movements for gender and racial equality (Ferber 1998). Finally, gender symbolism and ideas about masculinity and femininity ﬁgure heavily in the modern gay and lesbian movement, which challenges the notion that women are feminine and men masculine and, further, that erotic attraction must be between two people of diﬀerent sexes and genders (Gamson 1997).
2. The Signiﬁcance Of Integrating The Study Of Social Movements And Gender
Feminist scholars interested in the study of social movements recently have called attention to the gendering of social movement processes and social movement theory. The role of gender in the emergence and dynamics of social movements, even those seemingly not about gender, has been obscured through the gender-neutral discourse that characterizes prevailing theories of social movements. Treating gender as an analytic category illuminates a range of new questions pertaining to the political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes of movements. A synthesis of the theoretical literatures on gender and social movements also has the potential to advance the ﬁeld of gender. Theories of gender emphasize the maintenance and reproduction of gender inequality and neglect countervailing processes of resistance, challenge, conﬂict, and change. The literature on social movements spotlights the role of human agency in the making and remaking of femininity, masculinity, and the existing gender system.
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