What Are Social Movements and What Is Gendered About Women's Participation in Social Movements?
A Sociological Perspective

       The following project differs from others on this website in two ways: it is written from a sociological rather than an historical perspective, and it discusses scholarly interpretations rather than specific historical events. We hope that this summary of sociological interpretations of social movements will help visitors to the site bring larger theoretical questions to bear on the empirical evidence contained in the site's other projects. We encouraged Professor Roth to write this essay about women and social movements because we feel that a theoretical discussion of social movements can inform our historical understanding of specific historical examples of women and social movements. We also believe that thoughtful consideration of the numerous examples in this website of women's participation in social movements can generate new theoretical perspectives. Theory can illuminate empirical evidence and empirical evidence can illuminate theory.

       History and sociology complement one another as scholarly disciplines because both are concerned with social structures and with the interpretation of social action. Yet these two disciplines also differ. Historians see their main task as the analysis of change over time and to do that they focus on the specific events in specific times and places. Sociologists seek generalizable explanations of social change, and base new generalizations on specific historical studies. Partly for these reasons historians tend to borrow generalizations from sociologists and apply them to specific contexts, while sociologists often build new generalizations on the basis of specific historical studies.

       This project is designed to create interactions between the sociology and the history of women's participation in social movements. It has three dimensions. First it offers a sociological essay by Professor Benita Roth, "What are Social Movements and What Is Gendered about Women's Participation in Social Movements?" Second, it contains a set of short introductions which reflect upon specific documents in our website that address issues raised in Professor Roth's essay. Third, it links with these documents, permitting viewers to evaluate connections between the documents and the issues raised in Professor Roth's essay.

                Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin



What Are Social Movements and What Is Gendered About Women's Participation in Social Movements?
A Sociological Perspective


Benita Roth
Assistant Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies
State University of New York, Binghamton

Documents compiled by:
Marian Horan
State University of New York, Binghamton
Fall 2001

       What is a social movement? What is a women’s movement? And what’s different for women in social movements? These are questions that are difficult to answer in more than provisional terms. One tends to speak of movements as actors in themselves--“the women’s movement,” “the peace movement,” “the environmental movement,” “the labor movement,” add your favorite here--giving them a unity of purpose and intention that they never really have. Movements are not themselves actors; movements are something that people create to press for social change. They are spaces that are made by people to allow relationships between them that can challenge power.

       Definitions of social movements by sociologists abound (see Definitions). Sociological definitions of movements stress qualities like collective and innovative behavior, extra-institutionality, their network character and multicenteredness, the shifting and fluid boundaries of movement membership, and the willingness of members to disrupt order a little or a lot (Gerlach and Hine 1970). (For citations see the Bibliography.) Social movements are generally seen as phenomena of the modern era and industrialized society, whether located in the “First” world or not (Hobsbawm 1959; Tilly 1986). Industrialization and urbanization, technological advancements, and ongoing democraticization allowed people to push for change collectively from the margins of the polity, from outside of less-than-open institutions.

       Sociologists have tended to define and redefine “social movement” in response to the kind of protests they saw taking place around them. American sociologists in the early- to mid-twentieth century characterized movements as being on a continuum of innovative collective behavior, as the organized end of a spectrum whose opposite pole was crowds and riots (Blumer 1939; see also Turner and Killian 1987). For these scholars, known as collective behaviorists, social movements were highly organized but non-routine entities where people interacted to establish new meanings about politics (and other subjects), and where they challenged power based on the making of these new meanings. Some variations on collective behavior theory emphasized the disorderly side of movement activism, seeing actors in movements as problematic for democracy. Kornhauser’s (1959) “mass society” theory, for example, painted protesters as alienated and atomistic, the product of structurally abnormal nation-states; hence the mass movements of fascism and communism were both pathological manifestations of ill-channeled popular discontent.

       It was a little difficult to describe the participants of 1950s and 1960s American social movements as alienated and atomistic; the largely middle class social base of those movements--the Black Civil Rights movement, the student movement, the peace and anti-Vietnam war movement, other racial/ethnic liberation movements, the environmental movement, the gay and lesbian liberation movement, and remobilized feminist movements--precluded scholars from seeing protestors as only malcontents. Instead, American sociologists analyzed movement participation as rational expressions of politics by other than institutional means. Influenced by organizational studies and economics, what came to be known as the “resource mobilization” paradigm arose, where, as the name suggests, questions of how movements came into being through the mobilization of resources were central. And resource mobilization paradigms coexisted with analyses of the political opportunity structure within which movements arose, seeing collective action not as a symptom of abnormal politics, but as the reasonable response of actors who took advantage of new institutional situations--elite splits, the formation of commissions and departments, new institutions, etc.--to push forward from outside when the time was right.

       By the beginning of the 1990s, there was renewed emphasis among scholars of American social movements on the interactional processes involved in making social movements. This shift was fueled in part by European “new social movement” theory, developed by those attempting to make sense of social activism in the increasingly post-industrial, prosperous societies of Europe. In the U.S., scholars began to take more “social constructionist” views of movement politics, seeking to understand how the availability of resources and opportunities dovetailed with the use of cultural meanings by groups, and the creation of new collective identities (Morris and Mueller 1992). Most recently, some sociologists have argued for a much broader “contention” model of movements, which sees struggle as endemic to both institutional and extra-institutional settings, and just as likely to be about cultural issues as about classically political or economic matters (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001).

       How were questions about women’s movements, and women’s participation in mixed-gender movements dealt with in all these theoretical shifts? We know that women’s movements, and women in movements, have changed history, but we have second wave feminism’s academic arm, women’s studies, to thank for uncovering women’s participation in movements and establishing that women’s movements changed political landscapes. The remobilized feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s generated scholars who looked for evidence of women’s agency in the past, inspired by the present. And the remobilized second wave feminist movement itself was pivotal to new thinking about movements in sociology, as feminist sociologists contributed to new paradigms based on their research of women’s movements and women in movements (see, for example, Freeman’s 1975 resource mobilization assessment of second wave white feminism). In a very real way, theorizing about women in movements--particularly but not solely in feminist movements --contributed to new understandings about how movements came about. Feminist social movement scholars have continued to make sure that they make new theory with women’s activism in mind, and their work has remained central to the sociology of social movements.

       How then do feminist scholars define women’s movements? Definitions have tended to be broad, with distinctions sometimes--and sometimes not--made between feminist movements, “non-feminist” women’s movements, and women’s participation in mixed-gender movements. For example, writing about women’s movements in the United States and Western Europe from a political opportunity perspective, Katzenstein and Mueller (1987) argued that women’s movements/feminist movements--these being one and the same in their analytical framework--were characterized by a variety of issues but a unity of purpose: that of the total transformation of societies’ public and private gender institutions. In this sense, then, a women’s/feminist movement existed worldwide (or at least, “First-world-wide”), characterized by a uniquely comprehensive agenda that was worked on by women with different emphases in different times and places.

       Other feminist scholars established typologies to help understand women’s protest and resistance. Chafetz and Dworkin (1986; see Chapter One), made distinctions between pre-modern forms of women’s resistance--“individual-level revolt” and witchcraft--and women’s participation in different kinds of modern-era social movements, including nineteenth- and twentieth-century women’s movements, of which feminist movements were a subset. For Chaftetz and Dworkin, feminist movements were the women’s movements that manifested themselves only in the most highly industrialized and highly urbanized societies; other kinds of women’s protest action could be understood as driven by the structural lack of opportunity to create feminist movements. In a less teleological fashion, West and Blumberg (1990) made distinctions between the kinds of issues that drew women into social movement activism. In their introduction to Women and Social Protest, they worked from the assumption that women have always been present in protest, defined as “rational attempts to achieve desired ends,” and took the standpoint that women’s work on behalf of historically specific definitions of “women’s rights” was only the most visible of these attempts (1990:4). West and Blumberg argued that women’s rights movements could be defined succinctly as ones where “claims are based on the rights of women as women and citizens of society” (1990:19), but they clearly organized their typology of women’s social movement participation around "issues" in order to capture the ubiquity, complexity and variety of women’s agency in movements.

       The efforts by feminist scholars to think about women’s movements and women in movements make clear that while self-consciously feminist movements are a relative rarity, women’s movements are numerous, and women’s participation in mixed-gender movements is and has been ever-present. Indeed, feminist sociologists do not seem to distinguish women’s movements theoretically from other kinds of social movements, using and contributing to existing theory in their research on women; what is seen as exceptional about women’s movements is that they are led by women and for women. However, this lack of theoretical distinction between women’s movements and other kinds of movements in the making of definitions masks very real differences in the experience of activism for women on the ground, especially (but not only) when they work together with men.

       Women have made their own movements or have been part of mixed-gender social movements because women are never just women. They are members of social classes; they are workers; they belong to racial/ethnic/national/sexual communities seeking expression, seeking inclusion, and redress from authority. But it has also been the case that women have found both making their own movements and organizing within mixed-gender groups to be difficult because of their gender. The first problem, and the one common to women in their own movements or in mixed-gender movements, is the construction of the public sphere, and therefore the political sphere, as male. While the possibilities for social movement activism were generated by the changes brought about by industrialization and urbanization, those two processes also fueled the ideology of “separate spheres”--the identification of public life as the proper realm of the “male” and domestic life as the proper realm of the “female.” A woman in public political life transgressed her proper space, and transgressed her proper role. As such, separate spheres ideology raised the question of whether women could legitimately protest in public at all, instituting a burden on women’s political participation not shared by men, who were assumed to be acting properly as men in “doing” protest politics.

       The ideology of separate spheres, and the identification of public political space as male certainly still exists, even if it has less force with each female incursion into that space, and with each challenge to the ideology. One of the recurring and most moving themes that one sees in the stories of women’s public protest is how their very participation in movements changes their conception of themselves and their role in their communities, even when their protest is in defense of traditional values (Kaplan 1982; Kingsolver 1996 [1983]; Naples 1998). Social space is remade and women’s lives are remade by protest action, sometimes at great personal cost. Of course, participation in social activism by men can be life-changing--but such participation is a qualitatively different enterprise for women, who trangress not just the rules of politics as usual but the rules of gender as usual. And in many ways, it is women’s movements, women in autonomous organizations, who constitute the greatest threat to order, as they disrupt the political field, and societal expectations of how women should act in that field through men.

       In mixed-gender settings, social movement participation is different for women precisely because of gender role expectations, specifically the responsibilities that women have in reproducing daily life. Women have tended to be the ones running movement offices, typing reports, making flyers, walking neighborhoods with the flyers, staffing phone trees, taking minutes at late-night strategy sessions. Movement “housewifery”--cleaning up after meetings, cooking for the meetings, attending to whatever domestic needs the social movement community had--was part of what led women activists in left movements to organize as feminists in the 1960s and 1970s. Even this kind of “domestic” participation in movement settings can be liberating if one believes in the cause, and movements also have clearly given women the opportunity to do other things. They have been leaders, though often their greatest contributions have been as leaders behind the scenes (see McNair Barnett 1993, Payne 1990, and Robnett 1997 on this point regarding women in the Black Civil Rights movement). But in a manner analogous to the way that a working woman comes home to do a “second shift” (Hochschild, with Machung 1989) of domestic duties at home, women activists have been expected to be the ones making the coffee for the sake of the struggle. In short, the economy of social movement activism rests on women’s energies in a way that replicates gendered divisions of labor in the larger society.

       Moreover, although social movement communities make boundaries between themselves and the rest of society, structural social inequality finds its way into oppositional communities (Roth 1998). Gender inequality does not go away just because women mobilize with men on behalf of interests they have in common, and this endemic inequality becomes all the more problematic when women, in the course of social movement activism with men, discover the interests they might have as women. Inadvertently or on purpose, women often find themselves working toward their own liberation as women as they extend meaningful categories of liberation to cover liberation from gender oppression. But they do not always bring their male comrades with them on the journey, and when women activists make noise about women’s issues, they are most often asked to “backburner” their demands--to put their concerns aside in the name of the greater cause, whether it be the strike, the revolution, ending the war, fighting AIDS, or overturning racial/ethnic discrimination. Issues constructed as common to men and women tend to be seen as simply “issues,” unmarked by gender; women’s issues are only that, specific to women and not seen as benefitting men. Backburnering works because women activists are invested in struggles that benefit men and women in communities; women often make the decision to sacrifice their “narrow” concerns for the good of the group.

       Even if compatriot men accept women’s issues, gender inequality can cause those issues to become compartmentalized. Compartmentalization results from the identification, named above, of common gender interests as just plain “issues” and of women’s issues as “women’s issues.” When movements accept, in whole or in part, a women’s agenda for action, and make women responsible for it, these concerns are handed over to those in the organization who are most structurally disadvantaged, with the fewest resources available to work effectively on them. Compartmentalization occurs when organizations decide that the women will take care of all that women’s “stuff.” This can happen in movement settings and in mainstream institutions alike (Gelb 1989; Izraeli 1990; Kuumba 1999; Roth 1998). To take an example familiar to many of us in the university, women’s studies programs themselves are seen as symbols that our institutions are committed to women’s interests, even as these programs are often marginalized, underfunded, and otherwise ignored.

       The challenges that women face in movements, whether they work with men or on their own, have not diminished their capacity for action, as this website certainly shows. Women in movement politics, in the public arena, and in the disruptive fields of activism face the burdens of gender expectations and transcend these expectations. Women in women’s movements, feminist, proto-feminist, or otherwise, are spared the problems engendered by mixed-gender activism, but it is women’s autonomous movement work that threatens the status quo the most, as it disrupts political and gender norms. Women, as activists in movements far and wide, have been and continue to be a problem for power and authority, and thank goodness for that.


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