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Native American Feminism Essay

“You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” –Albert Einstein

When approaching poverty as a global initiative rather than a feminine concern, most feminist lenses often lack the focus and compulsiveness that finding efficient solutions require. This paper will discuss the views of various groups of women; American Indian, Third-World, Indigenous, Muslim, Native Feminist, African American, and Western, through the perspective of various lens but more specifically; western and indigenous. By looking through two generally opposing lenses and examining the multidimensional aspects of poverty through feminism, we can generate a more precise and focused ideal of resolving the issue rather than taking it as a global initiative and generalizing it. Poverty is subjective and cannot be defined in terms of binaries or simple standards. Feminism as a catalyst to reducing poverty is vital to its success. Poverty is a very dynamic and multi-dimensional phenomenon that cannot be studied in way of vagueness and objectivity.

Men’s poverty is different than women’s poverty as is children’s poverty different from both. To approach all aspects of poverty in one nebulous way would lead to a likewise superficial solution lacking depth and the focus needed to make truly beneficial changes. Poverty cannot be faced as a global initiative because not nearly enough attention and importance will be placed on the women in these societies. This is the problem with essentialism. Essentialism is the view that for any specific entity there is a set of attributes of which are necessary to vital to its identity and function. Strategic essentialism is using one characteristic to categorize as a whole in order to “essentialize” themselves and reach a certain defined goal. Feminism cannot be essentialized because it is too complex of an idea. There is not just one problem that feminism has to fix, but instead a multitude of different levels and types of issued that must be considered. Since feminism is so multi-faceted, it cannot be considered with a multiculturalist approach either. Multiculturalism, which is usually efficient on smaller scales, attempts to imagine a world that can “encompass different identities and ways of being in a manner that respects and values all” (Bhattacharyya, 2008).

However, on a larger scale, multiculturalism does not produce reliable claims since the factors being included are often too complex and diverse. Women are often separately discriminated in their societies. It should not be trusted that proposed initiatives of lowering poverty actually give proper and equal attention to both men and women. According to economist, Stiglitz, “power gets power.” In history, it is popularly noted that the groups with control in societies were the ones who had all big decisions made in favor of themselves because they were the ones making the decisions. They were the only ones who were even given the option to have a voice. Throughout essentially all of history, men have been the one in power, and therefore the decision makers in which societies base them off of. With men in power, men become prosperous. The people in power have the responsibility of developing a society to become what they want it to be. What is given great importance is carried out through most decisions. Not only are feminist movements often considered global movements, but these global feminist movements are more subject to western ideas.

“With the increasing privatization and corporation of public life, it has become much harder to discern such a women’s movement from the United States (although women’s movements are thriving around the world), and my site of access and struggle has increasingly come to be the U.S. academy (Mohanty, 2008).” The separation between feminist and western is increasingly being blurred, with many western ideas seeping through the cracks of femininity. Many feminist movements attempt to form solutions to poverty and female discrimination in third-world nations through the ideas of western, developed and powerful theorists. When solutions are formed across borders, the true reality and needs of the “victims” are not usually considered. Feminist scholar, Chandra Mohanty, discusses the “assumption of women as an already constituted, coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic, or racial location, or contradictions, implies a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy that can be applied universally and cross-culturally.”

Although in this context Mohanty is referring to the separation of analyzing men and women, this same idea should be applied to the separation of analyzing women of different backgrounds and cultures as well. Women are often lumped together into large and vague categories which presents a lack of division and consideration for the diversity apparent in the women species. This ongoing insensitivity to differences causes a dividing wall in womanhood; often applied to class and culture. Third-world women encounter even less consideration than “western women usually do” (Mohanty, 2008). In most of western women’s writings, the numerous divisions of women are not addressed. At the end of Mohanty’s writing, she concludes that the only advantage that western women have over “third-world” women is that they live in more developed societies with stronger economies. However, socially, they suffer the same gender issues and disadvantages that correlate with being female. There are binary stereotypes that are common in feminist studies today. The “third world woman” and the “western woman” are approached in very different ways.

The third world woman being “ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized (Mohanty, 2008),” versus the “self-representation of Western women as educated, as modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities and the freedom to make their own decisions.” These stereotypes are extremely dangerous when approaching poverty. Many third-world women feel a strong innate loyalty to the culture in which they are native to. Their culture and traditions is so deeply transcribed within them that when approached with the ideas of feminism, they often reject them. For example, a popular assumption made by many Native communities is that indigenous women should defend their own “tribal nationalism” which has been known to ignore the sexism and mistreatment that women in these tribes often encounter and deal with to achieve “liberation from colonization,” (Ramirez, 2007).

It is seemingly more important to these women that they prevent colonization rather than achieve social prosperity. This correlation between “feminism” and betraying one’s tribal “sovereignty” is a very dangerous connection. The possible guilt that a tribe may provoke when a woman supports feminism is very unfortunate. However, disregarding feminism just because it is not commonly practiced is even more damaging. “Indigenous women in the United States die from domestic violence at twice the rate of other women” (Ramirez, 2007). These high rates of female domestic violence are popular within many Native American tribes. What women in these tribes are afraid of is that feminist reforms are based off of western principles. The key to finding a solution is placing a clear separation between western and feminist. Feminism should be a revolution amongst women, where each separate culture and sector of womanhood’s problems should be considered individually. There are too many issues to believe that one solution will be sufficient for all problems. Women in western societies must consciously accept the idea that feminism is not a movement where western women are helping or “saving” third-world women, but instead a movement where women of all backgrounds face their own cultural obstacles where they exist.

Native American feminist consciousness should be illuminated as an important goal to be reached in the indigenous communities to combat sexism instead of treating it as a “white construct,” (Ramirez, 2007). A woman being categorized as the “other” is a common reoccurrence throughout many feminist writings. The constant separation of men and women throughout history leads to the necessity of separate solutions for poverty as well. Women have been inferior in many contexts and on many levels. Chandra Mohanty gives specific order to the inferiority applied to much feminist research by challenging the ways in which women have been previously and commonly put down which includes; Women as victims of male violence, Women as universal dependents, Married women as victims of the colonial process, Women and familial systems, Women and religious ideologies, and Women and the Development Process. According to Mohanty, these six structures of inferiority have justified female discrimination throughout many sectors of history. Violence against women is a popular epidemic that has created huge problems within cultures and has even led to death. It is one of many ways in which men reiterate their superiority over women.

Women’s reliance on men has created an “identifiable group” in which they have all can relate. This characteristic of womanhood is dangerous because no successful and powerful categorization of people should be separated because of their dependency. To move past this inferior dependency, women must work to make it an idea of the past and demand their own independent feats. Another way in which women are treated as subordinate, is in cultures where colonization has negatively influenced the process of marriage. For example, in the Bemba culture, men work for years for a family in exchange for food and eventual rights over the daughter of the family he has been working for. To trade the “rights” of a woman for household duties and chores is so beyond any traditional concept that may be practices. Not only are women often traded in cultures, but regardless of the way in which they become part of a family, they often assume the role of the “caregiver.”

Women are often sexual objects inherently used for reproduction and within a system of patriarchy. These are just some ways in which women have been continually put down and inferior to men through societal norms. The “Third World woman” is an idea that Chandra Mohanty introduces in her article; Under Western Eyes; Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses; which analyzes “sexual difference” in the form of a global, singular, uniform notion of male superiority leading to the production of an equally undermining and homogeneous “Third World woman” categorization. The problems that are associated with poverty cannot be assigned and divided in terms of geographical existence. This assumption would lead to a categorization of all people from a certain area to then face the same obstacles. For example, it cannot be assumed that the men and women of Canada share the same struggles. The social constructs that are present in Canada can and should be approached from multiple viewpoints in order to appropriately capture their true depth.

In Nothing’s Shocking: Black Canada, Katherine McKittrick goes into depth on the reality of living in “Black Canada.” While reading about such a specific yet complicated and complex unit of society (the distinction of African American individuals living in Canada versus Caucasian individuals living in Canada), there is a vast amount of dimension that must be considered. In her article, McKittrick refers to African American people in Canada as “surprises,” as if it is unimaginable and unexpected for them to be there. In general, African American people in Canada were treated as subordinate and geographically excluded. Furthermore, when considering more specifically the ideas associated with an African American woman in Canada, even more norms are introduced. For example, consider the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique, a Portuguese-born slave who was accused of burning down the city of Montreal.

The story goes that following years of suppression in Canada, Marie-Joseph Angelique rebelled against her “mistress” and in an attempt to escape from slavery, set a fire to distract her while Angelique ran away. However, instead of simply burning down the house of her mistress, the fire unexpectedly spread throughout the city, burning down a hospital and many homes. Through torture and brute force, Angelique was pushed into confessing to the being the perpetrator of the fire, although the truthfulness in this story is tentative. Angelique’s story, truthful or not, does however bring truthfulness to core source that was in question, which was the presence of slavery in Canada. By looking at the past struggles of one woman, Angelique, we can encounter conclusions for other aspects of history, such as slavery in Canada. Women are often oppressed in third world nations; facing everyday threats of rape, discrimination, and constant struggles for equality. They’re treated as the minority; in which they’re special interests go unacknowledged and ignored. Referred to as the margin, they are the “edge or border of a surface, the ignored or unimportant sections of a group, the blank border on each side of a page, adjacent to or in opposition to the center” (McKittrick, 2006).

In this application, women will always be the “other” (Mohanty, 2008). To approach any issue that affects femininity with a global solution is a clearly ineffective and lazy tactic. Although women’s issues are indeed everyone’s issues, this does not lead to the idea that they must be tackled as a global problem. These mistreatments are not only apparent in social structures, as mentioned previously through the categorizations of Chandra Mohanty, but also physically in their cultures. There are more than 1 billion people in the world today living in poverty, a big majority of those people being women. Unimaginable working conditions and societal inequities often lead to lower standards of living in many developing countries. Rooting from many causes, poverty is usually linked to poor structural foundations within countries including laws, regulations and standards that ensure liberty and equality.

Poverty is a multidimensional problem that usually grows from both national and international spheres. “Women and girls are still 70 percent of the world’s poor and the majority of the world’s refugees. Girls and women compromise almost 80 percent of displaced persons of the Third World/South Africa, Asia and Latin America. Women own less than one-hundredth of the world’s property, while they are the hardest hit by the effects of war, domestic violence, and religious persecution” (Mohanty, 2008). The inequality that is so evidently clear through statistics and informative findings points strongly to the inferiority of women. Owning one hundredth of the world’s property, it is apparent that women are not receiving the same opportunities as men. Agriculture as a form of production has gone from 97% to 3% in the past century. However, land use in the form of agriculture and profit are very important in areas of the world that are not yet developed.

Women may work on these fields, but receiving the benefits from them often go to the men that own them. Mohanty reflects the views of western feminists on the third world woman as consistently being a “homogeneous powerless group often located as implicit victims of particular economic systems. Third world women are always the “victims” who need “western saving,” Women living in poverty are already restricted by this stereotype of helplessness. In Mohanty’s article Under Western Eyes; Feminist Scholarshop and Colonial Discorses, she closely examines the lives of women in “developing” countries. Mohanty introduces scholars such as Irene Tinker, Michelle Bo Bramsen, Ester Boserup, and Perdita Huston who all write about the effects of developmental policies on women in the Third World, assuming that “development is synonymous with economic development or economic progress.”

Economic development involves the concern and actions of policy makers and communities in order to improve the standard of living and economic prosperity of a population. Usually involving higher wages, literacy and health, economic development in many cases does not focus in on the sexism that is usually evident in these developing nations. When Mohanty goes on to present the case of “Mince’s patriarchal family, Hosken’s male sexual control, and Cutrufelli’s Western colonization,” development seems to become the all-time equalizer. Women can either be affected positively or negatively by economic development policy which becomes the basis for cross-cultural comparison. Economic development often focus on the growth of men in these political and economic sectors which leads to even more inequality in these developing countries. If economic growth were to focus more on raising equality in these countries, then women would likewise benefit as well.

However, this is seldom done naturally and must be given a particular amount of importance and attention. “Practices that characterize women’s status and roles vary according to class.” The state of women in these developing countries cannot be approached in a singular way and absolutely must be separated from the developmental issues of men. The “feminization of poverty” is an idea introduced by Mohanty that shows a positive correlation between the level of poverty between women of color and white working-class women in the United States. Men and women have always been segregated; society’s value of their labor being one of the most evident forms of discrimination, current in even our society today. The existence of a sexual division of labor is often taken as “proof of the oppression” in various societies (Mohanty, 1988). Women who encounter similar situations cannot be treated as identical.

For example, the rise of female-headed households has held various different meanings in cultures, specifically middle-class American and Latin American. In middle-class America, the rise of female-headed households often represents feminine progression, a symbol for greater independence and a woman’s “choice” to be a single parent (Mohanty, 1988). However on the other side, the same increase in female-headed households lending women more say in decision-making is concentrated in poorer areas, where there choices are constrained economically regardless. Discrimination between genders norms in the workforce leads to their division of labor. The sexual division of expectations in labor indicates a depreciation of women’s work and must be considered separately through each society and cultures own local contexts. When nations experience a big gap between genders, other nations are often led to the belief that they need “saving.”

This assumption often leads to individuals from developing nations claiming themselves as self-righteous, then intruding on other “less” fortunate nations and validating it as a form of “saving.” When these nations intervene on others, they often lack an understanding of societal differences. Accepting and acknowledging differences, is the key to progressing. However, it is important to specify that acceptance does not necessarily lead to everyone being “cultural relativists,”(Abu-Lughod, 2002), but to take this idea and apply it in moderation. Intricacy and meticulousness is necessary in a world as interconnected as ours when recognizing and respecting differences. There should be no dividing line between nations, religions, or cultures in our world. The existence of western and third-world differences should not be the greatest factor that leads to separating people, and it is also important to acknowledge the fact that these are not just two binaries that all people must fit into.

A separation of differences should only be approached when studying the visions of “justice and the value of life,” (Bhattacharyya, 2008). These differences are usually in response to different histories and different circumstances that lead to the different social cultural norms in communities. While progressing towards justice for all women, we must first accept that that is not a universal idea but instead may vary from woman to woman. There is a range of optimal envisions that different women might want or choose. Third world feminists are often criticized as “social critics” (Bhattacharyya, 2008). Entrenched in their own culture, third world feminists do not only identify themselves strongly with their culture, but also make a clear separation between their idea of feminism versus feminism for other activists and cultures.

Third world resentment toward feminism in the context of western thinkers makes it very difficult to progress. The prime solution to approaching feminism would be to develop a mutually respectful appreciation of differences between different the different apparent ideas. However, our world is so diverse and complex that it is very difficult to find a solution that fits within all of the parameters that would satisfy all concerns. Women of all cultures should be aware of the need for global feminist movements while remaining within the strictures set by their own culture (Bhattacharyya, 2008). Resentment and difference leads to a complication of using a transnational language when approaching feminism, because it will always lack proper consideration of certain local struggles.

One popular way to approach feminism is through an Indigenous methodical lens. As mentioned previously, Native American women have faced notable higher levels of mistreatment, inequality and discrimination throughout all of their recorded history. Even in current Native American communities, notions of sexism are still popularly practiced. There are many writings on feminism by Native women however these pieces often are claimed to be in conflict with the specific politics of sovereignty and self-determination that many Native Americans practice. Native writings often present critiques of feminism, relating it heavily to white and middle-class concepts. Other than those who are “assimilated,” Native American activists do not consider themselves feminist (Smith, 2008). Feminism is categorized as an “imperial project” that assumes a western colonial command over indigenous nations. This categorization results in a see-saw effect between supporting sovereignty and rejecting feminism. When supporting sovereignty, Native activists find they must reject feminist politics.

On the other side, scholars and activists who attempt to theorize feminism for native women activists often oversimplify the apparent issues with feminism, sexism in societies (both native communities and other non-native communities), and the importance of teaming up all together to solve these problems. Due to the previously mentioned opposing concepts, it is extremely difficult to articulate a movement that instantaneously decreases sexism while promoting indigenous sovereignty. The progression of women’s rights has increasingly become a central goal of developmental movements, economically and socially. With a rise in feminist perspective and consideration, places that do not follow these changes in approach are often criticized. Women’s participation in societal life has become a measure of societal development. The problem of binaries in our societies is an extremely important factor in understanding political movements, discrimination and extreme activism. For example, in many Islamic cultures, there have been uneven attempts in examining developments.

Solutions often represent those of which come from radical or inconsiderate theorists. Recently, however, these visions have been amended and changed to more thoroughly examine the contemporary Islamic problems regarding the superiority of masculinity (Bhattacharyya, 2008). The sexist issues apparent in many third-world nations are often criticized by western activists, although these accusations are very hypocritical. Many feminist writings and studies are the products of western writers. Since the majority of feminist writings are from the western perspective, feminism has had a likewise western connotation. Western thinkers are commonly obsessed with the concept of “sex,” (Bhattacharyya, 2008). The presence of “sexual conflict” within nations often leads to a western defense of sexuality. Sexuality is enacted as a symbol of western ideas that must be defended, as every woman should have the right to her own practiced sexuality. Western thinkers popularly believe that “their” problems regarding sexism are not nearly as horrible as other nation’s problems, so they believe it is their own responsibility to help or “save” others.

However, western solutions are not global solutions and cannot be transcribed onto other cultures. Western separation and self-proclaimed superiority leads to a separation of “us” versus “them.” In terms of sexuality, western thinkers are often portrayed as more provocative. Westerners often accuse “others” of hating their freedoms- of which “to love and touch and leave and experiment” with their freedom to “move and love freely,” (Bhattacharyya, 2008). These self-proclamations are inaccurate being that women in the western world still face many issues routing from their sex. This false representation of equal opportunity combined with democracy as a purification of western concepts is tried at being defended at all costs. Westerners often claim their ideas as completely fair and righteous, in comparison with other “less fortunate” countries.

Although western ideas are the most common in feminist writings, they cannot be the only ones involved in discussions about foreign policy because that would lead to a misrepresentation of feminism (Bhattacharyya, 2008). Poverty is a global problem that affects individuals from all geographies and cultures. Representing different ideas to different people, poverty does not have a multiculturalist definition. As a factor to measuring poverty, feminine equality varies from culture to culture. Western feminist ideas are popular within feminist studies because they are the source of many current and historical feminist writings. However when approaching global problems such as poverty, multiple culture’s views must be considered when trying to find efficient solutions. By evaluating the views of women from numerous backgrounds, we can further develop resolutions that will bring a greater amount of happiness to a greater amount of people.


Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses Chandra Talpade Mohanty. Feminist Review , No. 30 (Autumn, 1988), pp.61-88

”Under Western Eyes” Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles Chandra Talpade Mohanty Signs , Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter 2003), pp. 499-535

McKittrick, Katherine. “Introduction, The Last They Thought of: Black Women’s Geographies, Nothing;s Shocking: Black Canada” . Ramriz, Renya K. Race, Tribal Nation, and Gender: A Native Feminist Approach to Belonging. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, Vol. 7. No. 2. 2007. Pp. 22-40.

Abu-Lughod. ”Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologistv. 104 no. 3
(2002): 783-790.

Smith, Andrea, and J. Khaulani Kauanui. “Native Feminisms Engage American Studies.” American Quarterly, 2008: 241-249.

Bhattacharyya, Gargi. “Introduction & Chapter 1.” Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting Sex, Violence and Feminism in the War on Terror. London: Zed, 2008. N. pp 1-45.

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