Framing across differences , building solidarities : lessons from women ’ s rights activism in transnational spaces 1


This study examines the discursive strategies of contemporary transnational feminist and women’s activists in their efforts to manage intramovement diversity. While ideological, strategic, and identity differences within movements are often studied at the local level, I advance this scholarship by undertaking an investigation of intramovement difference that makes central the concerns of a highly diverse, globalized social movement. Drawing on evidence collected through participant observation at three major transnational activist conferences, I use a narrative approach to document key facets of intramovement difference in the contemporary context, and show how activists are employing collective action frames as tools in their efforts to mitigate differences and build solidarities. I find that rights-based frames, oppositional frames, and internally focused frames are all utilized by activists to foster a sense of shared struggle. Such frames encompass a wide range of ideas and are not confined to particular issues or locales. Additionally, they are often deployed in conjunction with acknowledgements of intramovement differences and/or references to diversity as an explicit movement strength. Introduction and background In recent years, framing activity in contentious politics has attracted increasing attention and enthusiasm from researchers of social movements (Benford and Snow 2000; Croteau and Hicks 2003; Johnston and Noakes 2005; Snow 2004). The important role of collective action frames in movement emergence, development, and outcomes is now well documented and widely recognized in the field (Benford and Snow 2000; Cress and Snow 2000; Gamson 1992; McCammon et al. 2007; Zuo and Benford 1995).2 Another more recent trend in movement 1 The author is grateful to Holly McCammon and Brooke Ackerly for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, and to two anonymous reviewers for their very insightful feedback. 2 Framing refers to the meaning, or “signifying,” work in which movement actors engage. Snow and Benford (1988) write that “they frame, or assign meaning to and interpret relevant events and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize potential adherents and constituents, to garner bystander support, and to demobilize antagonists” (198). Interface: a journal for and about social movements Article Volume 3 (2): 65 99 (November 2011) Hewitt, Framing across differences 66 scholarship is the explosion of interest in the dynamics of transnational social movements (della Porta et al. 2006; Juris 2008; Khagram, Riker and Sikkink 2002; Moghadam 2009; Smith 2002, 2008; Tarrow 2005). Researchers have utilized existing theoretical tools and worked to develop new ones to deepen our understanding of social movements that cross boundaries of nation, culture, religion, race, and class. This paper examines the convergence of these two vital topics through a study of framing dynamics within the contemporary transnational women’s movement. While ideological, strategic, and identity differences within movements are most often studied at the local level (Levitsky 2007; Reger 2002; White 1999), I advance this scholarship by undertaking an investigation of intramovement difference that makes central the concerns of a highly diverse, globalized social movement. I consider how activists confront intramovement differences in their interactions with one another in transnational spaces and, further, how they employ collective action frames in the process. Such lines of investigation have important implications for solidarity in transnational movements and also for feminist theory and action. As feminists and women’s activists across the globe have engaged in diverse forms of collective protest, they have also necessarily confronted the same rocky terrain of intersectionalities and multiple identities with which feminist theorists have grappled (Mendoza 2002; Mohanty 2003; Moya 2001; Narayan 1997; Santiago 2004; Spivak 1999). Such differences continually threaten to splinter women’s movements, yet many activists remain committed to finding paths to solidarity. Movement actors have repeatedly disrupted significant boundaries and negotiated cultural, racial, national, religious, sexual, and material differences, ultimately achieving what Manisha Desai (2005) has called “solidarities of difference.” The development of strategic discourses, or frames, that connect seemingly disparate issues, such as violence against women, economic development, sexual identity, and militarism has been a vital piece of this process, but to date we have little systematic evidence demonstrating how discursive practices are implicated. Reitan’s (2007) examination of global activism illustrates the continued and often overlooked importance of identity solidarity in transnational social movements. Reitan criticizes scholars who have lauded reciprocal solidarity – relationships of mutual support – at the expense of what she views as the still crucial role of shared identity categories in motivating and sustaining mass-based movement action, particularly in the context of neoliberal globalization. She writes: Complex transnational movements today are comprised of identity, reciprocal, and altruistic solidarities alike, in different mixes towardsdifferent outcomes. But, perhaps more importantly, the identity solidarity that forms the foundation of contemporary, mass transnational networks is decidedly not reducible to “worker,”… It is based upon concrete identities – debtor, peasant, indigenous, youth, woman, and, indeed, worker – that have been activated as political due to their being Interface: a journal for and about social movements Article Volume 3 (2): 65 99 (November 2011) Hewitt, Framing across differences 67 threatened in some concrete way by neoliberal globalization touching down in a specific place (55-56). Taking seriously the insights offered by Reitan and Desai requires us to consider how the identity of “woman” can be activated, shared, and sustained in the face of external threats, even while resisting the homogenization that many feminist scholars and activists fear. An analysis of the discursive practices of women’s movement actors promises to shed light on this issue. My analysis, then, centers on the following question: How, in the face of tremendous intramovement differences, are transnational women’s movements using collective action frames as discursive tools in their efforts to manage contestation and build consensus? My endeavor is to highlight the role of frames in constructing relations of solidarity that begin with the threatened identity of “woman,” but that simultaneously take into account the multiplicities inherent in that identity.3 I argue here that contemporary women’s movement actors continue to make concerted efforts to work with one another despite their differences, and that they utilize particular kinds of frames as tools in this process. This paper first documents the types of frames commonly deployed to transcend the differences that sometimes threaten transnational collaboration among feminist and women’s organizations, and then identifies shared characteristics of those frames. To develop my arguments, I draw on evidence gathered through participantobservation during three major transnational conferences: the 2004 World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai, India, the 2007 Feminist Dialogues (FD) meetings in Nairobi, Kenya, and the 2007 World Social Forum, also in Nairobi. For several reasons, these transnational spaces of activists provide especially appropriate empirical material through which to examine the topic at hand. First, an analysis based on participant-observation of face-to-face political activism makes visible important patterns, ideas, and dynamics that cannot be captured through less engaged methods of investigation. Second, there is a tremendous amount of diversity and difference present in such venues; movement actors and organizations converge from many parts of the world and have a variety of strategies, identities, priorities, and goals. Finally, in part because of this diversity, movement organizations use these spaces to build connections with other organizations focused on global justice issues; they seek to identify and emphasize 3 Frame analysis is not the only viable approach to understanding relations of solidarity among activists. Some aspects of consensus-building are difficult to capture through the lens of frame theory, but I strive to honor the complexities of activist claims as much as possible through a feminist participatory methodology and maintain that the concept of framing is very useful for understanding how ideas are discursively packaged. I view this effort as one important, yet situated, contribution to the larger intellectual and political project of feminism. Interface: a journal for and about social movements Article Volume 3 (2): 65 99 (November 2011) Hewitt, Framing across differences 68 commonalities among groups and, in so doing, rely on discourses that promote such commonality. As Desai (2007) has pointed out, educated, privileged feminist activists are overrepresented in these transnational spaces; however, we must also recognize the ways that such spaces provide a venue for actors to make their voices heard when they have been marginalized within national-level activism.4 Some of the participants who come to WSF and FD are well-networked women who frequently participate in transnational conferences, while other participants come from local, grassroots organizations that have managed to find funding in spite of having been marginalized by or shut out of their national-level movements.