chapter  10
20 Pages

Women’s Community Activism and the Rejection of “Politics”: Some Dilemmas of Popular Democratic Movements

Recent studies of gender and citizenship have raised two sets of questionsone practical, one theoretical-that I explore in this chapter. The practical concerns the claim, common among grassroots activists both in the US and elsewhere, that their activities are “not political.” In some ways, of course, we might find this perfectly understandable: after a brief respite in the 1950s and 1960s from a rather long-standing bad “rep,” politics in the US has again become identified with (often even treated as a synonym for) corruption and sleaze, a set of activities in which supposedly decent people should not want to be engaged. This is a perspective that was certainly common in the US toward the end of the nineteenth century, and has long been familiar in much of Latin America, Africa, and in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, while this tendency to distance oneself from politics may be all too understandable, it is particularly problematic and disturbing at a time when so much of our national (and international) politics seems aimed at a depoliticization of the populace: increasingly, for example, whether with respect to welfare policy, corporate oversight, or national security, we are told that matters are best left to experts. So, one of my concerns here has to do with the implications of this “rejection of the political” for democratic politics. The second, theoretical, starting point is the recent growth of feminist

writing about citizenship-much of it in response to Jürgen Habermas’ call for the reclaiming of a “public sphere.” Habermas’ notions have proved particularly fertile, and generated a burgeoning literature, including extensive feminist discussions about what Nancy Fraser has referred to as “subaltern counterpublics.” While Habermas’ (and his critical followers’) calls for a reinvigorated, gender-and class-neutral, public sphere are certainly compelling, I often find myself wondering just how such ideals might be put into practice. How do we assure that some newly-formulated public sphere will not simply recreate relationships of exclusion, power, and domination in new guise? Further, what would it take to sustain subaltern counterpublics?