A Review of Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field
By Janet Halley, Prabha Kotiswaran, Rachel Rebouche and Hila Shamir, Editors (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 599 pages.
The essays in this edited volume, together with a companion volume, Governance Feminism: An Introduction, provide critical reflections on the politics, ethics and consequences of feminist engagements with international, national and local power structures. (1) The editors and other contributors include distinguished academics in law, anthropology, sociology, and women's, gender and sexuality studies. Most of the chapters draw on case studies from the United States, but several also interrogate feminist engagements in law and policy change in Canada, Colombia, France, India, Israel and Palestine, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as well as at the international level.
As outlined in their Preface, the editors define "governance feminism" (GF) broadly, to include "every form in which feminists and feminist ideas exert a governing will within human affairs" and in "human-inflected processes like knowledge formation, technology and even the weather." (2) Building on Michel Foucault's expansive concept of governmentality, the editors and other contributors consider feminist efforts to engage with both state and non-state power structures. Motivated by the recognition that "feminists now walk the halls of power," they explore several questions through the collected case studies, including: "Exactly what forms of feminism 'make sense' to power elites as they gradually let women in or are forced to make way for them? ... Once feminists gain a foothold in governance, what do they do there, and which particular legal forms are they most heavily invested in? What are the distributional consequences of the partial inclusion of some feminist projects? Who benefits and who loses? Can feminism foster a critique of its own successes?" (3)
The concern about distributional consequences reflects a recognition that "some GF projects [have been] terrible mistakes; others have unintended consequences that are or should be contested within feminist political life." (4) Drawing on Max Weber's discussion of the importance of an "ethics of responsibility" as well as an "ethics of conviction" in politics, the editors argue for critically assessing whether a particular GF project is truly emancipatory, and if so, for whom? (5) This critical gaze is especially important in cases involving any of "the five C's: collaboration, compromise, collusion, complicity, and co-optation" in governance projects. (6)
The editors trace their interest in GF to their own discomfort with the rise of "crime-and-punishment solutions" to a variety of issues, including domestic violence, prostitution/sex work and human trafficking, and sexual violence in armed conflict, which have generally been promoted by "dominance feminists" and are increasingly aligned with neoliberal and socially conservative forces. (7) This critical perspective on "carceral feminism" is reflected in several of the essays, including Karen Engle's tracing of the emergence of an international women's rights agenda focusing on violence against women and sexual violence in conflict; Elizabeth Bernstein's exploration of the curious alliance between US feminists and evangelical Christians in advocating against sex trafficking in the US and internationally; Leigh Goodmark's documenting of the unintended negative consequences of criminalizing domestic violence in the United States, especially for immigrant women and for women and men of color; and Libby Adler and Janet Halley's reflections on the distributional consequences of stringent child support enforcement measures in the United States, especially for low-income fathers. (8)
Other essays included in the volume illustrate the diversity of GF projects implemented globally and locally; the intra-feminist conflicts and odd alliances they can foster; the non-feminist agendas they can serve; and the unintended consequences that can follow. At the international level, Dianne Otto complements Karen Engle's discussion of the international women's rights agenda in...