Feminist Activism and the Caribbean Academy

The Woman and Development Unit was central to the development of feminist activism in the Caribbean.

By Amílcar Sanatan

Feminism in the Caribbean was not an ideological import from the United States of America but a consciousness that emerged from women critical of gendered oppression and everyday injustices in their lives. This consciousness lent itself to understanding the position of women as a group in society.

Fundamentally, reflection, experience and interaction build the potential for radical consciousness and not exclusively the internalization and learning of published theory and abstract concepts.

At the University of the West Indies, the Woman and Development Unit was central to the development of feminist activism in the Caribbean. The institutional reputation of the UWI and the academic credentials of the women who led the gender projects helped bring respectability and public legitimacy to the movement.

Moreover, the feminists in the UWI positioned themselves as the theoretical arm of the women’s movement. They produced historical knowledge, theorized current movements and brought together activist and women in state machinery throughout the region to discuss advancing women in Caribbean development.

Later, this unit would grow into the Institute for Gender and Development Studies across all campus with a Regional Coordinating Unit in Jamaica.

While feminist women in the Caribbean academy have struggled to strike a balance between teaching and publication on feminism and feminist activism, the overarching male-defined structure of the university undermines the validity of their work and the women as professional faculty.

This has more deleterious consequences on the ability of the academy to form a permanent, creative and mutually building relationship with activists. Individual women in their own capacity have developed their activist “credentials” over the years from their involvement in unions, political parties and public advocacy.

However, in my assessment, this individual sense of duty and connection to public activism in a professional environment of a new cohort of young scholars does not resonate. The careerism and logic of the neoliberal university have redirected the sense of purpose by many participants in the programme who reap the benefits of the job opportunities and base of scholarship a prior generation of scholar-activist women produced.

It harps back to the old argument that the mandates of the university and activism can never be reconciled, that survival within the academy is at odds with service in the public arena of activism. What we cannot underscore however, is the extent to which feminists have made scholarly and institutional changes with little help and resources in transforming the university. The road ahead continues to require reflection and reengaging their vision for activism.

The fallout of the economic crisis of the 1980s included the depoliticisation of social movements. NGOs on the left and progressive movements no longer accessed international finance from global progressive groups on the same scale, political movements were peripheralised in international agencies, the local social sector was undermined, debt-crippled the abilities of the state and the assassination of progressive leaders and the trauma that followed killed social movement building.

McDonald (2016, 60) highlights an assessment of the period and its impact on the feminist movement, “Peggy Antrobus has identified, post-Beijing exhaustion on the part of women activists, the changing leadership within the feminist movement and the emergence of mainstreaming projects and ‘gender experts served to detach the movement from its radical, transformative roots.’” Yet, feminism in the academy is a dimension of women’s and feminist activism in the Caribbean.

The UWI has long been criticized for limited engagement with the community across all faculties. New outreach departments and officers have been set up to address this weakness but the professional processes and outcomes of university outreach do not build a creative and empowering relationship between activism and the academy.

The demand of the public for a more activist university reflects the urgent need for critical thought and development solutions by homegrown academics. Sadly, in the interest of narrow intellectualism, too many members are tone deaf to this call.

The IGDS however, plays a more nuanced and specific role. The fields of popular culture (namely calypso, soca and reggae music), race/ethnicity studies, eco-feminism, political sciences, public policy, history and more recently with great public demand and funding, masculinity and men’s studies are all areas that have been developed significantly by the IGDS. Amina Mama (2015) described the challenges of feminists in the academy, “The gender struggles in universities have not only been about entry and access, but also about ideas and knowledge production.”

In spite of the under-resourcing and small cohort of teaching and administrative staff, the IGDS is responsible for being the most popular advocates of social justice issues for the academy and mobilizing students for progressive change. Critics often overlook activism within the academy. At the UWI St. Augustine, there is a host population of over 19,000 students. The entire student population of the UWI is approximately 40,000 students (Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago).

Seeing the academy as a site of activism and building political of social and economic justice among the campus student population is no small task nor is it an elite enterprise. Alongside the dialogue on activism and the academy, there must be a space to discuss the room scholar-activists create for progressive politics with the next generation of Caribbean leaders.

Many years ago, I began reading radical Caribbean political and social thought with the great hope of changing my world, the Caribbean. I had access to the Jagans, Walcotts, Castros, Manleys, Bishops, Marleys, Lammings, and many radical regional men whose words and work disrupted contemporary distractions and shaped my consciousness. It was only until my entry into the IGDS as a research assistant that my androcentric pillars and readings of Caribbean were broken. I am the beneficiary of decades of feminist scholarship.

The very scholarship I still read as a mere footnote of recognition by most male writers. Caribbean feminism has given me the vision for institution building, activist politics and countless hours of debate and discussion at lunch tables. I thank Massiah, Reddock, Barriteau, Mohammed, Trotz, Hodge, Antrobus, Wiltshire, Hosein and the many women who have deepened my analyses and encourage my intellectual and activist growth. My mother was both member and interim coordinator of the Women and Development Studies Group in the years before the Institute for Gender and Development Studies was born and had its legs — this journey for me is a homecoming of sorts.

Amilcar Sanatan, interdisciplinary artist and writer, is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies and coordinator of the UWI Socialist Student Conference at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. Reach him on Twitter @amilcarsanatan