In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Transnational Feminism

  • Introduction
  • Theorizing the Transnational

Literary and Critical Theory Transnational Feminism
Asha Nadkarni, Subhalakshmi Gooptu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0006


Transnational feminism developed out of postcolonial and women of color feminisms, both of which critiqued the idea that “sisterhood is global” (see Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Global, New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1984). While Morgan’s 1984 book was a paradigmatic articulation of this viewpoint, the notion of global sisterhood had been circulating since the late 1960s in “global” and “international” feminisms that used largely comparative approaches to women’s issues in the Global South, never questioning a Western model of feminism as feminism as such. Transnational feminism, on the other hand, argues that models of sisterhood that presume a white, middle-class feminist subject located in the Global North ignore the meaningful differences between women both locally and globally, and imagine white women from the Global North as saviors of their disadvantaged “sisters.” Instead, transnational feminism asks how the perspectives of women excluded from such hegemonic feminist imaginings can radically reshape feminist politics. Part of this project, as implied by the name “transnational,” is a critique of the nation-state and the violence done in its name. Nonetheless, as the works gathered in the section Theorizing the Transnational debate, the “transnational” has also been co-opted as a celebratory descriptor for the forces of globalization, and in this sense transnational feminism may be complicit in the very forces it originally set out to critique. For instance, because transnational feminism largely developed in the US academy, it participates in an uneven global system of knowledge production. This is particularly salient in regard to how transnational feminism has become institutionalized within the academy, giving rise to questions about whether transnational feminism describes academic knowledge production, activist social movements, or both (see Feminist Social Movements). Similarly, the institutionalization of transnational feminism has spawned debates about how the importance of local identities, communities, and sites of critique may be obscured by the emphasis on transnational approaches (see Critiques of Transnational Feminism for more on these points). Perhaps, then, it is most useful, as Richa Nagar and Amanda Swarr argue in Critical Transnational Feminist Praxis, to think of “transnational feminist studies [as] a necessarily unstable field that must contest its very definition in order to be useful” (Nagar and Swarr 2010, cited under Anthologies, p. 12). In other words, rather than asking what transnational feminism is, it is more useful to think about what transnational feminist theorizing does, or makes possible. That is why this article is largely organized by thematic sections, included under the heading Transnational Feminist Theoretical Perspectives. Moving through a number of different topics, that section aims to give a sense of the range of transnational feminist approaches from a number of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives; because transnational feminist theorizing traverses the social sciences and the humanities, literary studies, cultural studies, and sociological and historical approaches are all represented here. Finally, because transnational feminism is less about a definition than it is about a methodology, not all the works listed here explicitly identify themselves as transnational feminist. Indeed, one of the things that makes defining “transnational feminism” so difficult is that transnational feminist critique has been launched under a number of different banners: postcolonial feminism, third-world feminism, women of color feminism, etc. Because the proliferation of terms can be dizzying, they will be defined in the appropriate sections throughout the article.

General Overviews

Since the early 1990s, there have been a series of anthologies, articles, and books examining transnational feminism. Key to these considerations have been questions of definition: How does transnational theorizing call into question the primacy of the nation-state; how does a transnational feminist approach challenge international and global feminisms; and how does transnational feminism change feminist theorizing and practice?

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