What constitutes a “Third World Woman”?

This spring, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the work of one of the most radical, dynamic thinkers of transnational feminism, Chandra Talpade Mohanty. If you haven’t read any of her work, you’re missing out (try starting with “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” http://blog.lib.umn.edu/raim0007/RaeSpot/under%20wstrn%20eyes.pdf). Lately I’ve been gorging myself on one of her books, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. So far, I’ve enjoyed it probably a little too much, but I ran into a little terminology trouble in the second chapter.

On page 49, Mohanty comments that the terms “women of color” and “Third World women” are interchangeable, in that both are “sociopolitical designation[s] for people of African, Caribbean, Asian, and Latin American descent, and native peoples of the United States” (49).  I’m not sure I agree.

It seems to me that the phrase “Third World woman” is, for better or worse, inextricably linked with certain characteristics (i.e. ignorant, primitive, oppressed) in neo-liberal parlance. For Western women of color—particularly those several generations or more removed from the geographical “Third World”—to appropriate the title is to suggest a shared experience, an assumption I do not buy. I would argue that the systems of privilege and oppression faced by Western women of color, while brutal, are vastly different from those experienced by geographically Third World women.

What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “What constitutes a “Third World Woman”?

  1. I am wondering how the labels and intentions might change for a “third world man” and how for both men and women this label of “third world” is used by those from a developing country versus those from the “West”. The men I know use the label with pride.

    On another indirectly related issue, in your readings have you come across debate of the terms “North” and “South”?

    • Good point. Chandra Mohanty is herself a geographical “Third World” woman, and uses the term with pride, as do the men you know. Perhaps my issue with using it lies with my own personal discomfort with my heritage. As a mixed-race American (half white, half person of color), I feel dubious about claiming “Third World” status for myself. Additionally, because my (Korean) mother was adopted and raised by a white American family, I question how much claim she even has to the term “Third World.” Sure, she was born in the geographical Third world, but she remembers next to nothing of it. While her experience was that of a person of color in the U.S., it was not as a “Third World” immigrant, as she was raised and educated in the U.S.

      I suppose it’s similar to my difficulty in using the p.c. term “African American,” rather than “Black.” To me, “African American” refers to individuals who have immigrated to the U.S. directly from Africa, while many of the people we would casually refer to as “African American” are actually from Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti, Guyana, etc.

      In reference to your last question, yes I have come across the terms “North” and “South.” why do you ask?

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