Janet Newman – Working the Spaces of Power: Feminism, Activism and Social Change

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Event Date: 20 January 2010  – 3.30 – 5pm
Room 539 Birkbeck Main Building

speaker_JanetNewmanJanet Newman (OU): Working the Spaces of Power: Feminism, Activism and Social Change

The research on which the paper is based began with a relatively simple proposition: that feminism had opened up new spaces of political experimentation, many of which had been absorbed or incorporated into – but more importantly have been generative of –important political and governance innovations in late 20th and early 21st century. It draws on interviews with women who were active in or influenced by the women’s movement in Britain in the 1970s/1980s, and who have since been ‘working the spaces of power’ in their working lives. The interviews show how the skills, experiences and orientations produced through feminism and other forms of activism have shaped contemporary politics, policy and governance. Examples include the current turn to the ‘social economy’ as alternative to both state and market; the rise of new pedagogies of the self and personal lives; the contemporary focus on governmental strategies of empowerment and development; the valorisation of ‘softer’ and more flexible management and organisational styles; and the rise of discourses of partnership, inclusion, participation, well being and sustainability.

These are not however linear trajectories of social change but arise in complex, iterative and ambiguous spaces of agency that occur and recur in what are often fractured working lives.. As such the paper might be situated in a wider ‘turn to time’ in social theory, and draws on strands of post colonial and feminist theory to address some of the analytical puzzles raised. ‘Diagnosing the contemporary’ is a challenging brief, and this project is at an early stage. However I argue that my analysis so far seems to challenge simple narratives of the present – including those that suggest a straightforward incorporation of feminism in the relentless roll out of neo-liberalism.

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