Feminist knowledge and action: the personal is political

Book Review
Wendy Harcourt: Body Politics in Development. Critical Debates in Gender and Development. London: Zed Books 2009 

When Wendy Harcourt just had completed her Ph.D. on ‘medical discourse related to the female body’, she was invited to the World Conference of the Society for International Development in Delhi, India. 28 years young, an enthusiastic Australian feminist academic, she presented her research comparing gynaecological practice in 19th century Europe to contemporary female circumcision in Africa to an international audience of nearly 1,000 people. “I could tell something was wrong as I began to speak. A hushed silence fell. […] Frantic notes were sent to me by the chairperson to stop.” (p. 1) People felt Wendy Harcourt’s presentation to be an attack to women all over the Global South, a young white middle-class woman disrespecting African culture and tradition. This was in 1988. 20 years later, having spent these years as a feminist researcher, activist and professional in development politics, Wendy Harcourt is reflecting her multiple experiences in the field of ‘gender and development’ in her first full-length book. Today, she is working as a senior advisor for the Society for International Development in Rome and is a chief editor of the quarterly journal Development.

Body Politics in Development is an encompassing literature review, an introduction to and overview of the gender and development debate. After an introduction to feminist theory in development studies, the author sketches out the path-breaking work of Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Chandra Mohanty and Donna Haraway. This goes without extensive theoretical work on the body category in feminist development studies. Starting with the UN conferences of the 1990s, Wendy Harcourt reports how the international debate on gender and development has emerged. Topics discussed in the following chapters included population politics and reproductive rights, neoliberal economics of care and education, gendered violence, bio-politics, sexuality, sexual politics and racism. The author reports on a broad range of political issues: neoliberal globalisation and its implications for health care, education and social security, migrant domestic and care work being a typical consequence. In the chapter on ‘sexualized bodies’, she shows how discourses on ‘trafficking’ are shaped by the construction of an exotic ‘Other’ represented in female bodies and by women’s victimization. Regarding ‘violated bodies’, Wendy Harcourt not only presents feminist arguments of sexualized and ‘domestic’ violence including rape as public issue, but also reports mobilization against gender-based violence. Campaigns for gender equality, against discrimination and violence play an important role for the book. Based on her own professional experience, the author’s focus is on International Organisations, transnational NGOs, and global women’s networks.  


Starting the book with the personal anecdote of the 1988 conference in Delhi is more than a nice stylistic mean. It is a typical feature of feminist writing: Bringing the author into the book instead of pretending ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’. If research is meant to be ‘neutral’, ‘external’ and ‘objective’, it is not feminist. Knowledge originates from personal experience, from the all-day life of women and girls. And feminist knowledge is not to be shared only with an exclusive circle of theory-firm intellectuals. Wendy Harcourt’s book is written in a concrete and practical way, also addressing readers who are new in the debate on gender and development. This is, I think, what we as young enthused feminist scholars could learn from the ‘first generation’ of feminist activist-researchers: Writing for (nearly) everyone willing to read, not comfortably restricting ourselves to an audience having read Butler and Derrida, and being used to the language of intersectionality and heteronormativity. ‘The personal is political’ is not just a 1970s and 1980s slogan but a basic feature of all-day feminism. Personal experience, knowledge and action are inseparably interlinked. This is why Wendy Harcourt bases her book on gender and development on telling the reader about what she has experienced and discussed with women all over the world. At all times, she questions her own position as a white middle-class academics writing on other women’s experiences and bodies – something she might had learnt in Delhi 1988.

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