Leela Fernandes's Feminist Political Economy Initiative


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presenters at the 2014 symposium
presenters at the 2014 symposium

This article was originally featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Genderscapes, IRWG's annual newsletter.

From the early days of the institute, faculty-initiated programming was part of IRWG’s mission to stimulate and disseminate important research on women and gender. Interdisciplinary Faculty Programs examine scholarly subjects in novel ways, often incorporating combinations of lectures, symposia, small-group discussions, classroom activities, travel, and creative arts to complement more traditional research methods. Programs can be created by faculty members throughout the U-M system, including Dearborn and Flint.

Two programs in 2014-15, the Feminist Political Economy Initiative and FemTechNet, transcended physical boundaries, connecting feminist scholars from around the world who work on issues as diverse as socio-economic policy and digital studies. 

As the director of the Feminist Political Economy Initiative, Leela Fernandes (Glenda Dickerson Collegiate Professor of Women’s Studies) received funding and administrative support from IRWG to organize a one-day symposium in October 2014, titled “Understanding the Neoliberal State: Feminism, Inequality and Social Change.” The symposium convened nine interdisciplinary scholars to discuss their research on the nature of the post-liberalization period. She explains, “The term ‘neoliberalism’ is too often used in erroneous or facile ways that presume that the state has retreated or been restructured in a singular way. The symposium was geared towards a deeper analysis of how the state is changing, when it is retreating and when state power is expanding.”

This project was born out of Fernandes’s current research on the post-liberalization state in India. Fernandes is conducting research on how the state is managing access to water resources in urban India. Rapid and often unplanned urbanization has been producing new forms of political conflicts – between social groups, local governments and rural and urban areas. Her re- search examines how state bureaucracies and institutions manage such conflicts in the post-liberalization period. A key component of this research addresses the class and gender based inequalities that are reproduced through the state’s management of water resources.

Nancy Naples asks a question during the 2014 symposiumThe symposium participants represented a wide range of fields, from Sociology, Anthropology, Geography, Women’s Studies, American Studies and Social Work, who work in contexts as diverse as Bangladesh, Ecuador, India, Europe, and the United States. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, delivered the keynote address. Fernandes tailored the symposium to meet her goal of deep intellectual engagement and collaboration, including providing time to read pre-circulated papers and have group discussions in addition to the public event and audience-based interactions. She is confident that the work begun at the symposium will continue, having built lasting connections among the scholars, most of whom had not previously met, and laying groundwork for follow-up collaborations. The papers presented at the symposium will also be published in an edited volume, currently under review with a university press.

Fernandes’s symposium embodied the interdisciplinarity and feminist inquiry that IRWG seeks to foster. It was the flexibility of the IRWG Faculty Program that enabled her to design an event that suited her precise vision. “My project was specifically focused on both feminist scholarly approaches and on the importance of interdisciplinary intellectual engagement. This made IRWG an ideal context for what I wanted to do,” said Fernandes. “In my experience, IRWG has also been very open to rethinking what counts as feminist intellectual inquiry so that questions of race and nation allow for an understanding of the existence of different genealogies of feminist thought.”

While Fernandes doesn’t plan to continue the Feminist Political Economy Initiative, she has joined forces with Victor Mendoza (English and Women’s Studies) to codirect a new program, the Race, Colonialism, and Sexualities Initiative. This initiative will sponsor ongoing events with speakers, activists, and cultural performers, designed to build an intellectual community of faculty and students. Mendoza is taking the lead in planning events for Fall 2015, focusing on queer of color scholarship. Fernandes credits the flexibility of IRWG in supporting creative and diverse events, and the ability to collaborate with colleagues across disci- plines as a key factor in her decision to co-lead the new program. “IRWG has been a terrific intellectual resource. I have especially appreciated the institute’s receptiveness to ideas for events and programming. There is an openness to ideas that makes working with IRWG feel very welcoming.” 


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