Third World and Third World Women

Posted · Add Comment

What geographical regions constitute the Third World? Who are Third World women? Who defines and writes about the terms “Third World” and “Third World Women”? The answers to the above questions are important to both postcolonial studies and feminist studies.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explains that the term “Third World” was initially coined in 1955 by those emerging from the “old” world order:

The initial attempt in the Bandung Conference (1955) to establish a third way — neither with the Eastern nor within the Western bloc — in the world system, in response to the seemingly new world order established after the Second World War, was not accompanied by a commensurate intellectual effort. The only idioms deployed for the nurturing of this nascent Third World in the cultural field belonged then to positions emerging from resistance within the supposedly ‘old’ world order — anti-imperialism, and/or nationalism (270).

Kum Kum Sangari argues that the term “Third World” not only designates specific geographical areas, but imaginary spaces. According to Sangari, “Third World” is “a term that both signifies and blurs the functioning of an economic, political, and imaginary geography able to unite vast and vastly differentiated areas of the world into a single ‘underdeveloped’ terrain” (217). Sangari is critical of the way “Third World” is used by the West to indiscriminately lump together vastly different places (See Orientalism, Benedict Anderson, Nationalism).

Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, 1991

Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, 1991

Chandra Talpade Mohanty defines the Third World geographically:

The nation-states of Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-east Asia, China, South Africa, and Oceania constitute the parameters of the non-European third world. In addition, black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples in the U.S., Europe, Australia, some of whom have historic links with the geographically defined third worlds, also define themselves as third world peoples (5).

Cheryl Johnson-Odim explains that “the term Third World is frequently applied in two ways: to refer to ‘underdeveloped’/over-exploited geopolitical entities, i.e. countries, regions, even continents; and to refer to oppressed nationalities from these world areas who are now resident in ‘developed’ First World countries.” Johnson-Odim further identifies problems some Third World women have with First World feminism:

While it may be legitimately argued that there is no one school of thought on feminism among First World feminists — who are not, after all, monolithic — there is still, among Third World women, a widely accepted perception that the feminism emerging from white, middle-class Western women narrowly confines itself to a struggle against gender discrimination. (314, 315)

The use of the term “Third World Women” by Western feminists has been widely critiqued. Mohanty uses the term interchangeably with “women of color” (7). She argues that “what seems to constitute ‘women of color’ or ‘third world women’ as a viable oppositional alliance is a common context of struggle rather than color or racial identifications. Similarly, it is third world women’s oppositional political relation to sexist, racist, and imperialistic structures that constitutes our political commonality” (7). Although she uses the term “third world women,” Mohanty argues that western feminisms appropriate the production of the”third world woman as a singular monolithic subject,” for a “discursive colonization” (51). (See Representation) Furthermore, western feminisms articulate a discursive colonization through the production of “third world difference”: “that stable, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all of the women in [third world] countries” (53-54). Western feminisms’ use of the category of “third world woman” and “third world difference” ties into a larger, latent cultural and economic colonialism:

In the context of the hegemony of the Western scholarly establishment in the production and dissemination of texts, and the context of the legitimating imperative of humanistic and scientific discourse, the definition of the ‘third world woman’ as a monolith might well tie into the larger cultural and economic praxis of ‘disinterested’ scientific inquiry and pluralism which are the surface manifestations of a latent economic and cultural colonization of the ‘non-Western’ world (74).

Trinh T. Minh-ha argues that “‘difference’ is essentially ‘division’ in the understanding of many. It is no more than a tool of self-defense and conquest” (14). Trinh’s concern is with the use of the third world woman as the “native” Other in Western anthropology and feminisms. Answering the question, “‘why do we have to be concerned with the question of Third World women? After all, it is only one issue among many others,’” Trinh replies:

Delete the phrase Third World and the sentence immediately unveils its value-loaded cliches. Generally speaking, a similar result is obtained through the substitution of words like racist for sexist, or vice-versa, and the established image of the Third World Woman in the context of (pseudo)-feminism readily merges with that of the Native in the context of (neo-colonialist) anthropology (17).

Self-defined Third World women who inhabit a place within First World feminist academia are also the subject of critique. Diane Brydon writes, “now that the marginal is being revalued as the new voice of authority in discourse, it is tempting to accept the imperial definition of the colonized as marginal”(4). In a direct attack on Mohanty and Trinh as well as bell hooks, Sara Suleri argues that:

Rather than extending an inquiry into the discursive possibilities represented by the intersection of gender and race, feminist intellectuals like hooks misuse their status as minority voices by enacting strategies of belligerence that at this time are more divisive than informative. Such claims to radical revisionism take refuge in the political untouchability that is accorded the category of Third World Woman, and in the process sully the crucial knowledge that such a category has still to offer to the dialogue of feminism today (765).

Suleri also argues:

[The] claim to authenticity — only a black can speak for a black; only a postcolonial subcontinental feminist can adequately represent the lived experience of that culture — points to the great difficulty posited by the ‘authenticity’ of female racial voices in the great game which claims to be the first narrative of what the ethnically constructed woman is deemed to want (760).

Similarly, Suleri attacks hooks and Trinh for claiming that “personal narrative is the only salve to the rude abrasions that Western feminist theory has inflicted on the body of ethnicity” (764). Suleri advocates examining how “realism locates its language within the postcolonial condition,” and suggests that “lived experience does not achieve its articulation through autobiography, but through that other third-person narrative known as the law” (766).

As the above arguments indicate, the terms “Third World” and”Third World Women” are by no means stable categories. Rather, these terms are a locus of contention not only between First World feminisms and Third World women, but also between Third World women themselves within the complex field of postcolonial studies.

See also: Gender and NationNawal el SaadawiWomen, Islam, and the HijabChicana FeminismFGMVictorian Women Travellers


  • Brydon, Diana. “Commonwealth or Common Poverty?” Kunapipi: Special Issue on Post-Colonial Criticism 11-1 (1989): 1-16.
  • Johnson-Odim, Cheryl. “Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism.Eds. Mohanty, Russo, Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Introduction” and “Under Western Eyes.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Mohanty, Russo, Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1991.
  • Sangari, Kumkum. “The Politics of the Possible.” The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Eds. Abdul Jan Mohamed and David Lloyd. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Spivak Reader. Eds. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Suleri, Sara. “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition.” Critical Inquiry (Summer 1992): 756-769.
  • Trinh, Minh-ha. “Difference: ‘A Special Third World Woman Issue.” Discourse 8 (Fall-Winter 86-87): 10-37.

Author: Nicola Graves, Spring 1996

Last edited: May 2012

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *