State feminism

State feminism is feminism created or approved by the government of a state or nation. It usually specifies a particular program. The term was coined by Helga Hernes with particular reference to the situation in Norway, which had a tradition of government-supported liberal feminism dating back to the 1880s, and is often used when discussing the government-supported gender equality policies of the Nordic countries, that are linked to the Nordic model.[1][2] The term has also been used in the context of developing countries where the government may prescribe its form of feminism and at the same time prohibit non-governmental organizations from advocating for any other feminist program.[3] In this sense it is possible to distinguish between a liberal state feminism found in Western democracies such as the Nordic countries, and a somewhat more authoritarian state feminism that is often also linked to secularism, found e.g. in certain Middle Eastern countries.


State feminism is when the government or the state adopts policies that are beneficial to women's rights and the improvement of women's lives.[4] The term was coined by Helga Hernes in 1987.[4] Feminist theorists in the 1980s had begun to reconsider the role that governments could have on positive outcomes for women's lives.[5] A state, as a system, could support the interests of different classes, genders and "racial hierarchies."[5] It could also support a diverse number of programs that have different levels of support within government or society.[6]

Women who study state feminism look at the effectiveness of various government programs, and how they improve women's rights and their status in their localities.[7] Some researchers, such as Elisabeth Friedman, have suggested that it is essential that there is a strong women's movement that works independent of the state in order for state feminism to be successful.[7] In Australia and the Netherlands those involved with the promotion of state feminism can be called "femocrats."[4] It can also be useful to apply the concept of state feminism to examine the policies towards women in countries that have a strong central state, such as Japan.[8]

The idea of state feminism is often conflated with the creation of women's policy agencies in governments.[9] However, the creation of such policies does not mean that feminist outcomes are taking place Research Network on Gender Politics and the State (RNGS).[9] Basically, state feminism should not be confused with the action taken in regards to agencies in the government that support policies for women, according to Dorothy E. McBride and Amy G. Mazur in "Women's Policy Agencies and State Feminism."[9] McBride and Mazur identify two types of state feminism: "Movement State Feminism" and "Transformative State Feminism."[10] The former describes when the government reacts to the women's movement in a place by creating policies that promote "demands based on gender consciousness, women's solidarity, and the cause of women."[10] The transformative process is where the demands already started within the state become "explicitly feminist" and work towards full gender equality and the possibility of transforming relationships between genders.[10] State feminism can also drive a government to become more broadly democratic in nature.[11]


In the 20th century, Turkey's government "preempted feminism".[12] The Turkish national government's program in the 1920s included mandatory de-hijabicization (unveiling of women), access for women to more education and work, and political rights for women, all as part of a national effort to emulate some Western cultural characteristics in a Muslim nation.[3]

In the 1980s, second-wave feminism appeared, among daughters of leading women of Turkey's Kemalist movement, the women being feminist within the government's definition and leadership.[13] The state feminism they followed, according to scholar Margot Badran, covered parts of patriarchy with an appearance of Western progressivity.[14]

In the 21st century, Turkey's government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rolled back many women's rights as Turkey becomes more conservative and Islamist.[15] In 2021, Turkey even withdrew from the treaty on women's rights.[16]


In South Yemen, also known as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (with the subsequent unification of two Yemen's into one, the former PDRY is now generally south Yemen), state feminism had little effect on patriarchy and did not have much influence beyond Aden, a port city in the PDRY.[17] "Women in the south ... seemed to believe their gains would never be rescinded. They behaved as feminists, if by that is meant shaping the lives of their choice by accessing the new options offered them. But they did not embrace a feminist ideology or identity, as this was preempted by the state. When the socialist regime collapsed, the fragile gains of state feminism went with it."[18] "Northern women had acquired an acute gender consciousness and developed practical feminist skills ... but they had no legitimate political space. Southern women had been able to exploit the educational and professional benefits conferred under state feminism, but they did not have the independent ideological space in which to develop a feminism of their own."[19]

Post-unification Yemen has been analyzed by one author.[20]


Karin M. Bruzelius, Norwegian supreme court justice and President of the Norwegian Association for Women's Rights, during a lecture on human rights in Norwegian jurisprudence

Norway has a tradition of government-supported liberal feminism since 1884, when the Norwegian Association for Women's Rights (NKF) was founded with the support of the progressive establishment within the then-dominant governing Liberal Party (which received 63.4% of the votes in the election the following year); the association's founders included five Norwegian prime ministers and several of its early leaders were married to prime ministers. Rooted in first-wave liberal feminism, it works "to promote gender equality and women's and girls' human rights within the framework of liberal democracy and through political and legal reform."[21] NKF members had key roles in developing the government apparatus and legislation related to gender equality in Norway since 1884; with the professionalization of gender equality advocacy from 1970s, the "Norwegian government adopted NKF's [equality] ideology as its own"[1] and adopted laws and established government institutions such as the Gender Equality Ombud based on NKF's proposals; the new government institutions to promote gender equality were also largely built and led by prominent NKF members such as Eva Kolstad, NKF's former president and the first Gender Equality Ombud. NKF's feminist tradition has often been described as Norway's state feminism. The term state feminism itself was coined by NKF member Helga Hernes.[1] Although it grew out of 19th century progressive liberalism, Norwegian liberal feminism is not limited to liberalism in a modern party-political sense, and NKF is broadly representative of the democratic political spectrum from the centre-left to the centre-right, including the social democratic Labour Party. Norwegian supreme court justice and former NKF President Karin Maria Bruzelius has described NKF's liberal feminism as "a realistic, sober, practical feminism".[22]


Middle East

In the 1980s and 1990s, "feminist activists and scholars in the Middle East assailed the limits of 'state feminism' and exposed its patriarchal dimensions."[23]

Communist and socialist regimes

"Sharon Wesoky characterized the relationship of an emergent women's movement to the [Chinese] state as 'symbiotic,' containing elements of both autonomy and dependence, and operating largely within rather than in opposition to party-state institutions."[24]

Writing on China, Badran argued that "'State feminisms' have been discredited elsewhere as well [e.g., in China] following the collapse of communist and socialist regimes."[25]


"Many feminists [...] consider the notion of a state feminism to be an oxymoron."[3] Independent women's movements may be prohibited by the government.[3] State feminism can also be a way that the government takes over the role of speaking for and on behalf of women, rather than letting women themselves speak and make demands.[26]


  1. Elisabeth Lønnå: Stolthet og kvinnekamp: Norsk kvinnesaksforenings historie fra 1913, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 1996, p. 273, passim, ISBN 8205244952
  2. Helga Hernes (1987). Welfare State and Woman Power: Essays in state feminism, Norwegian University Press, ISBN 978-8200184959
  3. Badran (2009), p. 223
  4. McBride & Mazur 2010, p. 4.
  5. Franceschet 2003, p. 17.
  6. Kobayashi 2004, p. 19.
  7. Franceschet 2003, p. 18.
  8. Kobayashi 2004, p. 21.
  9. McBride & Mazur 2013, p. 657.
  10. McBride & Mazur 2010, p. 5.
  11. McBride & Mazur 2010, p. 10.
  12. Badran (2009), p. 302
  13. Badran (2009), p. 227
  14. Badran (2009), p. 227
  15. "Organized Anti-Feminism in Turkey: A Quick Picture | Gunda-Werner-Institut". Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. Retrieved 2021-04-14.
  16. Welle (, Deutsche. "Turkey slammed for quitting treaty protecting women's rights | DW | 20.03.2021". DW.COM. Retrieved 2021-04-14.
  17. Badran (2009), p. 260
  18. Badran (2009), p. 261
  19. Badran (2009), p. 261
  20. Badran (2009), p. 261, citing Carapico (1991), p. 15
  21. "About us". Norwegian Association for Women's Rights. Retrieved 2020-10-24.
  22. "Hvem vi er". Norwegian Association for Women's Rights. Retrieved 2020-10-28.
  23. Badran (2009), p. 255
  24. Hershatter (2007), p. 102
  25. Badran (2009), pp. 255, 261, citing Yang (1998)
  26. Allsopp, Jennifer (19 September 2012). "State feminism: co-opting women's voices". OpenDemocracy. Retrieved 2020-03-24.