In this thesis, I revisit classical and influential feminist texts, mantras and ideologies to analyse the experiences of women working in Malaysian-based women’s organisations: International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW AP), Sisters In Islam and Musawah, all of which are located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I argue that even in difficult times, the women in my study continue to work for others because this is where they find meaning in their professional and personal lives. I examine how they view their feminist activism in an organisational setting and what this means to their greater identities. My ethnographic study contributes to research on women and work, especially in the Southeast Asian context. I identify how women are expected to use caring roles and emotion work typical of the home in these working environments that also promote self-neglect and overwork. While women experience trying moments in these spaces, they continue to work for women’s rights because they are working for a larger cause and this satisfies them.
I follow Arlie Russell Hochschild’s emotional labour thesis to explore the merging of home and work, and what this means to the intimate relationships women have to their work. I identify how the idea that ‘work is good’, a common motto in these workplaces, functions in professional and personal contexts. I extend Hochschild’s research to examine how women’s intersecting identities shape why they continue to work in a sector that expects them to give all of themselves. My research provides a gendered reading of non-profit/NGO work focusing on the history of contemporary Malaysian women’s organisations, conflicting feminist identities, how the personal becomes the professional, health implications, funding challenges, and generational tensions in organisations that are rooted in wider feminist debates.