As a feminist, I have always assumed that by fighting to emancipate women, I was building a better world, one that was more egalitarian, just and free. However, lately I have begun to worry that ideals pioneered by feminists are serving quite different ends.
In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society. Feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms. Where feminists once criticized a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to “lean in.” A movement that once prioritized social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once valorized “care” now encourages individual advancement.
What lies behind this shift is a sea-change in the character of capitalism. The state-managed capitalism of the postwar era has given way to a new form of capitalism: “disorganized,” globalizing, neoliberal. Second-wave feminism emerged as a critique of the first, but has become the handmaiden of the second.
TWO POSSIBLE FUTURES
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that the movement for women’s liberation pointed simultaneously to two different possible futures. In the first, it prefigured a world in which gender emancipation went hand-in-hand with participatory democracy and social solidarity. In the second, it promised a new form of liberalism, able to grant women, as well as men, the goods of individual autonomy, choice and meritocratic advancement. Second-wave feminism was in this sense ambivalent. Compatible with either of two different visions of society, it was susceptible to two different historical elaborations.
As I see it, feminism’s ambivalence has been resolved in favor of the second, liberal-individualist scenario, but not because we were passive victims of neoliberal seductions. On the contrary, we ourselves contributed three important ideas to this development.
One contribution was our critique of the “family wage:” the ideal of a male breadwinner-female homemaker family that was central to state-organized capitalism. Feminist criticism of that ideal now serves to legitimate “flexible capitalism,” which relies heavily on women’s waged labor — especially low-wage work — performed not only by young single women, but also by women with children. As women have poured into labor markets around the globe, state-organized capitalism’s ideal of the family wage is being replaced by the newer, more modern norm — apparently sanctioned by feminism — of the two-earner family.
Never mind that the reality is depressed wage levels, decreased job security, declining living standards, a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, an exacerbation of the double shift and a rise in poverty. Neoliberalism turns a sow’s ear into a silk purse by elaborating a narrative of female empowerment. Invoking the feminist critique of the family wage to justify exploitation, it harnesses the dream of women’s emancipation to the engine of capital accumulation.
POVERTY OF IDENTITY
Feminism has also made a second contribution to the neoliberal ethos. In the era of state-organized capitalism, we rightly criticized a political vision that was so intently focused on class inequality that it could not see such “non-economic” injustices as domestic violence, sexual assault and reproductive oppression. Rejecting “economism” and politicizing “the personal,” feminists broadened the political agenda to challenge status hierarchies. The result should have been to expand the struggle for justice to encompass both culture and economics, but the result was a one-sided focus on “gender identity” at the expense of bread-and-butter issues.