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.
Worse still, the feminist turn to identity politics dovetailed with a rising neoliberalism eager to repress all memory of social equality. In effect, we absolutized the critique of cultural sexism at precisely the moment when circumstances required redoubled attention to the critique of political economy.
Finally, feminism contributed a third idea: the critique of welfare-state paternalism. Undeniably progressive in the era of state-organized capitalism, that critique has since converged with neoliberalism’s war on “the nanny state” and its cynical embrace of non-governmental organizations. A telling example is microcredit, the program of small bank loans to poor women in the global south. Cast as an empowering, bottom-up alternative to bureaucratic state projects, microcredit is touted as the feminist antidote for women’s poverty and subjection. However, what has been missed is a disturbing coincidence: microcredit has burgeoned just as states have abandoned macro-structural efforts to fight poverty. A feminist perspective aimed originally at democratizing state power is now used to legitimize marketization.
In all these cases, feminism’s ambivalence has been resolved in favor of (neo)liberal individualism, but the other solidaristic scenario may still be alive. The current crisis affords the chance to pick up its thread once more, reconnecting the dream of women’s liberation with the vision of a solidarity society. To that end, feminists need to reclaim our three “contributions.”
First, we might break the spurious link between our critique of the family wage and flexible capitalism by militating for a form of life that de-centers waged work and valorizes unwaged activities, including — but not limited to — carework.
Second, we might disrupt the passage from our critique of economism to identity politics by integrating the struggle to transform a status order premised on masculinist values with the struggle for economic justice.
Finally, we might sever the bogus bond between our critique of bureaucracy and free-market fundamentalism by reclaiming the mantle of participatory democracy as a means of strengthening the public powers needed to constrain capital for the sake of justice.
Nancy Fraser is the author of Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis.