Life as a feminist in the 21st century can be disorientating. Viewed from one perspective, feminism looks to have reached a high-water mark. By the end of the last century, women in many countries had formally secured the freedom to vote, to hold property, to receive higher education and to enter professions formerly the preserve of men. In the UK, legislation enshrining equal pay and prohibiting discrimination on grounds of gender or marital status was passed in 1970 and 1975. Of course, formal freedom and equality can and do co-exist with actual inequality and unfreedom. But most analyses suggest that the worldwide gender pay gap gradually narrowed over the later part of the 20th century and has continued to do so; meanwhile, women’s representation in fields traditionally dominated by men has been growing steadily. In recent years, a feminism focused on this ‘unfinished business’ has gained an unprecedented degree of mainstream acceptance. It has become the norm for political parties, corporations and academic departments to pledge to improve the proportion of women in ‘leadership’ positions. As Sarah Banet-Weiser observes, the rhetoric of female ‘empowerment’ is now a standard marketing tool. Feminism hasn’t just acquired establishment approval, it has managed to become voguish. As Banet-Weiser puts it, we are ‘living in a moment in North America and Europe in which feminism has become, somewhat incredibly, popular’.
Yet the period since the end of feminism’s ‘second wave’ – roughly since the early 1980s – has also been one in which things have in many respects got worse for the majority of women. In the rich nations of the global north, women have been disproportionately affected by the dismantling and privatisation of public services, in particular the provision of care for children, the disabled, the sick and the elderly, areas in which women perform the majority of the labour, paid and unpaid. Women in the global south, in addition to economic hardship, have to contend with the effects of climate change and with endemic conflict (including a seemingly endless series of Western wars of intervention). As with austerity, the greatest costs of ecological disaster and modern warfare are inflicted on women and children.
What is so disorientating isn’t just that the feminist movement has attained apparent maturity and success just when the conditions of so many women’s lives are desperate and deteriorating, but that it should also be necessary – yet oddly so difficult – to argue for the relevance of those conditions to feminism. Austerity, war and climate change have not been prominent concerns in the most visible feminist campaigns, which have focused instead on a relatively narrow set of issues: increasing women’s representation in various spheres, or pursuing legal, policy and cultural changes in the areas of sex, sexuality and the body – the law against ‘up-skirting’ is a recent example.
Those who defend these priorities tend to do so on grounds of strategy and conceptual integrity. Not everything that affects women’s lives can be a feminist issue, the argument goes, unless a ‘feminist issue’ is defined too expansively to be useful. Even to list the things that affect women’s lives disproportionately may be to include too much, given the tendency for those at the bottom of social hierarchies to suffer more from everything, whether famine or plague or economic recession. There are all sorts of problems in the world, and feminists must focus their energies. To fail to do so, on this view, would be to rob feminism of its distinctiveness, at the same time rendering it unnecessarily divisive. Instead, we should separate the pursuit of gender equality from other issues of social justice. To demand equality in these terms is to say nothing about the kind of world or society we would like to see – except that women and men should be equal in it. This has the advantage of simplicity. It also holds out the promise of a feminism that transcends traditional political oppositions.
This mode of thinking has become so ingrained as to seem commonsensical. But once we consider what precludes and what might promote gender equality in practice, the appearance of simplicity evaporates. ‘Equality’ is an almost infinitely malleable concept, but it’s hard to defend an interpretation of it that makes an issue like austerity irrelevant. Given that austerity has reduced women’s incomes by substantially more than those of men, it could be said to constitute unequal or discriminatory treatment. It exacerbates existing inequalities in wealth and earnings. It has increased women’s financial insecurity and so their dependence on men. It has made it impossible for many women to combine caring responsibilities with study or work. By reducing funding for women’s refuges, it has left many women effectively trapped with violent or abusive partners. It has led to an increase in ‘survival sex’ – women selling sex in order to pay rent, or to feed themselves and their families. Austerity has, in other words, wreaked damage in the ways that feminists profess to care most about.
Where feminists do express a concern with the gendered effects of austerity, they are often quick to assimilate it to the problem of under-representation. Discussing a report from 2015 by a group of women’s charities called ‘A Fair Deal for Women’, the group’s spokeswoman Florence Burton remarked: ‘Perhaps it is women’s woefully low representation in the top positions in our society that means they have become the load-bearers of austerity.’ Sonia Adesara, a doctor and ambassador for the organisation 50:50 Parliament, has argued that better representation for women is key to addressing the impact of austerity on women’s health: ‘What 50:50 believes is that if we want to get women’s lives and experiences prioritised, we need … those who are in positions of making power to be truly representative of the diversity of this country.’ In this way the discussion is returned to familiar ground.
The underlying assumption here – that women in power will enact policies that better serve women’s interests – is rarely made explicit. But at this point in history, it can hardly be said to be untested. The recent period, in which the representation of women has increased in many fields – including in Parliament – has also been dominated by the politics of austerity and neoliberalism. And in Britain at least, the proposition that female political leaders will look out for their sisters has now faced two rather spectacular counter-examples in Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. It is far from obvious why we should expect women in power to practise a different or more feminist politics. Feminists have long been sceptical, with good reason, of essentialist claims about women, which have traditionally served to legitimise or disguise our subjugation. The idea that women are inherently more peace-loving or empathetic isn’t substantially different from familiar sexist stereotypes.
The suggestion that women’s experience, rather than their nature, provides them with superior insight into – and sympathy with – the anti-patriarchal project makes only slightly more sense. Our social standpoints differ in significant ways according not only to gender but, crucially, class. Those in positions of political and economic power who purport to represent women belong by definition to a class of women for whom austerity isn’t a major determinant of the conditions and possibilities of life. Initiatives for the advancement of women in politics or in business might make a difference to women of this class – but to almost no one else. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that spokeswomen for feminist groups so often see everything through the prism of a politics of representation; and it should be equally unsurprising that the select few championed or elevated by this politics often do so much to harm and so little to help women in general.
For all its visible success, the currently dominant version of feminism is, in the eyes of many of its supporters, fragile and endangered. Movement on representation and on the gender pay gap has been slow, and may be beginning to stall. In the case of pay, it is likely that this is a consequence of the broader social and political trends in which feminists have taken relatively little interest. To take just one example, in 2017 legislation was passed requiring certain employers to publish data on the relative pay of women and men in their organisations. One of the early revelations was that several large academies and academy chains – the legacy of a drive by New Labour and Conservative governments to open the state school system to ‘market competition’ – were among the worst culprits for gender inequality. This wasn’t because of an imbalance at management level, where salaries routinely run to six figures. Rather, the disparity reflected the fact that women were vastly over-represented in the lower tiers, where pay has been falling in real terms for many years.
There is also a backlash against some of the legislative and cultural changes this form of feminism has helped bring about. Donald Trump has propelled misogyny to the fore of American politics by personifying it in an especially pugnacious form – much as Jair Bolsonaro has done in Brazil. This year, the anti-immigrant and anti-feminist party Vox made striking electoral gains in Spain, and promised to repeal legislation against gender violence, which it sees as biased against men. Comparable parties in the UK have been too busy stoking anti-immigrant sentiment to bother much with other bigotries, but the anti-abortion views of such prominent Tory Brexiteers as Dominic Raab and Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as the Ukip MEP candidate Carl Benjamin’s public speculation as to whether or not he would be willing to rape the Labour MP Jess Phillips, show that the potential exists in this country too.
In the world beyond formal politics, Britain’s newly marketised universities are increasingly willing to promote ‘controversial’ figures and to endorse clickbait posing as research. Last year, the University of Essex hired Gijsbert Stoet, a psychologist who believes that ‘biology’ accounts for the low numbers of women working in maths and physics, and that a ‘bias towards women’s issues’ is concealing the truth that men are the more socially disadvantaged gender. In March, Cambridge offered Jordan Peterson a visiting fellowship at its Faculty of Divinity (under pressure, they later retracted the offer). The views of figures like Stoet and Peterson find an eager audience not least among Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), who deploy the notion of male victimhood to great effect. Banet-Weiser documents the growth, especially online, of ‘popular misogyny’: MRAs mirror a popular feminist narrative that presents personal empowerment as the solution to historical injury with a counter-narrative insisting that men are the real victims, and prescribe ‘confidence-building’ and manipulative or abusive ‘seduction techniques’ as a solution.
Many see such phenomena as part of a new backlash against feminism that is bound up with populism, a mysterious and powerful force whose sudden emergence has endangered the political establishment which feminism has fought so hard to join. The term ‘populism’ does not refer to any distinct or unified object. Its main function is to insinuate an equivalence or continuity between left and right-wing challenges to the status quo by identifying allegedly shared features – such as ‘outsider’ status, popularity among the working class, or a divide between the elite and ‘the people’. Thus it joins antisemitic conspiracy theorists with socialists and even social democrats, who may also believe – it’s reasonable enough, after all – that a small elite hoards wealth and power. In this way of thinking, the question of who is thought to be in charge – Jews, feminists or capitalists – is of secondary importance.
Presenting the threat to feminism as a corollary of the emergence of populism makes it possible to avoid giving critical attention to the hegemonic form of feminism and the politics to which it has acquiesced. This is exemplified by Carol Gilligan and David Richards in Darkness Now Visible, as they seek to account for Trump’s rise ‘seemingly out of nowhere’. They tell an intricate psychological story, based on Gilligan’s earlier work on moral reasoning in boys and girls, about the ways in which patriarchal society distorts the development and ‘dims the moral intelligence’ of people of both genders. Yet a purely psychological account is insufficient to explain historically specific phenomena. Seemingly mindful of this, they discuss the immediately preceding phase of American politics, describing Obama as ‘a man of immense grace’, ‘wise beyond his years’, married (as they mention on several occasions) to ‘a woman clearly his equal’ (that much could be said of Trump too). Obama, they claim, embodied a model of manhood that challenged the patriarchal norm. This, compounded by the prospect of a woman, Hillary Clinton, becoming president, was an intolerable threat to the patriarchal order.
Missing from this picture is the possibility that both men and women voted for Trump not simply because of their investment in a patriarchy that they perceived to be under threat, but because they associated that threat with a social and economic order that denies them the means to live satisfactory lives. Angry or frightened white men are turning on anyone they can – women, immigrants and foreigners – in an attempt to retrieve some sense of superiority. Angry or frightened white women, many of whom have no interest in a feminism preoccupied with ‘representation’ in an unreachable political or socio-economic class, are doing the same: the majority of white American women voted for Trump.
Also absent from Gilligan and Richards’s book is any criticism of Clinton, or the political order she represents. All they can say is that she was robbed. They do find time to scold Bernie Sanders’s supporters. His female supporters – the non-voters and those who ‘wasted their votes mindlessly’ – are identified along with their Trump-voting sisters as victims of a campaign that ‘conspicuously deployed gender to shame men sensitive to their loss of stature and drive the women who care for them into perceiving feminism as a threat’. Here Gilligan and Richards join those feminists who lined up to shame the women who dared to criticise Clinton or to favour a left candidate. Gloria Steinem speculated that Sanders’s female supporters were only in it ‘for the boys’; Madeleine Albright threatened ‘a special place in hell’ for unbelievers.
Genuine progress can provoke a backlash. But that is not the most illuminating reading of what happened in America in 2016 – or in Britain, for that matter. That reading also comes uncomfortably close to arguments that anti-immigration sentiment is a consequence of an unduly tolerant and inclusive immigration policy. Hillary Clinton recently argued that Europe ‘needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame’ of right-wing populism. One or two steps further down that road we find Tony Blair explaining that if we really want to tackle the far right, immigrants must be forced to ‘integrate’. Such narratives get things backwards: they assume that racism against immigrants is caused by excessive multiculturalism, rather than being a continuation of racism already endemic in a society which, moreover, does not serve the interests of the majority of its people. The same holds in the case of feminism. Trump didn’t happen because feminism had gone too far but because, in a way, it hadn’t gone far enough, or had travelled in the wrong direction. His rise wouldn’t have been any less likely had 50 per cent of CEOs been women. But that isn’t the only way to think about feminist progress. Rather than accepting existing soci0-economic structures as fixed and asking for more representation for women at the top, it is possible to ask what kinds of social change would be needed in order to empower women in general, most of whom are – along with most men – stuck somewhere near the bottom.
‘An anti-capitalist feminism has become thinkable today,’ Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser argue in Feminism for the 99 Per Cent, ‘in part because the credibility of political elites is collapsing worldwide.’ They are right. But the long hegemony of a version of feminism that is in league with a discredited politics has made alternatives more difficult to articulate. Too often, a ritual incantation stands in for a serious attempt to do so: feminism must be intersectional, international, anti-capitalist, anti-ableist and so on. Lengthening lists and acronyms – LGBTQIA, WNBPoC – ensure that multiple oppressed groups are ‘included’, as if this were sufficient to prevent complicity in all-that-in-which-feminists-should-not-be-complicit.
Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser occasionally fall into this trap. At other times, they reach for an idea developed by Marxist feminists in the 1970s, that capitalism depends on the unpaid ‘reproductive’ labour of women: all the activity that contributes towards maintaining the ability and readiness of (usually male) workers to go out every day and produce profit for capital. This labour often isn’t visible as ‘work’, but it includes a long list of tasks traditionally and still disproportionately performed by women, such as cleaning, cooking, washing, child-rearing and the provision of various kinds of care. According to the authors, who are among the organisers of the international women’s strikes that have been held annually on International Women’s Day since 2017, the strategic withdrawal by women of productive and reproductive labour has the capacity to damage patriarchy and capitalism at their roots in a way traditional trade unionism cannot. By ‘withholding not only waged work, but also the unwaged work of social reproduction’, women strikers ‘have disclosed the latter’s indispensable role in society’.
It is less clear that the women’s strikes have the potential to do more than this. After all, Mothering Sunday – the day when we ‘appreciate everything that mums do for us all’, according to our overlords in advertising – also discloses the importance of women’s reproductive labour. As attempts at the strategic withdrawal of labour power, these strikes are severely limited compared with organised industrial action. The withdrawal of paid labour hits the capitalist in the form of permanently lost profits. The withdrawal of unpaid reproductive labour is less straightforward. If the labour takes the form of care for vulnerable others such as children or elderly relatives, withdrawal may not be an acceptable option. In the case of labour that isn’t a matter of life and death – washing up or vacuuming – the woman will either do it later, or someone else will. Or no one will, and the house will get slightly messier. At best, a husband or boyfriend might be shamed into doing something the woman normally does. The capitalist doesn’t suffer, or even notice.
The central insight – that women’s work is work, and that capitalism extracts profit from it, albeit indirectly and invisibly – is important, but I have never been completely sure what we are supposed to do with it. Indeed, its original proponents took the idea in divergent directions: some, such as Silvia Federici and Selma James, founded the movement Wages for Housework; others, like Angela Davis, looked forward to the abolition of private ‘drudgery’ and its replacement with socialised services. For many, ‘reproductive labour’ is a sufficient answer to the question of why feminism must be anti-capitalist: since capitalism exploits the unpaid labour of women, it is incompatible with gender equality; if you want to get rid of patriarchy, you have to get rid of capitalism. But to argue that capitalism profits from women’s subordination isn’t quite the same as arguing that capitalism depends on women’s subordination for its existence.
As Davis argued in an essay published in 1977, written while she was in prison, the emergence of capitalism created a new domestic form of subordination for women. That it was women who were subordinated in this way wasn’t an accident, but a function of an earlier, pre-capitalist history of gendered labour, in which women, while making an essential contribution to social production, were ‘socially tied to their reproductive role’ in the particular tasks they performed. Davis is wary of rigidly deterministic accounts of gender relations. Nevertheless, she goes beyond the observation that capitalism inherits and exploits a gendered division of labour in a way that perpetuates patriarchy, arguing that the inherent contradictions of capitalism systemically generate and sustain women’s subordination. Capitalism, although in principle indifferent to gender (it treats human beings alike chiefly as ‘abstract labour power’), depends on the hierarchical family, in which the worker is able to assert his authority, for ‘the maintenance of the worker as individual’; the family serves to fulfil the ‘irrepressible needs of working human beings’ which the capitalist mode of production otherwise neglects and denies.
While this account is useful as an explanation of why patriarchy is so persistent under capitalism, it arguably still falls short of demonstrating that capitalism strictly entails patriarchy. It certainly does entail class exploitation, and it may be that further forms of oppression and division will always be required to make sustainable the privations that capitalism imposes on human beings. But it doesn’t follow that it is impossible for a form of capitalism to develop that exploits both (or all) genders equally, and hence that it is impossible for capitalism to survive the end of patriarchy. Wages for housework – albeit in a form far from the intentions of its original advocates – could conceivably play a part in such a scenario. The important question is not whether a truly gender-blind capitalism is possible, but whether that would be an equality worth fighting for.
It remains difficult to relate feminism to other forms of social criticism and resistance in a way that doesn’t seem contrived or reductionist. Even the statement ‘Austerity is a feminist issue’ can sound like an addendum to a pre-existing critique. Those who take up that slogan invariably regard austerity as bad for everyone – just especially so for women. We would continue to oppose austerity even if it somehow turned out – or came to pass – that austerity was gender-neutral in its effects. There is a faint echo here of the kind of leftism rightly criticised by feminists of the second wave: the kind that promises women’s liberation will be delivered in due course as a by-product of socialism, and that dismisses specifically feminist demands as redundant or secondary – matters that can wait until after the revolution. Whether what is at issue is the overthrow of capitalism or the more modest goal of ending austerity, it can sometimes look as if feminism has been relegated to an auxiliary role, adding little besides a bit of extra motivation.
By contrast, a brand of feminism that stands aloof from other forms of political critique is able to present itself as feminism in its pure and undiluted state. But feminism is about opposing patriarchy, and patriarchy always takes a socially and historically specific form. In our present context, it is not exclusively concentrated in the person of Donald Trump; it is there in the structures that make up our societies, and which keep men and, especially, women down. For that reason, our feminism, too, must be diffused throughout the rest of our politics – not held apart from it – if it is to be capable of advocating for more than a tiny minority of women. Its task is to look with a feminist eye – sensitive to the changing manifestations of women’s subordination to men – at a world that not only feminists have reason to change.