In The Neoliberal Woman, Henry Vespa began looking into what has happened to feminism in the neoliberal age. Here is his conclusion to that investigation.
Once upon a time, feminism envisaged a better world, a fairer world; a world in which rights were equal and how you were treated did not depend on a box ticked on your birth certificate. As with any revolution, there was much rhetoric and radical action – some of it helpful to the cause, some not – and like any movement seeking to overturn the way things are, it met with opposition. Arguably, the most shadowy and insidious opponent was the system itself. You can call it, ‘patriarchy’ or ‘Western society’ or simply the ‘status quo’, but for now, let’s just call it ‘capitalism’. What seems evident in retrospect is that over the years, feminist ideals such as right to work, acknowledgement of the personal experience (as opposed to viewing things purely in terms of social class divisions) and a less paternalistic welfare state, have been co-opted by the pillars of the capitalist system. The press, government and big business have been subverting the clarion call for gender equality to their own ends for some time.
Of course, there are some who might say, so what? Is it such a bad thing? Well, if you think capitalism is working then probably not. But to think capitalism is the best possible system, you really need to be at the top of the dung heap. Otherwise, you’re probably just counting your shiny consumer toys and ignoring your debt quotient. For most of the worker bees, capitalism’s perpetual earn-consume cycle tends to be something of a Chinese finger trap – the more you pull to get out the tighter you’re caught. So, one way of viewing feminism is that it was – in its broadest sense – an attempt to create something better. But can that better world (however you define it) actually be created?
First, you have to define “better” and right there is where it all falls apart because “better” is subjective. There’ll always be someone or some group that is dissatisfied with the way things are. If there weren’t then we would be living in a utopia and a system is only a utopia if everyone within that system wants what it provides. Everyone wanting a single system is just another way of saying everyone wants the same thing, which is itself impossible unless we are all the same in terms of our wants, drives, needs, etc. So, aiming for a utopia is in itself anti-diversity. It only works if a) you want to be the same as everyone else (zero self-esteem) or b) you want everyone else to be the same as you (megalomania). The price of a true utopia is the sacrifice of our individual natures. A classic example in fiction is Huxley’s Brave New World: everyone is happy because they are conditioned to the same set of values and behaviors and kept that way with constant use of the drug, soma.
In other words, while we can all sign up to striving for a better world with fairness, justice and equality for all, the questions of whose justice, whose fairness, and whose equality are fairly insurmountable. But if we can’t agree on the details, could we agree on a broad direction? Let’s abandon the ideal of a Panglossian best of all possible worlds and at least straighten out some of the more obvious injustices; and to bring us full circle, surely gender inequality is one of those? The broad questions begged by the issue of feminism’s co-option are: has feminism worked at all, and, where should it go next?
If feminism and the drive for gender equality have been co-opted by capitalism for its own ends, and we’ve been side-tracked by the granting of small ‘wins’ doled out grudgingly by those in power, we’re left with the questions, what now?, where next?, and, has anything really changed in the last fifty years or are we just kidding ourselves?
As Twain observed, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. And statistics tend to be the mendacious method of choice for the bodies of capitalism. Governments, for example, love to quote them and the press delight in weaving whole articles around them. For example, in the UK, 67 percent of women are in employment compared to 7percent of men – not equal but heading in the right direction, no? Especially when you are told that the figures in 1971 were 53 percent and 92 percent respectively. But what is mentioned less often is that the figure of 67 percent has barely increased since 1991. In other words, female employment rates in the UK have hardly changed in 22 years; that’s pretty much a generation! Add to the picture a European average pay gap between men and women of over 15 percent (it’s more than 20 percent in the States) and less than 10 percent of boardroom jobs being held by women and the results of four decades or so of striving begin to seem a little on the paltry side.
Of course, look back a little further and there are significant strides that have been taken. Women can own property (having been ‘declassified’ in law as property themselves), they can borrow independently of their partner or husband, they can have a career (not without stigma and criticism perhaps, but they can have one) and – in theory – if they choose to have a child, they no longer lose their job. However, with the rising cost of the consumer lifestyle and the debt trap that is a virtually compulsory feature of Western society, these and other gains are no longer choices available to women, they’re practically mandates. With a mortgage, several credit cards, universal consumerism and stress levels at the top end of the Richter scale, both women and men are now indentured in exactly the same way – now, there’s equality for you.
There are successes but they are often partial and/or pyrrhic, leaving women laboring under a new oppression labelled as emancipation. So, is there any hope for true gender equality? Any signs that feminism (in any form) is refusing to be spoon-fed by capitalism any longer?
We used to have radical feminism, Marxist feminism, liberal feminism, and so on. A fragmentation? Maybe, but also a number of clear philosophies and all with the common aim of equality and removal of oppression. What do we have now? Well, on one side, we have Lean In, the latest rah-rah empowerment love-fest that seems to be endorsed by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Gloria Steinem. There’s a book, there’s an online community, and you can only access it if you have a Facebook account (did I mention the founder of Lean In is the COO of Facebook?) It’s all about having the confidence and inspiration to do it for yourself (and if, in interview, society, legislation or public policy are raised, the subject is quickly changed). Excuse me if this all sounds like the quintessential capitalist repackaging of feminism. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the rather old-school and radical Femen; an organization which stages media frenzy-inducing topless protests against sex tourism, religious institutions, international marriage agencies, and other forms of patriarchy. Somewhere in the middle (or off to one side) is the celebrity worship culture in which we find ourselves. In a sense, this offers the most high profile role models for women in the modern world and which antics get the most press coverage? Two words: Miley Cyrus.
So, the fight continues; the long slow trudge to full gender equality with many a backward step. Neoliberal capitalism remains the dominant paradigm of the global society and shows no sign of departing. It ignores opposition and assimilates what cannot be ignored. Maybe a number of approaches, working both within and without the current system are required. Whatever, it will be interesting to see how things change (or not) over the next decade or two.