Lois JC reports on the session entitled “Marxist-feminist challenges to neoliberalism” that took place at the London Historical Materialism 2014 conference earlier this month, with Hester Eisenstein, Estelle Cooch and Catherine Rottenberg.
The meeting on neoliberalism and feminism at the Historical Materialism conference was a timely and serious contribution towards analysing feminist movements today. Feminism seems to have a resurgence both from below; global mobilisations and demonstrations against sexual violence for example, and from above. While Beyonce sings in front of a billboard with the word ‘feminism’ written across it, Emma Watson, the UN ambassador for women, launches her ‘HeforShe’ campaign proclaiming that being a feminist doesn’t make her ‘man-hating’. I have been wondering what to make of this so was looking forward to the discussion to thrash out my own ideas.
Hester Eisenstein, US academic, was the first speaker. Through a critique of two books: Holding Up Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook), Hester launched a scathing attack on what she called ‘hegemonic feminism’ or feminism from above. Its aim is to allow for women to enter bougeois capitalism. The emancipatory aims of the second wave of feminism in the 1960’s have been shaped and narrowed into a feminism which is deemed acceptable for neoliberal capitalism, namely – paid work for women.
Holding Up Half the Sky echoes the sentiments of the UN to the effect that improving women’s lives is the key to ending poverty and that charity can make change happen. However the contradiction here is that there is no mention of the neoliberal policies or austerity measures of the past decade and how they have affected women. Actually the key to ending poverty is not simply the position of women or where they are on the career ladder, in an increasingly unequal world it would mean breaking neoliberalism.
Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead introduces a new non profit organisation to empower all women to achieve their ambitions. They have a campaign called ‘Ban bossy’ to ban the word bossy in reference to women. Their advice is that while there are real world barriers to women it is still possible for them to aim high and lean in. Suffice to say there is no mention of women of colour, disabled women or LGBT women.
Her conclusion was that this was ‘feminism of the 1%’ – a term I liked. These ideas and aims are useless for the 99%. Globalisation has had awful effects on the global south but the remedy is not the west empowering women, but an end to capitalism. She argues we should view this attitude from the ruling class with suspicion and build a tradition that points away from neoliberal capitalism to another system.
I am going to move onto the final of the three speakers, Catherine Rottenberg, as she spoke on a similar topic and there was a lot of overlap with Hester’s talk. She was also looking at the phenomenon of high powered women espousing feminism. She argued that neoliberal feminism is now replacing liberal feminism. Feminism is being framed in individualistic terms – each individual success becomes feminist. She also spoke about Lean in. One of the ideas in this book is fostering professional ambition and internalising the revolution. This means assuming that the revolution had already happened and that all women have to do is rouse their internal motivation to lean in and take what they deserve. This then presents the ‘feminist idea’ as not a women who focuses on work as it once was presented in mainstream feminism but a woman who balances work and home life and has it all. She asks why neoliberalism needs to do this? Her answers are that neoliberalism has to colonize more domains and ideas – feminism is one of these, and that by shining the spotlight onto other countries it gives the west the image that they are striving towards equality.
I think that she could have used social reproduction theory to strengthen her conclusions. It would help to analyse why, in a period where the public sector is being slimmed down, women are being both pushed back into the home and expected to work and then this is presented ideologically as “you can have it all”.
It was mentioned on Rottenbergs’ powerpoint presentation that she was from Ben Gurion University in Israel. One audience member brought up the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Israeli occupation and how women are getting involved in this movement. It would have been good if the speaker could have acknowledged this during her talk.
The final speaker was Estelle Cooch, a teaching assistant and activist from South London. She had done a survey of new feminism, her motivation had stemmed from three cultural events. The first is that one of the biggest songs of the past few years was ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke which featured the line “You know you want it…”, which the artist Robin Thicke said was ‘part of a feminist movement’ and which, due to protests, has become the most banned song at universities. The second reason is that the books ’50 Shades of Grey ‘ and ‘Gone Girl’ are on the bestsellers list and that they have been noted as ‘feminist triumphs’. The third reason is the phenomena of celebrity feminism which was spoken about before. But what Estelle wanted to look at is what had been the impact of these events on feminist movements. Are feminists today imbued by neoliberalism?
She did a survey of around 1500 people in September 2014 which was to compliment the work that the ‘F word’ blog did in 2009. Their survey was along similar lines and had over 1200 answers. She wanted to compare the answers to see what had changed and what had remained consistent. One of the notable points was the reasons people gave for first getting into feminism. Increase in rape and sexual violence was the top reason and had increased from 20.4% to 67%. This had almost tripled. Not only did participants recognise that it was an issue that went to the heart of the British state but it was also one that gave them a sense of internationalism – from the mobilisations in India, Steubenville and Ireland. For the answer to the question ‘what causes feminism’ the top four reasons given were 1. Men, 2. Patriarchy, 3. Society and 4. Capitalism. The fact that ‘Capitalism’ was amongst the top answers demonstrated a systemic understanding of what causes womens’ oppression, and as one of the audience members stated, having ‘men’ as the top answer is understandable as ‘Its not capitalism that shouts at you in the street, but men’.
The conclusions drawn from this is that feminism from below is diverse, young, open minded and looking for structural accounts of oppression. The issue of sexual violence is also a huge one which isn’t going to disappear. It was an excellent session and really brought to the forefront what many of us have experienced in the feminist movements. The economic crisis is making class and systemic explanations more prevalent in feminist movements but also more desperate and needed. How do we join up these movements to generalise the anti-system ideas? But, crucially, the organisations we are in must be involved in these movements to learn from them.