Historical Materialism 2014: Marxist-feminist challenges to neoliberalism

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.


  1. I had a question re “feminism of the 1%” – while this phrase has a certain appeal I wonder if it doesn’t conflate two rather different currents. On the one hand there’s the outright reactionary coöption of feminism you see in Kristof/WuDunn’s work (which as far as I can make out uses women’s rights as a cover for advancing various imperialist agendas). On the other there’s the individualised professional feminism of Sandberg et al, where the problem is not the demands as such but their very limited nature. So for instance while the left might dispute the priorities that leads Sandberg to campaign against the word “bossy”, I don’t think we’d deny that the term is used against women in a sexist manner, or that “leadership” under capitalism is a gendered notion.

  2. While James seems to be *deliberately* missing the point Neil raises a real question. The question of the BDS call itself is dealt with clearly by Sara – the target is universities not individuals.

    The question I suppose is what as revolutionaries we’d judge to be precisely the right call. To me the judgement of the BDS movement is pretty much the same as the one I’d make. We target institutions because we recognise their role in maintaining the zionist state. We place little emphasis on the agency of the working class within Israel as it is constrained by the material basis of that state to the ideological limits of the ‘left’ and right of the zionist movement. Individuals who step outside those limits publicly quickly find themselves subject to legal reprisals meaning it is incredibly audacious move to publicly support the BDS movement as an Israeli . Put bluntly you’d have to leave the country to continue your working life. Of course we want to create the conditions where more people make this move – and in future moments of the struggle for a democratic middle east I’d hope more will in reaction to the ever rightward shift of Israeli politics. However we’re not there yet.

    To my mind suggesting an explaination is needed for an indivudual israeli speaking runs dangerously close to Galloways ‘no Israeli in Bradford’ comment and opens the door to various unpleasant arguements. She wasn’t a representative of the university but a young radical academic presenting a paper on feminism. To demand any Israeli has to take the step of publically supporting BDS (and face the consquences) is to demand a much higher sacrifice then we would ask of anyone else and therefore implies any israeli (by virtue of not leaving their family, friends and roots behind and leaving Israel) is responsible for the nature of the state they are born into.

    The academic in question had signed as hard a boycott statement as would be possible in Israel. Something the rs21 speaker knew and checked before speaking. The moralism from James is pretty shooking for someone I presume calls themselves a revolutionary socialist. Perhaps he should read the bds article by the same rs21 speaker here 😉 : http://rs21.org.uk/2014/08/01/bds/

  3. Needs to be made clear. Shame the RS21 speaker didn’t think speaking with an academic from Israel would raise a few eyebrows given the level of response over the summer!

  4. If you are an academic from abroad, you have the choice not to collaborate with, and take money from the Israeli institution. It is not that complicated.

  5. If you’re an Israeli who works for an institution that has links with the IDF you’re not part of the boycott but if you’re from abroad and work for them then you are? If this is decided on a case by case basis and not a general rule then that doesn’t come across in the rules you link to. These questions about interpretation may be inconvenient but then that’s the nature of political debate.

  6. The BDS call has repeatedly insisted that the boycott applies to INSTITUTIONS, not INDIVIDUALS! This was a very important discussion within the BDS movement because it recognised that individuals who CRITIC Israel need to be supported, not boycotted! The passage you refer to talks of INTERNATIONAL academics and cultural workers. International here refers to NON-ISRAELI academics who accept invitations and take money from Israeli institutions. Can you please get your facts right?

  7. During the anti-apartheid movement in SA Desmond Tutu wrote:

    “They thought that just as a matter of right they would find acceptance because they were allowing blacks into their establishments. I mustn’t belittle them too much, I think that they did stand up for academic freedom and so forth, but I don’t think myself actually that they were sufficiently vigorous and the boycott helped to knock sense into their heads, to realise that they did have a role in seeking to undermine that vicious system [of apartheid].”
    “I would, I think, now still say that we maintain [the academic boycott] insofar as, if for instance academics from here want to go to South Africa then you want to look at who is inviting them. Under whose auspices are they going? Are they going to institutions that have a good track record in their opposition to apartheid? But I would say that as things begin to ease up, this ought perhaps to be one of the first of the constraints that goes to give some of these people the reward.”
    “But I would myself say it is important for academics outside of South Africa also to say they want to reward places like UWC which stuck their necks out and then let these others get the crumbs that remain from the table.”

    The boycott was against the academic institution that supported apartheid and those who worked for it. That was reviewed if the university changed its policies. Has Ben Gurion University changed its policies? In what way are those who work for these institutions separate from them? The guidelines Sara links to state:

    “An increasing number of Palestinian civil society institutions are no longer willing to host international academics and cultural workers who insist on visiting or working with boycottable Israeli institutions, thereby violating the Palestinian boycott.”

    The guidelines appear to be sending out mixed messages and do need to be clarified.

  8. There have been other Israeli academics speaking at HM in the past and they have all been critics of Israel. HM would not invite an Israeli academic who is collusive with the regime. As a lecturer is only a worker and not a representative of the institution, the boycott of the University does not apply to the worker. Then of course the audience has all rights to ask clarifications about BDS to Israeli speakers. I was not there so I don’t know how the debate went, but it looks like the speaker’s answer was not a problem, which makes me think all of this is just a misplaced critique.

  9. I agree with Neil. It’s not sectarian to enquire why this happened. Neil rightly points out many not happy with it. Asking whether the RS21 speaker sharing the platform raised the issue is simply asking a question, or is this out of bounds now? Perhaps a statement by the chair would have been helpful.

  10. I am not criticising HM as a whole. It was a great conference which I thoroughly enjoyed and learnt a lot from. It was I think the 5th year I have been.However Ben Gurion university is a target of the boycott because of its links with the Israeli military (as pointed out in the link I gave). Of course an individual lecturer is not necessarily a tool of the university. But she was described as a lecturer at Ben Gurion Univerity of the Negev. So something needed to be said (and wasn’t). The audience was very uneasy and a lot of texting went on between them. It was only when one of the audience (another speaker at hm, not a member of rs21) asked a question about BDS and the occupation that she said anything about Israel. Given that HM is not just an academic conference but a forum for the left to debate, something could have been written in advance about why she was being invited. I do think it is necessary

  11. Neil, I don’t understand why it was a dodgy decision, nor why it was a problem to discover she was from BGU when the panel happened. As she is not a supporter of the regime, the two problems you raise simply don’t stand. Again, BDS made an explicit issue of not boycotting individuals, particularly when these individuals are comrades…

  12. Sara I never said it was breaking the boycott; I said it was ‘a dodgy decision’. I am aware that the speaker was a liberal in Israeli terms and works with Neve Gordon in her educational project – and is not a supporter of the regime. But it was a surprise for both the audience and the other speakers to discover who she was and where she came from only when the panel happened. As to James this is just an attempt to attack HM and rs21 for sectarian reasons.

  13. You guys don’t know what you are talking about. The BDS movement made very clear that the BDS call for boycott “consistently target institutions, not individuals, steering clearly away from political tests or other McCarthyist measures” http://www.bdsmovement.net/activecamps/academic-boycott.
    If you had bothered to get your facts right, you would find that the speaker in question is an activist against apartheid in Israel. http://www.thenation.com/article/180138/why-would-bigots-attack-jewish-arab-school-israel-teaches-tolerance-and-mutual-respect

  14. I agree Neil it was dreadful to break the boycott by HM. Shocked that the RS21 were happy to break it as well by being on the same platform, did the RS21 speaker raise this? To not do so would of course be turning a blind eye to the horrors of the Israeli state.

  15. Having a speaker present from Ben Gurion University of the Negev was a dodgy decision. In 2010 over 200 academics in South Africa called for a boycott of Ben Gurion University. Here is the link http://pulsemedia.org/2010/09/24/south-african-academics-call-for-boycott-of-ben-gurion-university/
    Signatories included Desmond Tutu. I quote from the article – “The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has had disastrous effects on access to education for Palestinians. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception, by maintaining links to both the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the arms industry BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation. An example of BGU’s complicity is its agreement with the IDF to provide full university qualification to army pilots within a special BGU programme. Furthermore, BGU is also complicit in the general discrimination at Israeli universities against Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
    It is clear to us that any connection with an institution so heavily vested in the Israeli occupation would amount to collaboration with an occupation that denigrates the values and principles that form the basis of any vibrant democracy. These are not only the values that underpin our post-apartheid South Africa, but are also values that we believe UJ has come to respect and uphold in the democratic era.”


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