Monday, June 9, 2014

Reclaiming Feminism

Nadya Tolokonnikova of Russian feminist punk-rock band, Pussy Riot.

Last month, Forbes magazine issued its annual list of the "100 Most Powerful Women." Prominent female power-brokers and "buzzworthy" women-of-the-moment like Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (she's #1) round-out the top-20.

All of the women featured are government officials, CEOs or celebrities. (Hence their qualification as "most powerful," I suppose.) There are no working-class women featured. Those who are CEOs represent some of the largest, most insidious corporations in the world including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Facebook, and criminally negligent General Motors.

Of those from the United States, a mere seven are African American. Only one woman, Lady Gaga, is under the age of 30. (Queen Elizabeth II is the oldest, at 88.) Most are Baby-Boomer-aged or older.

The deliberate exclusion of prominent female figures like Jill Stein, Kshama Sawant, Naomi Klein or members of Pussy Riot leads me to believe Forbes's editors do not consider these women "powerful" enough for their exclusive millionaires club. Perhaps they were overlooked because, even collectively, they do not possess Beyonce's (#17) estimated net worth of $350 million.

Take a good look, young girls of America.

These A-lister elites are, according to Forbes and the rest of the corporate media, the women you should emulate. Yes, you too can join the ranks of Michelle Obama and Nancy Pelosi, so long as you work hard, get an MBA from a prestigious university, and "lean in" to use Sheryl Sandberg's phrase. (Marrying a rich guy doesn't hurt, either. I mean, it worked for Maine's U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, right?)

These women are also notable for something else: They have effectively killed feminism. At the very least, they have dramatically scaled-back, compromised, and redefined its goals.

Feminism as it currently exists is little more than an appeal to the corporate state for inclusion. Millionaires like Sandberg and GM CEO Mary Barra, by co-opting the language and spirit of feminism, claim to speak for all women. They disingenuously insist they can relate to the plight of the average working-class woman. And, through books like Sandberg's self-help bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, they claim to offer women the "advice," and "skills" necessary to "have it all."

For the corporate media, books like Lean In and the ascension of a few privileged women like Sandberg in the corporate office, reinforce its perpetual narrative that we now live in a "post-feminist" society. This, incidentally, is not much different from the narrative that we now occupy a "post-racial" society, as evidenced in the election of Barack Obama. If only either concept were true.

Elizabeth Schulte in an article for the Socialist Worker calls this a sort of "trickle-down feminism" ("Trickle- Down Feminism?", 03/20/2013). The media drumbeat over our supposed "post-feminist" era, she explains, "rarely address the concerns of the vast majority of women who are a part of the working class."

Schulte writes:

They [the media] measure the success of women at large by the success stories of a few corporate executives or political officials at the top--and argue that these examples of "having it all" will eventually trickle down to all women.
The inevitable focus of these [post-feminist] articles and books is what women can do personally to succeed. (Italics hers.)

By highlighting a few isolated success stories and subtly berating others for not following suit, the media, according to Schulte, "ignore the institutional gender inequality that is at the heart of U.S. society."

As a result, young women are beginning to confuse this pseudo-corporate brand of feminism with the real thing.

They chant they are "ready for Hillary," as if the probable presidential candidate is any sort of champion of women's rights. They continue to invest their energy into a Democratic Party that views empty appeals to "feminism" as an easy way to increase its own ranks locally and nationally. (See the women's political-training seminar, Emerge Maine. Admission price: $800.)

And they retreat into agonizingly academic discourses on the concept of gender, using arcane poststructuralist terms like "cisgender."

Meanwhile, in the world outside of the Ivory Tower, 11 states have passed laws severely restricting access to abortion. The words "terrorist" or "terrorism" are never applied to the zealous anti-choice mercenaries who blow-up abortion clinics or kill abortion providers, despite the fact these violent individuals represent more of a real threat to U.S. security than al-Qaeda.

Likewise, women still receive less pay than men--77 cents to every dollar--for the exact same work. Earlier this year, Maine's Senator Angus King joined Senate Republicans in shooting down a bill that would have addressed this inexplicable pay disparity. Upon returning home from these gyp-jobs, many women are faced with a mountain of unpaid "domestic labor," the majority of which still disproportionately falls on them.

This is where the limits of identity politics manifest themselves.

Certainly, if we are to create a truly egalitarian social democracy, gender equality must be an integral part of it. But, as with other identity-driven equal-rights struggles, the narrow, often personal focus of feminism prevents it from creating a framework for broad, systemic change. Instead the Horatio (Horatia...?) Alger stories of a few privileged ceiling-smashers become the default model of expectation for all.

Yet identity politics has become the raison d'etre of the left. Rather than fighting poverty, militarism or for a broader sense of social justice, progressives dabble in the boutique activism of multiculturalism, racism, sexism, and other forms of identity politics. As a result, the left has become splintered, atomized, and largely ineffective.    

"Women have discovered that they cannot rely on men's chivalry to give them justice," wrote Helen Keller in 1916. Keller--who was far more radical than your history teacher led you to believe--was an early crusader in the fight for women's suffrage in the early part of the 20th century. While Keller was universally praised for her strength in overcoming her physical disabilities, her outspoken socialist, feminist, and anti-war views were met with cold reception, and bitter denouncement.

Indeed, many of the early feminists like Keller saw a direct, inextricable link between the goals of feminism and socialism. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn for example was a labor activist, IWW leader, and a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Flynn wrote in her autobiography Rebel Girl:

A domestic life and possibly a large family had no attraction for me... I wanted to speak and write, to travel, to meet people, to see places, to organize for the I.W.W. I saw no reason why I, as a woman, should give up my work for this...
We in the left need to rediscover this language. We need to realize that overthrowing the corporate state, and promoting the equality of women are not mutually exclusive goals. They are one and the same.

But we cannot accomplish this so long as economic elites like Sandberg, Winfrey and Barra are held up as "feminist" proponents. Let's all of us--women and men--reclaim feminism for the masses. Then we can show corporate publications like Forbes what real power looks like.


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