Feminists as a group of elite white women: How have we contributed?

What happened?  The wave of feminism starting in the 60’s and 70’s was so full of promise.  How could we possibly have become – or become know as – a group working largely for the interests of elite white women?

Nearly everything in the second sentence above is contestable, but surely something has gone wrong.  For example, many of us find our female students do not identify as feminists, even though they accept feminism’s basic commitment to equal rights for women.  And a fair number of women of color feel we’ve either dumped them or just never noticed them.

Whenever I’ve been part of a discussion of this problem, we seem to end up focused on one or both of two things:  (1) our agenda is not broad and inclusive enough, and (2) we are not good at promoting/advertising ourselves.  In a recent Guardian article, Nancy Fraser sees feminism’s failures in terms of more foundational problems.  The title, “How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it” gives one a hint at what she’ll say.

Among many other things, Fraser sees feminism as having made some very crucial mistakes; over all

we can now see that the movement for women’s liberation pointed simultaneously to two different possible futures. In a first scenario, it prefigured a world in which gender emancipation went hand in hand with participatory democracy and social solidarity; in a second, it promised a new form of liberalism, able to grant women as well as men the goods of individual autonomy, increased choice, and meritocratic advancement. Second-wave feminism was in this sense ambivalent. Compatible with either of two different visions of society, it was susceptible to two different historical elaborations.

As I see it, feminism’s ambivalence has been resolved in recent years in favour of the second, liberal-individualist scenario – but not because we were passive victims of neoliberal seductions. On the contrary, we ourselves contributed three important ideas to this development.

1.  Combatting the idea of the family wage in a way that’s left us with two career families, usually underpaid, as  necessity.

“Neoliberalism turns a sow’s ear into a silk purse by elaborating a narrative of female empowerment. Invoking the feminist critique of the family wage to justify exploitation, it harnesses the dream of women’s emancipation to the engine of capital accumulation”

2.  Substituting identity/gender politics for class-oriented politics.

“In the era of state-organised capitalism, we rightly criticised a constricted political vision that was so intently focused on class inequality that it could not see such “non-economic” injustices as domestic violence, sexual assault and reproductive oppression. Rejecting “economism” and politicising “the personal”, feminists broadened the political agenda to challenge status hierarchies premised on cultural constructions of gender difference.”

3.  Objecting to the paternalistic government/welfare state that have left us with an attack on all welfare.

“Finally, feminism contributed a third idea to neoliberalism: the critique of welfare-state paternalism. Undeniably progressive in the era of state-organised capitalism, that critique has since converged with neoliberalism’s war on “the nanny state” and its more recent cynical embrace of NGOs.”

Her critique is presented swiftly, and there is lots to discuss.   One thing we might worry about especially now when the profession as a whole is starting to notice that the women are missing, is whether we will end up leaving professional philosophy essentially unaltered by feminist values.  Anyone for status hierarchies?

{Thanks to JT}