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}

19 thoughts on “Feminists as a group of elite white women: How have we contributed?

  1. And let’s not forget how too many feminists (particularly in the 2nd wave, and some are still around) actively *excluded* some people from the “agenda” (e.g. trans* women). Also, it’s only recently that intersectionality is being taken seriously in action and not just theory (although we still have a very long way yet to go).

  2. I happily disagree with Jeremy. I’m also a feminist. Therefore, Jeremy must be wrong.

  3. Feminism hasn’t done much for working class women. Horizontal sex segregation in the low end of the job market is much greater than it is for professional jobs. The percentage of women in most blue-collar occupations hasn’t increased appreciably. And one reason why the overall level of sex segregation has declined is because these occupations have shrunk. From where I sit it looks like there has been relatively little effort to get women access to skilled, and unskilled “men’s jobs.”

    Whatever we think about the “family wage” the fact is that right now in the US at least it is no longer economically feasible, or socially acceptable, for women NOT to work outside the home–at least not on a long-term basis. But most women, the 2/3 of adult women in the US who don’t have college degrees, are de facto locked into a narrow range of underpaid, dead-end BORING pink-collar jobs. What frustrates me is that so little feminist energy is devoted to addressing this.

    I can’t help but feel that this signals a lack of empathy. We, academics and others who talk feminism: can imagine ourselves, or our daughters, with an unplanned pregnancy so we understand why it’s important to have access to safe, legal abortion. I’m all for that. We can imagine hitting the glass ceiling in a law firm or other professional setting so we work to create better work conditions and fairer treatment for women in Academia and the professions. But we cannot imagine looking out at a job market where (realistically) our options are limited to clerical work, waitressing, cashiering or caring, for children or the elderly.

  4. Harriet, that does sound right to me, and I think that’s close to one of Frazer’s points.
    Sometime in the last two weeks, the NY Times had an op ed making a claim about empathy needed to see why universal health care is important. Our 1% do not feel for many people outside their moneyed class.

  5. Agree. But I’m worried also that the 30% don’t feel for the people outside the professional class, and in particular, that privileged women don’t feel for the rest of us. I live in modal terror: I have never gone through a supermarket check-out without recognizing that I only escaped being a cashier by the skin of my teeth: the possible world where I’m a super market checker, a data-entry operator, a childcare worker, is very close by. And I look at guys digging up the streets, guys working for mobile carpet cleaning services cleaning my grout, guys gardening, and grind my teeth recognizing that I couldn’t have gotten any of those jobs. This’s what made me a feminist–the pure terror or being locked into boring womanswork, and wishing I could do blue-collar, manual work instead.

    Politically it would be wonderful if feminists could get working class women on board. And this I think is what it would take: the recognition that there are these bread and butter issues, getting access to “men’s jobs” and the pay that goes along with them.

  6. I’m in a grumpy mood, so probably shouldn’t respond to anything at the moment. But I’ll try to be calm. Two quick things: (1) I’m really sick of people saying that the problem with feminism is this or that. Feminism isn’t a single thing and never has been. (2) The claim that second wave feminism wasn’t sufficiently aware of intersectionality, etc. is really old and tired. Feminism in the late 20th century was complex and had many different strands. (See point (1).) To try to critique “feminism” as a whole without being sufficiently sensitive to the different strands is rhetorically convenient without being intellectually responsible.

  7. I’m pretty firmly in the third-wave (generationally)– but at the moment, in the same mood as 11. Seriously. [and I say that, fwiw, as someone who stands at any number of intersections in the intersectionality panoply, including but not limited to class & sexuality. But for the help of some second-wave feminists and at least one old enough to predate the second-wave– all of whom were very attentive to questions about intersections, I’d never have managed –with outrageous amounts of good luck and work as well– to get half of what I’ve managed to put together thus far as my life ]
    Doesn’t mean I don’t get seriously irritated at our oversights and mistakes as feminists, at particular pieces of feminist writing, up to and including myself. but still.

  8. Thanks, Sally, for what I think is an opportunity for clarification. I did say that almost everything in the second sentence is contestable, and you are certainly onto one problem.

    I am inclined to say my post is principally about the discourse surrounding the term “feminist” and whether there is some reason or set of reasons why this discourse can be so negative. I think that’s a big problem. It would be great if we had more appreciation of why that’s happened, though I’m not sure myself why it has. In this light, Fraser’s critique is useful, even if very misguided in its target, because it mentions important issues we could discuss more.

    I would resist the description that I am trying to fault feminism for something, rather than the discourse around the term, because I think that would be a really whacky thing to try to do, as you in effect point out. In any case, I carefully did not endorse Fraser. I tried to contextualize the discussion by my repeated use of “we,” which seems to me to stand for a community of readers of the blog (or at least those who ARE NICE!).

  9. Opps! I shouldn’t speak for Harriet or Rachel, but even if they want to speak about mistakes feminists make, there are clearly ways to understand this without taking them to talk about feminists as a unified body of wrong headed people. One interpretation is that they are using generics, where M’s are P’s does not entail all M’s are P’s. E.g., people who say that ticks carry lime disease can be right even if most ticks don’t. Another understanding might be that people who say “feminists neglect..” are to be understood as using an “all too many” qualifier.

  10. HI Anne – I wasn’t intending my post to criticize your comments or your having posted the Fraser piece. I’m frustrated with Fraser. She should know better.

  11. Of course that’s true. Of course feminists aren’t a unified body. Just indicating what I’ve seen as preoccupations here and there. And, on the whole, I’ve seen what I think is inadequate attention paid to sex segregation in the labor market–in particular to horizontal segregation at the low end. Of course it’s not feminists as such but “all too many” who don’t pay attention to this.

    So having recognized that there’s a practical, political issue, working for issues that are of interest to most women, to working class women, how do you get it across that this part of is the feminist program? It has to be gotten across that feminism means you don’t have to spend your life stuck behind the Walmart check stand, that you can get a job as a mobile carpet cleaner or tow truck driver–that feminism is about getting women access to jobs outside of the pink-collar ghetto.

    For most of us, this is what matters. The job you do means more in terms of well-being than anything else. It’s what you do for most of your waking life and if it’s boring your life stinks. It determines your income so if you’re stuck in underpaid pink-collar work, in addition to the misery of the job, you’re poor as well. There is nothing more important than seeing to it that women aren’t stuck in pink-collar work. Feminists have to make that the priority and let others know that that’s what we’re doing.

  12. Sally, can’t think why I asssume negative remarks are about me :)

    I wonder if part of the problem with Fraser’s article is due to the meddling fingers of the editor(s). I think the author does not decide the title of the piece. I started to go through again to see if
    fraser’s statements were so unqualified. I got distracted, but it might be worth looking at, since it wasn’t clear to how generalizing her statements were.

  13. Thanks for the post, Anne. I take issue with some of the comments here, which plug into the common meme that feminism is written by and for elite white women (btw, I didn’t take Fraser to be saying quite that – but maybe I’m wrong). Maybe there are feminists who are concerned purely with ‘elite white women’s issues’, but by taking them to be representative of feminists as a whole erases/ignores the vast swathe of feminist writing that doesn’t fit this model (which is kind of ironic, given the complaint). The feminists I have grown up reading include people of all colours and backgrounds writing about a plethora of feminist issues. These include abortion, the glass ceiling, and other ‘white elite’ issues (of course, abortion access isn’t just an elite woman’s issue, since it’s much harder to access abortion if you’re poor – at least in the US), but also include class oppression in ‘Western’ societies, the position of women in the developing world, the treatment of immigrant women in rich countries, how to negotiate the interface between colonial power, preserving one’s culture, changing the situation of women etc. etc. What people will see, of course depends on where they are situated. But this means that if you move in circles where people’s main concerns are campaigning for abortion rights and improvements to white collar jobs (important, of course), then that is what you will identify as THE feminist concerns. If you step outside your usual position, then you’ll find a whole lot of stuff going on – both in academic writing and at grass roots level – that doesn’t fit this bill.

    Of course, a problem might be that certain issues/campaigns get more attention, or that certain groups have a louder voice than others. I’m sure this sometimes happens and we need to guard against that. But without taking a close look at what’s going on out there, it’s not obvious to me that so-called elite white women’s issues ARE the ones that are primarily occupy feminists. If anything, it’s the media that readily identifies feminism with issues like abortion, pornography, etc. because the media can’t cope with intersectionality, so other feminist issues are presented as anti-racist campaigns, or developing world activism, or some such (which of course, they are too).

    This is not to say that there haven’t been (and still are) problematic currents in some strands of feminist thinking. (Rachel’s point about the anti-trans vibe is a case in point.)

    “I can’t help but feel that this signals a lack of empathy. We, academics and others who talk feminism: can imagine ourselves, or our daughters, with an unplanned pregnancy so we understand why it’s important to have access to safe, legal abortion. I’m all for that. We can imagine hitting the glass ceiling in a law firm or other professional setting so we work to create better work conditions and fairer treatment for women in Academia and the professions. But we cannot imagine looking out at a job market where (realistically) our options are limited to clerical work, waitressing, cashiering or caring, for children or the elderly.”

    I’m puzzled by this comment. Lots of the work I’ve read about the structure of the workplace talks about this issue. And I’d like to call out the assumption that all academics are from (relatively) privileged backgrounds and so can’t imagine what it’s like for the poorer classes. Being an academic (full-time, ongoing contract, tenured) is to occupy a position of privilege, of course. But this doesn’t mean that everyone in that position reached it after a sheltered life of educated parents, financial security, good education, and so on.

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