Feminism's flexible features

Over the last decade, feminism has gone from being something a small number of people discussed in a handful of blogs and magazines to a coveted mantle taken up by individuals from all walks of life, including popular musicians and celebrities, CEOs, and even politicians. While it’s been exciting to witness the rejuvenation of feminism, its newfound popularity and the diverse range of people now calling themselves feminists has made it difficult to define feminism with any real certainty. After all, what kind of coherent ideology or movement could be embraced by both Angela Davis and Hillary Clinton? For long-time feminists and feminists of a radical or even revolutionary bent, it is frustrating to see feminism reduced, distorted, and used to justify political positions that would never have been described as feminist just a few decades ago.

Accordingly, as more and more people (and even corporations!) have appeared to embrace feminism, feminists have written a number of critiques about the uses and abuses of the feminist label in the twenty-first century. In May 2016, Bitch Media cofounder Andi Zeisler published We Were Feminists Once: From Riot

Grrl to Cover Girl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, taking on the transformation of feminism from a powerful movement into a brand that can be used to sell anything from underwear to Condoleezza Rice. That same month, Verso Books published False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, an excellent collection of essays edited by Liza Featherstone that repudiates Clinton’s feminist bona fides from every angle and call for a more radical feminism than the “faux feminism” Clinton embodies. More recently, Jessa Crispin’s short but cutting Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto asserts that a feminism so nonthreatening that it can be embraced by everyone is essentially useless, and calls for more revolutionary politics.

Catherine Rottenberg’s The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism is a far more academic undertaking than any of those books, presumably written for a different audience altogether. That’s too bad. The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism is a clarifying contribution to a conversation that needs to be accessible to as many people as possible. Rottenberg shows that what might appear to be simple confusion about what feminism really is—or even benign opportunism by famous, powerful women—can actually be understood as the appropriation, hollowing out, and repurposing of liberal feminism to present something that is new and distinct: neoliberal feminism. Like liberal feminism, neoliberal feminism acknowledges the inequality that exists between men and women. But it shrinks the explanation for this inequality and the solutions to it down to the level of the individual, drastically reducing feminism’s potential to create widespread change.

Rottenberg explains this dynamic using Anne Marie Slaughter’s 2012 article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In. Both pieces invoke a fraught but commonly accepted liberal feminist history of progress that has granted US women unprecedented opportunity. At the same time, both pieces (rightfully) acknowledge that the women’s movement didn’t go far enough and has failed in its goal to win true equality. None of this strays from run-of-the-mill liberal feminism as Rottenberg defines it: a “critique of liberalism, revealing the gendered exclusions within liberal democracy’s proclamation of universal equality, particularly with respect to the law, institutional access, and the full incorporation of women into the public sphere.” It’s in their assessment of what’s needed to complete the project of the women’s movement that the divergence from liberal feminism into neoliberal feminism takes place.

In “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Slaughter takes up the classic feminist issue of working women and the “second shift” that awaits them as the individuals largely responsible for homemaking and childrearing. But she replaces the goals of liberal feminism—“notions of freedom, equal rights, and social justice” per Rottenberg—with the goal of a happy work-life balance. Therefore, “the ‘woman’ problem in the United States no longer appears to be about equity (between men and women or among women themselves), women’s rights, women’s autonomy, or rethinking how we understand emancipation, but about affect, behavior modification, and well-roundedness.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In takes this transformation of feminist goals and strategy even further, touching on the gender discrimination that women face at work just enough to be considered a “feminist” manifesto, before turning into what is essentially a self-help manual for professional women. (One woman I know describes Lean In as a book about solving sexism by developing a firmer handshake). Rottenberg not only exposes the sleight-of-hand both pieces use to move from discussing systemic problems to advocating individual solutions, but also points out how in narrowing the scope of feminism’s goals and strategies, these pieces also exclude the vast majority of US women, whose problems don’t begin or end with achieving a happy work life balance and won’t be solved by a change in attitude on the job.

However, Rottenberg doesn’t stop at exposing the covert way in which neoliberal feminism inserts itself into feminist thought. She breaks new ground by explaining the purpose this hollowed out and misdirected feminism serves in a neoliberal era. If neoliberalism seeks to turn people into generic human capital by introducing market rationality to more and more arenas of our lives, neoliberal feminism helps to resolve a contradiction. Reproductive labor and care work are still an essential part of the neoliberal economy. This means that there are still spheres of (primarily) women’s lives that can’t be fully incorporated. Neoliberal feminism helps transcend this gap between women’s public lives and their private lives, where reproduction takes place. It connects the management of one’s private life to the project of plotting out the perfect career trajectory and achieving happy, work-life balance, which Sandberg and Slaughter establish as the key next tasks on feminism’s agenda, even as it leaves the burden and responsibility for this management entirely on individual women.

For younger women, this management might involve using reproductive technology like freezing one’s eggs (a benefit now offered to professional women by some employers!) to delay becoming a parent in order to maximize the future gains from one’s career. For women who are already mothers, an emphasis on “living in the now,” not unlike the idea of a “happy” work-life balance, means constantly assessing and adjusting one’s own attitude and expectations in order to be “in the moment” as a working mother. Rottenberg argues convincingly that these themes encourage women themselves to introduce the market logic of the public sphere under neoliberalism into the private, to turn even the most personal parts of their lives into opportunities to measure, assess, and invest in themselves as human capital.

The most useful part of The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism is the way Rottenberg defines neoliberal feminism, a feminism that reduces women’s issues to the problems facing women in the professional class and prescribes a constant monitoring of one’s own attitude and savvy self-investment as the remedy. Contrasted with liberal feminism, which advocates systemic changes (albeit changes that end at the borders of the unjust system), it’s very clear that neoliberal feminism seeks to confine women’s struggle for liberation to a solitary self-improvement project that still leaves individual women holding the bag for reproductive and care work.

Contrasted with a more transformative feminism that seeks to overturn unjust systems for all women, neoliberal feminism is exposed as a dead end for the many, an ideology that leaves the prevailing order intact and can only serve women of the 1 percent at the expense of the rest of us. As Rottenberg makes clear, achieving the goals that women like Slaughter, Sandberg, and others posit as feminism’s final frontier (a work-life balance that allows women to be happy while simultaneously allowing them to “lean in”), almost certainly requires exploiting a growing underclass of women to provide care work. In the future, as reproductive technologies develop, Rottenberg predicts that this exploitation will take on even more forms, as the women of the 1 percent delay and avoid having their own children in order to plot the most rewarding career trajectory.

The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism is less compelling where it feels out of touch and out of step with the times. The sources Rottenberg draws on to make the case for neoliberal feminism’s growing prevalence––primarily the pieces by Slaughter and Sandberg––are now six years old and counting. In the past six years and especially the last two, their significance in informing people’s conceptions of feminism has faded. Rottenberg acknowledges this in the introduction to The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, making it clear that most of the book was written in a different period and that there are new prospects on the horizon. Instead of taking up an increasing amount of room in feminist thought, neoliberal feminism is once again sharing space with liberal feminist ideas that are being expressed through protest and struggle, as well as small but growing pockets of more revolutionary feminist ideas.

In other words, at the end of 2018, it’s hard to make the case that either Anne Marie Slaughter or Sheryl Sandberg are among the most high-profile feminist icons. More and more, women who might look to Lean In for “feminist” professional advice, seem just as likely to be at the next Women’s March. Neoliberal feminism’s earlier assertions that feminism’s key battleground is reshaping our own individual lives to accommodate an unquestioned desire to have families and careers seems almost quaint. Now, an openly misogynist, alleged serial sexual abuser sits in the White House. He recently appointed a different misogynist and alleged serial sexual abuser to the Supreme Court. The #MeToo movement revealed that there are men like this in virtually every workplace in America. Furthermore, Trump’s relentless attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and trans people, alongside Republican efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act and undermine Title IX requirements regarding sexual assault on college campuses, among other things, have added substantially to feminism’s to-do list and have broadened conceptions of what feminist struggle can and should include.

How has neoliberal feminism already informed responses to these events? That question doesn’t get answered in The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, though Rottenberg certainly provides an understanding of the function of neoliberal feminism that could be used to investigate the question. What Rottenberg does say of this new era is that if this “renaissance of feminism” is going to grow and be successful, a different kind of feminism is urgently required. She cites the movement for a feminism of the 99 percent as a promising development and argues for a feminism that recognizes and coheres around the precarity so many people are facing, one that links the struggles of the water protectors at Standing Rock with communities in Houston that were devastated by Hurricane Harvey, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the antiwar feminists of Code Pink. She also rejects a strategy of policing the boundaries of what is and isn’t feminism.

I couldn’t agree more. In the face of neoliberal feminism, which advocates a focus on individual behavior modifications over all else, our answer can’t be to draw lines in the sand that will alienate the many people who find elements of neoliberal feminism compelling, even as they engage in different feminist activities. Instead, feminists should strive to be as inclusive as possible while seeking to transform the system that currently produces misery for the vast majority of women into something that benefits us all. As Catherine Rottenberg writes in her conclusion to The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, “Given our grim and frightening reality, it is precisely such a threatening feminism that I believe we need to cultivate, encourage, and ceaselessly espouse.”

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story