The capitalist handmaid’s tale

The 'lean in' feminism of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg is at odds with social solidarity thinking. (Reuters)

The 'lean in' feminism of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg is at odds with social solidarity thinking. (Reuters)

As a feminist I've always assumed that by fighting to emancipate women I was building a better world: more egalitarian, just and free. But lately I've begun to worry that ideals pioneered by feminists are serving quite different ends.

In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the movement for women's liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society.

Feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical world view are increasingly expressed in individualist terms. Where feminists once criticised a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to 'lean in'.
A movement that once prioritised social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once valorised "care" now encourages individual advancement.

What lies behind this shift is a sea change in the character of capitalism. The state-managed capitalism of the post-war era in the West has given way to a new form of capitalism – disorganised, globalising, neoliberal. Second-wave feminism emerged as a critique of the first, but it has become the handmaiden of the second.

With hindsight we can see that women's liberation pointed simultaneously to two different possible futures: in one, a world in which gender emancipation went hand in hand with participatory democracy and social solidarity; in the other, it promised a new form of liberalism, one able to grant women as well as men the goods of individual autonomy, choice and meritocratic advancement.

In this, second-wave feminism was 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 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.

Feminist critique of the "family wage" – the ideal of a male-breadwinner-female-homemaker that was central to state-organised capitalism – now serves to legitimate "flexible capitalism", which relies heavily on women's waged labour, especially low-waged work. As women have poured into labour markets around the globe, state-organised capitalism's family wage is being replaced by the two-earner family.

The reality is decreased wage levels, job security and living standards; a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, an exacerbation of the double shift, and a rise in poverty.

Neoliberalism turns a sow's ear into a silk purse by elaborating a narrative of female empowerment. It harnesses the dream of women's emancipation to the engine of capital accumulation.

Feminism also criticised a political vision 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. This should have expanded the struggle for justice into culture and economics, but the result was a one-sided focus on "gender identity" at the expense of bread and butter issues.

Worse, the feminist turn to identity politics fit with a rising neoliberalism eager to repress all memory of social equality. We absolutised the critique of cultural sexism at precisely the moment when circumstances required redoubled attention to the critique of political economy.

?Finally, feminism contributed the critique of welfare-state paternalism. This critique has since converged with neoliberalism's war on "the nanny state" and its cynical embrace of nongovernmental organisations. A telling example is microcredit: small loans to poor women. Cast as an empowering, bottom-up alternative to bureaucratic state projects, microcredit is touted as the feminist antidote to women's poverty.

But the disturbing coincidence is that microcredit has burgeoned just as states have abandoned macro-structural efforts to fight poverty. A feminist attempt to democratise state power is now used to legitimise marketisation.

We need to reconnect the dream of women's liberation with the vision of a solidarity society. To that end, feminists need to break the link between our critique of the family wage and flexible capitalism by militating for a form of life that decentres waged work and valorises unwaged activities, including care work. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

Nancy Fraser is the author of Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis.

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