Saturday August 30th, 2014, 12:14 pm (EDT)

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Response to Acker and Eisenstein

Barbara Epstein, teaches in the History of Consciousness Department at UC Santa Cruz and is working on a book on the underground movement in the ghetto in Minsk, Belarus, during the Second World War. Along with Marcy Darnovsky and Richard Flacks she is the editor of Cultural Politics and Social Movements (Temple University Press, 1995).

I’m very pleased that Joan Acker and Hester Eisenstein have responded to my article. Since the questions that they raise overlap, I will address their responses together. I think that the questions they have raised are important for a discussion not only of the current state of the women’s movement, but more broadly, of the current state of progressive politics in the United States. I want to thank them for having taken the discussion that I started further.

Both Acker and Eisenstein, in different ways, point out that the decline of feminism has taken place in the context of a polarization of wealth and power, and increasing right–wing influence. I intended to place the decline, and deradicalization, of the women’s movement in this context. But if both Acker and Eisenstein think that this context was missing from my article, then the article was not as clear as it should have been. I was mainly concerned with how this context has shaped the women’s movement, how the women’s movement has responded (and failed to respond) to the changes that they point to. Acker’s and Eisenstein’s comments are more concerned with how this changing context has reinforced opposition to feminism.

In this regard Acker makes an important point: that the war on labor has strengthened resistance to feminism among working class men, many of whom see feminist demands as threatening their own standing. I think Acker is right that this has been an important obstacle to the spread of feminism outside the professional middle class. But I’m not convinced that there’s a direct relationship between expanding economic opportunities and the acceptance of feminism in the professional arena. At least in academia, the part of the professional sector that I’m most familiar with, many qualified people are going without jobs. In fact the fields in which there are many women, and where feminism is especially influential, are often those in which stable, well–paid jobs are especially scarce. The field of English, for instance, has a very high percentage of women, and also a very high percentage of people with doctorates who are unable to get steady jobs. But in a broader sense, I think Acker is right to point to a connection between expanding opportunities and openness to feminism. Feminism re–emerged, in the United States, in a period of expanding opportunities for young people of the professional middle class. The open and imaginative character of feminism was shaped by this context. The economic reorganization that Acker and Eisenstein point to, has led to intensified competition and a culture that takes competition for granted, in the professions as well as in the blue–collar world. In this context, feminism has taken on a more cautious and defensive tone.

I agree with Eisenstein that we have to put the evolution of the women’s movement in the context of the class polarization, and the political shift to the right, that has taken place in the United States over the last several decades. But I don’t agree with the conclusions that she draws from this. She suggests that it is natural for the women’s movement to falter in an unfriendly climate. But she is confident that in the long run feminism will succeed. She opposes looking for problems within the women’s movement both because she believes the source of these problems lies outside the movement, and also because she believes the current weakness of the women’s movement is transitory. This is contradictory. Without intervention on the part of progressive movements, capitalism is likely to become increasingly harsh, and the view that it is the only possible system is likely to become increasingly widespread. I don’t think that we can assume that history is on our side. If we wait for the climate to improve, progressive movements will only become weaker. A crucial question for feminists, and for everyone on the left, is: how is it possible to organize movements for a more egalitarian society in a climate that is increasingly hostile to this aim? I think that if we want progressive movements, the women’s movement and others, to become stronger, we have to ask where these movements have failed. We need to find ways of addressing the situation that Eisenstein and Acker describe, the growing disparities of wealth and power, the increasing sway of market values, in ways that speak to people outside our circles and point toward the possibility of a more humane society.

Eisenstein writes as if it is churlish to criticize feminism in the academy. But it isn’t possible to evaluate the current state of the women’s movement without looking at academic feminism. The academy has become the most influential arena of feminism, in the United States. There is a larger concentration of feminists there than anywhere else. Also, this is a media–dominated society, and feminists in the academy have better access to the media, and are given more recognition by the media, than feminists anywhere else. If we want to understand the current condition of feminism, we have to look at academic feminism as a subculture with considerable influence; it is not enough to point to one or another feminist academic. There are many feminist arenas in the academy. In some of them, egalitarian values hold sway and academic work is connected to the world outside the university. But for more than a decade this has not been the dominant trend, especially in the realm of feminist theory.

Eisenstein points out, I think correctly, that feminism is doing better outside the United States than within it. Acker calls for a global (as well as a race, and cross–class) focus in feminist politics. She suggests a focus on the issue of care. This would allow us to join feminist concerns with an attack on the trend toward the devaluation of everything that stands outside market relations. I think this is an excellent proposal. My guess is that feminism is unlikely to be as separate from other progressive movements as it was in the past. I think it is more likely to take the form of a current, or many currents, within a broad progressive movement and also within particular movements around particular issues. At the moment the most rapidly growing arena is in the overlapping anticorporate/antiglobalization movement (outside the United States, increasingly called the anticapitalist movement). Perhaps the issue of care will emerge as a theme within this movement.