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Free-Market Feminism

Johanna Brenner (brennerj [at] is an activist and member of Solidarity: a democratic, revolutionary socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization, and associate editor of the journal Against the Current. Recent writings include “Caught in the Whirlwind: Working-Class Families Confront the Economic Crisis,” in Socialist Register (2011) and “Democratizing Care,” in Gender Inequality: Transforming Family Divisions of Labor” (2009).

Hester Eisenstein, Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010), 272 pages, $26.95, paperback.

Feminism Seduced, written for a general audience, presents a powerful, historically grounded critique of liberal feminism. Drawing on three decades of writing by socialist/Marxist feminists and women-of-color feminists, Eisenstein weaves a compelling account of how the central ideas of “hegemonic feminism” have legitimized the corporate capitalist assault on the working class in the United States and on small farmers and workers, both urban and rural, in the global South.

In this way, she argues, mainstream feminism has served as unwitting handmaiden to the capitalist class. Situating her analysis of mainstream feminism in a broader context of the economics of capitalist globalization, Eisenstein connects changes in the gender order to the rise of neoliberalism. The book’s synthetic scope, its clear and accessible style, and its concise summary of shifts in capitalist political economy from the mid-twentieth century to the present, make the book an ideal text for movement study groups as well as college classrooms.

However, when Eisenstein moves from critique to offering an alternative strategy, she only recycles dualisms that have, as she acknowledges, bedeviled the women’s movement for well over one hundred years. Another unfortunate feature of the book is its voluntarist, rather than materially grounded, explanation of the evolution of feminist politics and strategy in the era of capitalist globalization. More about this at the end of the review—for now, I will focus on the considerable strengths of Eisenstein’s analysis.

By hegemonic feminism, Eisenstein means that certain liberal feminist ideas have become part of the “commonsense” of U.S. culture. In particular, she argues, the notion that paid work, in itself, represents liberation for women is widely accepted. Although second-wave feminism included a strong tradition of socialist/anarchist feminism, third-world and women of color feminism, as well as radical feminism, the dominant ideas of the movement emphasized individual achievement and the possibilities for self-actualization inherent in the competitive, free-for-all marketplace and political system. Liberal feminism addressed many different issues, but focused overwhelmingly on women’s right to compete with men on equal terms in the labor market.

On one hand, liberal feminism’s campaigns against discrimination in employment and education, against sexual harassment, for affirmative action, and so forth have been crucially important; their success has transformed the landscape of our economic and political system, where women are increasingly able to access the higher reaches of professional work, managerial leadership, and political power. On the other hand, the very ideology that forwarded the legal and cultural changes opening opportunities for professional/managerial-class women has also been used to justify the exploitation, impoverishment, and marginalization of working-class women in the United States and abroad. While purporting to represent all women, mainstream feminism has primarily advanced the interests of women with higher education, so that after forty years of feminist activism, there is now an enormous class divide among women workers. To understand how and why this has happened, Eisenstein traces the history of feminist ideas and politics in the context of the fundamental restructuring of the global economy and the rise of the neoliberal political order.

Taking globalization as the framework for describing this “sea change” in the world capitalist political economy, Eisenstein identifies deindustrialization, the rise of export processing zones in the global South, the growth of the service sector, the explosion of the financial sector, and the employers’ offensive against unions as key to the transformation of women’s relation to waged labor. In the North, globalization entailed a precipitous decline in men’s wages, marking the end of the “family wage” for men who had often provided sole financial support in traditional male breadwinner marriages. At the same time, the rise of the service economy opened up a huge demand for low-wage, female labor. In the South, the “new enclosure” movement threw women into an expanding labor market. Insofar as mainstream feminism had lauded paid employment for women as a route to escape the oppression of patriarchal marriage, feminism in the United States helped to create a new pool of labor that capitalist employers could use to cut costs. Women’s willingness to enter the workforce in massive numbers allowed corporations to resist the pressure for wage increases. And, by identifying freedom with paid work, mainstream feminism offered the perfect cover to multinational corporations exploiting women’s labor in free trade zones. In short, feminism became the language of capitalist modernization.

The restructuring of the U.S. economy was accompanied by a concerted assault on organized labor, aided and abetted by a resurgent conservative movement that first came to power with Reagan’s election in 1980 and continued to strengthen its hold throughout the following decades. Dismantling the welfare state was central to the conservative political agenda, and “welfare reform” one of its wedge issues. Eisenstein argues that because of mainstream feminism’s exclusive focus on paid work as a route to independence, feminists were left without arguments to defend single mothers’ right to income support. This was especially the case once centrist Democratic politicians, such as Bill Clinton, joined the welfare-reform bandwagon, campaigning to “end welfare as we know it.”

Here, Eisenstein contrasts the earlier “maternalist” politics of social feminists who had fought to institutionalize income support for single mothers at the turn of the twentieth century with the equality politics of the second wave. Maternalist feminists insisted on the value of women’s work as mothers and argued that, when women did not have economic support from male breadwinners, government had the obligation to step in so that mothers could fulfill their caregiving roles. By the 1990s, when a majority of married mothers worked at least part time for pay, this argument was certainly difficult to make. But it was made more difficult by the hegemony of mainstream feminist beliefs. While the leadership of the National Organization for Women, along with some academic feminists, joined with welfare rights activists to oppose the welfare reform juggernaut, the membership of NOW, as well as of other feminist organizations, was uninterested, if not hostile. Mainstream feminism, having defined paid work as essential to women’s liberation, had no room for making claims based on valorizing the work of stay-home mothers.

This failure by feminists to mobilize in defense of welfare was in part the consequence of historic “fault lines” in U.S. feminism that have substantially weakened the movement. From the very beginning, dominant voices in the women’s movement did not reflect the experiences of working-class women and women of color. Moreover, issues of crucial importance to working-class women and women of color did not even make it onto the mainstream feminist agenda. Eisenstein summarizes the critique mounted by women-of-color feminists and then offers several examples of how these areas of contention played themselves out within U.S. politics. She argues that, by organizing around abortion as an individual choice rather than as part of a broader program of full reproductive rights, the women’s movement lost an opportunity to create a cross-class, cross-race movement that might have been less vulnerable to the right wing’s attacks. Similarly, she points to the ways in which the feminist antiviolence movement, ignoring the realities of the racial state, has been complicit in forwarding a reactionary “law and order” agenda that shifts resources away from social welfare programs and toward prisons, while blaming the residents of inner cities for their deteriorating social and economic conditions.

Feminism, Imperialism, and Islamophobia

Mainstream feminist ideology has also been harnessed to legitimize a neoliberal corporate agenda in the global South. Structural adjustment programs of economic deregulation and public sector cutbacks have been justified by the World Bank as expanding opportunities for young women factory workers in export-processing zones. Microcredit programs for women are touted as solutions to their impoverishment. Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations run by and for women (and dependent on foreign donors for funding) have not only facilitated the dismantling of public services but have also co-opted women’s activism. Individual empowerment for some women has been substituted for the collective empowerment that only comes when economic development benefits workers, farmers, and communities. Although Eisenstein tends to oversimplify some complex feminist debates about the impact of capitalist expansion on women’s lives in the global South, she makes a good case that, since the 1990s, major institutions organizing neoliberal capitalism have used “women’s empowerment” to distract attention from the distinctly disempowering effects of their structural adjustment programs.

Turning from economic to political violence, Eisenstein links mainstream feminism to the war on terror. She offers a historically grounded analysis of Islamophobia as the latest in a long line of discourses through which imperialist projects are justified in terms of “saving” colonized women from the men of their patriarchal, “backward” cultures. From national organizations such as the Feminist Majority to Condoleezza Rice and Laura Bush, feminist outrage was mobilized to validate the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Eisenstein systematically unveils and challenges assumptions behind Islamophobia, arguing, for example, that contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, far from being inherent to Islamic tradition, is in fact a modern political movement emerging out of capitalist economic, political, and cultural domination as well as imperialist violence. She points out that the status of women varies considerably across the Muslim world in relation to political economies, histories of incorporation into the market, organization of the state, and so forth. Eisenstein’s explication of work by Muslim feminist scholars and activists in this chapter is especially useful, providing an effective alternative to mainstream feminist ideas about the needs and interests of Muslim women.

How Did Feminism Get Hijacked and What Is to Be Done?

Eisenstein’s explanation of how feminism has been co-opted by elites tends to blame feminists for developments over which they had little control. I share Eisenstein’s critique of that strand of feminism that rests on classic liberal thought, in which freedom is defined as the right to compete with men on a level playing field across the economic, political, social, and cultural terrain. This liberal feminism is not only compatible with neoliberal capitalism; it also reflects the real interests of the white, professional/managerial-class women who have been its most vigorous proponents.

Not surprising, then, that this feminism, and not a more radical perspective, became the common sense of our times. However, this politics was not the major tendency among the reformist activists of the second wave. Rather, a watered-down U.S. version of social democratic politics—what I have called social welfare feminism—animated the broad program of reforms that mainstream, second-wave feminists pursued [Johanna Brenner, Women and the Politics of Class (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000)]. Social welfare feminism looked to government not only to end discrimination but also to provide support for women’s dual roles as income earners and caregivers—for example, through paid family leave and affordable, quality child care. As we know, they were, on these counts, thoroughly unsuccessful. In the context of a powerful employers’ offensive, an insurgent right, sclerotic business unions incapable of, and indeed little interested in, mounting a fight, not to mention a Democratic party, itself moving rapidly to the right, there was no political space for the social welfare feminist program. Only a very broad, militant, disruptive social movement—an anti-capitalist front linking feminism, anti-racism, gay rights, and immigrant rights to trade unions and workers’ struggles—would have been able to force such concessions. Given the economic and political context, such a movement was not in the cards. Defeat rather than seduction is the appropriate metaphor, here.

I think Eisenstein is quite right that second-wave feminism was at least deeply ambivalent—and remains so—about full-time motherhood. Yet, rather than blaming feminists for this ambivalence, as Eisenstein does, we ought to acknowledge its roots in the realities of capitalist political economy and end the fruitless debates over whether feminists should be for mothers staying home or women working for pay. Of course, women, including single mothers, should have choices about how they combine parenthood and paid work. But the fact that we have “choices” can, in itself, be rather meaningless if those choices are not particularly good ones. Even mothers who like their jobs are often overworked. And women who opt out of the labor force pay high penalties later, in terms of wages, pensions, etc. Eisenstein targets academic feminists for insisting on what she calls the “abolition of gender.” This negation, she argues, has undermined any claims that women might make in the name of “womanly virtues.” Where maternalist feminism drew on traditional ideals of women’s nurture and care to make demands on the state and society, modern feminists have adamantly rejected gender difference as a ground for claims-making, fearing that such arguments inevitably reproduce the justifications for treating women as both different from and inferior to men. I think these fears are quite well-placed.

And since Eisenstein herself recognizes the significant downside of maternalist politics, I am puzzled by her validation of maternalism and hostility to feminist efforts to transcend socially constructed gender dualisms. Rather than locating herself within an either/or dualistic frame, I would have liked to see Eisenstein adopt a both/and approach. We do not have to code nurture and care as specifically feminine virtues in order to argue their value. We do not need to privilege stay-home mothering as a form of child rearing in order to demand income support for single mothers.

For example, I organized with a welfare-rights group from 1989-1998, when welfare was under consistent attack. The group developed a politics around welfare reform that located the demands of single mothers within a program of broad public support for all parents (e.g., paid parenting leave, subsidies to low-income families, the right to affordable quality child care) that allowed them to combine breadwinning with care giving in ways appropriate to their children’s needs. One of the major problems with welfare reform, we argued, was not that it asked single mothers to work, but that it required paid work without adequately providing for children’s needs or paying a living wage. In addition to arguing for paid leave for mothers with very young children, the group argued that a single mother should have the right to refuse work and receive income support, if the work endangered her children or compromised the quality of their care. There are many conditions in which this is the case for single mothers: long commutes to the job, living in dangerous neighborhoods without proper after-school care, child care vouchers that are insufficient to garner quality care. This strategy was originally developed by the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In that period, under the leadership of black single mothers, NWRO organized for both income support and access to living wage jobs.

Eisenstein concludes her book with a passionate but reasoned call for feminists to come back to class analysis and to build a movement that puts the needs and interests of working-class women, women of color, and women of the global South at the center. Drawing on recent struggles—from the California Nurses Association, to Inuit women in Quebec, to the school teachers of Oaxaca—she offers glimpses of what an anti-capitalist, democratic, feminism might look like. I hope her readers are inspired to develop that feminism in the struggle ahead.