Feminism: What's in a Name?

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Image: Shell Oil's temporary name change to She'll on International Women's Day, part of a campaign intended to “position Shell as a brand that supports and is invested in [its] female workforce."

As Labour elects its new leader, we are launching a series of essays on political possibilities of the new decade. Read more here.

There are certainties in elections: coaches become battle buses, and journalists who’ve never been outside of London extol the virtues of going to places where people don’t know what a macchiato is. But a new certainty has emerged: feminism as a personal brand. A decade ago, centrist politicians agonised over whether to describe themselves as feminists, broadly agreeing to accept they might be feminists but not that kind. Now, politicians are no longer scared of feminism. Rather, centrist politicians are tripping over each other to assert their feminist credentials. Once, feminism meant a commitment to some form of liberatory politics. These might have been liberal, radical, socialist, or some combination thereof. By contrast, FeminismTM is a brand, a public relations operation, a process of personality laundering. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. You’re a woman. And being a woman is good.

Although the leading lights of FeminismTM – Hillary Clinton, Jo Swinson, Jess Philips – appear decisively beaten, it seems unlikely to go anywhere soon. If we believe that a feminism that takes issues of class, of work, of the relationship between production and reproduction seriously – in short, socialist feminism – is important, then we ought to consider closely the dynamics of feminism as PR for centrism. The fight for the future of feminism is not one of better or worse definitions of a term, but for control of a movement on which the hopes and fates of women depend.

I

FeminismTM shares a great deal with its close relative, corporate-window-dressing feminism. Aside from the crossover of personnel, both share a concern with the ways in which restrictive gender norms prevent women from taking on leading roles in their given field, and with the animosity they receive when they do take on those roles. FeminismTM locates the cause of these problems in stereotyping and inadequate workplace policies for mothers, and finds a solution in networking, supporting more women into senior roles, and creating role models and mentors. As corporate feminist extraordinaire Sheryl Sandberg puts it, “conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.” One problem with this account is that it focuses on a particular group of women – executives and executives-to-be – at the expense of working-class women. While it might be the case that having more women in senior roles reminds the board members that shared parental leave for employees can support women employees, it does very little to help the outsourced cleaner who doesn’t even get sick pay. Plus, giving women executives at Big Tech Company Inc. a better policy on lactation at work will do very little for the women whose children are maimed or killed working in cobalt mines to produce its commodities.

Corporate feminism and FeminismTM share a belief in the foundational goodness of women and the epistemic primacy of experience. Having more women around means better decisions are made for women because women make decisions that are good for women. This might make some sense in the case of the positive benefits for corporate women, (although there are also plenty of examples of women kicking down the ladder after them) but when extended to women in general, it collapses. Women might be able to raise issues that affect women as women in meetings, but women, as of yet, have not reached a consensus on what we might do about those issues. How we respond to the problems we face as women, insofar as we can be said to face the same problems, is a question of politics.

Indeed, women often have objectively different material interests from one another. Should we, for example, organise for free, twenty-four hour nursery care, with decent pay and conditions for nursery workers, or should we offer vouchers to mothers to choose between different nurseries run by academy chains? And can we really claim that the woman running that nursery academy chain and her low-paid migrant employee have the same interests? Women do not have the same experiences, and, perhaps more importantly, they agree neither on the interpretation of those experiences nor on the political questions that emerge from them. Some answers to these political questions are better than others, so what matters is not the mere presence of women, but the presence of a certain kind of politics.

Even though FeminismTM shares with liberal feminism a concern for representation within existing institutions, its adherents are more personally ambitious. Feminism-as-brand isn’t about promoting corporate profitability, although it can be profitable: a certain kind of sanitised feminism sells, one that doesn’t threaten existing power structures but is instead easily folded into them. FeminismTM is a financial and political grift, a quick route to a book deal, a good way to get on the news. More than this, it allows women in the male-dominated field of politics to present themselves as beyond critique. While corporate feminism encourages a narrow kind of feminine business acumen, centrist feminism foregrounds women’s vulnerability and fragility even as it stresses their gutsiness. This isn’t to say that there aren’t gendered, even misogynistic factors at play in the criticism of many centrist women, nor to deny the harassment that they face. However, the status of being a woman is not a get-out clause for scrutiny. Nor is it a reason, on its own, for feminist support.

II

The ambition and grift of personal-brand-feminists has often helped other women – for example, through the passing of legislation that has benefited (some) women. But much of their activity also harms women in two ways. Firstly, the individualism at the heart of FeminismTM pits feminism against socialism. Of course, the relationship between these two movements has historically not been straightforward, but in the past the battle about their commensurability was at least public and tangible. Personal brand feminism depoliticises this struggle through its promotion of representation above all else. Secondly, it saps away at the theoretical and practical possibilities of feminism. It makes feminism empty, hollow, replacing struggle around the tangible issues of women’s lives with the patronising suggestion that having a woman in power always represents progress for womankind. Consider the case of Jo Swinson, part of a Tory–Lib Dem government not famed for its support for women, demanding that women be represented in the TV leaders’ debates, for women’s sake. Or that of New Labour’s Yvette Cooper, who described nationalisation as “switching control of some power stations from a group of white middle aged men in an energy company to a group of white middle aged men in Whitehall.”

Inasmuch as FeminismTM has any ideological content, its account of power is a liberal and individualistic one. The role of the feminist, its adherents suggest, is to raise her head above the parapet, make people aware of the issues women face and demand reform – though never structural change. In her second book, Speaking Truth To Power: 7 Ways to Call Time On B.S., Labour leadership challenger Jess Phillips writes, “I would love to advocate overhauling all our slow global systems to make wholesale changes; however, this is an entirely unrealistic [sic] and is usually only shouted about by people who do very little to change stuff and just like to whinge.” Instead of wholesale change we should raise our “authentic voices” and have a savvy social media plan. Even though she elsewhere raises the importance of change in the workplace, there is no discussion of trade unions or building the power of organised labour. At times, speaking out becomes all powerful, the motor of history. At other points, Philips tells us that speaking out “rarely changes things, but my motivation is always to let others see that it is possible to fight back against bullies.” We don’t get a sense of why certain people have power and others don’t, nor a sense of how these political inequalities might be challenged.

III

While the kind of feminism that is discussed in the mainstream press, that is used for centrist feminist personality laundering, and whose slogans are sold in high-street shops, is the heir of liberal feminism insofar as it is prioritises individual choices as empowerment, some of its foundational claims have another source: Radical Feminism. FeminismTM takes from Radical Feminism the idea of specifically feminine and masculine ways of knowing and being. These ideas are now not uncommon within liberal feminism – particularly in its insipid NGO-development-neocolonial formulations – but they originally emerged from Radical Feminism. Of course, in their mainstreamed variant, these ideas lose their bite, specifically their power to re-conceptualize and publicly articulate women’s experience of male violence. Take Elizabeth Warren’s recent intervention in the Democratic Primaries, when she told the Culinary Workers Union that the White House was a “mess”, and that “when you’ve got a mess and you really need it cleaned up, you call a woman and get the job done.” Warren was making a joke about gender stereotyping, but beneath the joke is the idea that women are better at just getting things done than men. Femininity is imbued with an almost magical power.

Suggestion of a separate feminine culture, a distinct female way of being, and unique feminine patterns of engaging with each other and the world, is troubling and ahistorical. It reaches its contemporary liberal zenith in an article by Lauren Duca, the foremost journalist of the anti-Trump #Resistance. Duca argues that the problems of contemporary society are caused by “toxic masculinity”. She doesn’t execute her critique using the radical feminist idea of gender-as-class, in addition to or replacing class itself, but by understanding “toxic masculinity” as an all-powerful force. Her world is ruled by feminine (read “nurturing”) and masculine (read “assertive, pragmatic”) energies, with the “shadow” version of the latter causing Trump and widespread individualism. Her solution: “the divine feminine [which] will continue to rise and ultimately defeat the white supremacist patriarchy no matter what”.

Not only does this run the risk of essentialism; it fails to pay heed to how gender norms and the institutions that inform them change over time. We won’t get anywhere by ontologizing categories like femininity and masculinity, and painting one as good and the other bad. We also run the risk of characterising politics as inherently masculine and therefore problematic – in need of softening. Jess Philips, for example, claims that “to say you are willing to die for your cause is using the masculine language of war”.

A renewed focus on the relations between gender and care has greatly enriched contemporary feminism both theoretically and practically, but the kind of caring feminine divine energy theorised by this brand of feminism is something rather different and much more limiting. As it is lived and exploited under capitalism, care has a double character: it contains within it an important basis of women’s oppression while at the same time opening up new terrains of non-instrumental or even emancipatory ways of living. Appeals to the goodness of the feminine render something complex one-sided and mystified.

Women, their actions and the idea of “femininity” itself are not outside of history, politics and power. To secure a better future for women, we need a feminism that can adequately grasp that. We need socialist feminism. That is to say, a feminism that builds sustainable social institutions of women’s collective power and of working-class power. A feminism that takes seriously Marx’s theoretical contribution, but pushes it to its limits, developing it and creating new analytical categories, rather than treating it with the reverence that a child might do a sticker book. Luckily, socialist feminism — having suffered a double defeat, first to the hegemony of Radical Feminism in the Women’s Movement and then by the crushing of the organised left by neoliberalism — is finding its feet once again. With the right development of its theoretical and practical energies, it holds the power to change the world.


Amelia Horgan is a writer and researcher. She is currently writing a PhD on feminism and the philosophy of work. Her first book, Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism, is out later this year with Pluto Press.

This essay is part of a series of excerpts from Futures of Socialism: Into the Post-Corbyn Era, edited by Grace Blakeley. Read all the essays, as they are published through March, here.

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