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Second-Wave Feminism: ‘An Epochal Social Phenomenon’ by Nancy Fraser

Nancy Fraser29 February 2016

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In the lead-up to International Women's Day on 8th March, we are proud to share a three-part extract from Nancy Fraser's Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. Tracing the feminist movement’s evolution since the 1970s, Fraser anticipates a new—radical and egalitarian—phase of feminist thought and action: a reinvigorated feminist radicalism able to address the global economic crisis.

Fraser's other books include 
Redistribution or Recognition and Adding Insult to InjuryIn part one of the essay she discusses the emergence of second-wave feminism in the context of the state-organized capitalism of the post-war era.

I would like here to take a broad look at second-wave feminism. Not at this or that activist current, nor this or that strand of feminist theorizing; not this or that geographical slice of the movement, nor this or that sociological stratum of women. I want, rather, to try to see second-wave feminism whole, as an epochal social phenomenon. Looking back at nearly forty years of feminist activism, I want to venture an assessment of the movement’s overall trajectory and historical significance. In looking back, however, I hope also to help us look forward. By reconstructing the path we have travelled, I hope to shed light on the challenges we face today—in a time of massive economic crisis, social uncertainty and political realignment.

I am going to tell a story, then, about the broad contours and overall meaning of second-wave feminism. Equal parts historical narrative and social-theoretical analysis, my story is plotted around three points in time, each of which places second-wave feminism in relation to a specific moment in the history of capitalism. The first point refers to the movement’s beginnings in the context of what I will call ‘state-organized capitalism’. Here I propose to chart the emergence of second-wave feminism from the anti-imperialist New Left, as a radical challenge to the pervasive androcentrism of state-led capitalist societies in the postwar era. Conceptualizing this phase, I shall identify the movement’s fundamental emancipatory promise with its expanded sense of injustice and its structural critique of society. The second point refers to the process of feminism’s evolution in the dramatically changed social context of rising neoliberalism. Here, I propose to chart not only the movement’s extraordinary successes but also the disturbing convergence of some of its ideals with the demands of an emerging new form of capitalism—post-Fordist, ‘disorganized’, transnational. Conceptualizing this phase, I shall ask whether second-wave feminism has unwittingly supplied a key ingredient of what Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello call ‘the new spirit of capitalism’. The third point refers to a possible reorientation of feminism in the present context of capitalist crisis and US political realignment, which could mark the beginnings of a shift from neoliberalism to a new form of social organization. Here, I propose to examine the prospects for reactivating feminism’s emancipatory promise in a world that has been rocked by the twin crises of finance capital and US hegemony, and that now awaits the unfolding of Barack Obama’s presidency.

In general, then, I propose to situate the trajectory of second-wave feminism in relation to the recent history of capitalism. In this way, I hope to help revive the sort of socialist-feminist theorizing that first inspired me decades ago and that still seems to offer our best hope for clarifying the prospects for gender justice in the present period. My aim, however, is not to recycle outmoded dual-systems theories, but rather to integrate the best of recent feminist theorizing with the best of recent critical theorizing about capitalism.

To clarify the rationale behind this approach, let me explain my dissatisfaction with what is perhaps the most widely held view of second-wave feminism. It is often said that the movement’s relative success in transforming culture stands in sharp contrast with its relative failure to transform institutions. This assessment is doubled-edged: on the one hand, feminist ideals of gender equality, so contentious in the preceding decades, now sit squarely in the social mainstream; on the other hand, they have yet to be realized in practice. Thus, feminist critiques of, for example, sexual harassment, sexual trafficking and unequal pay, which appeared incendiary not so long ago, are widely espoused today; yet this sea-change at the level of attitudes has by no means eliminated those practices. And so, it is frequently argued: second-wave feminism has wrought an epochal cultural revolution, but the vast change in mentalités has not (yet) translated into structural, institutional change.

There is something to be said for this view, which rightly notes the widespread acceptance today of feminist ideas. But the thesis of cultural success-cum-institutional failure does not go very far in illuminating the historical significance and future prospects of second-wave feminism. Positing that institutions have lagged behind culture, as if one could change while the other did not, it suggests that we need only make the former catch up with the latter in order to realize feminist hopes. The effect is to obscure a more complex, disturbing possibility: that the diffusion of cultural attitudes born out of the second wave has been part and parcel of another social transformation, unanticipated and unintended by feminist activists—a transformation in the social organization of postwar capitalism. This possibility can be formulated more sharply: the cultural changes jump-started by the second wave, salutary in themselves, have served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society that runs directly counter to feminist visions of a just society.

In this essay, I aim to explore this disturbing possibility. My hypothesis can be stated thus: what was truly new about the second wave was the way it wove together, in a critique of androcentric state-organized capitalism, three analytically distinct dimensions of gender injustice: economic, cultural and political. Subjecting state-organized capitalism to wide-ranging, multifaceted scrutiny, in which those three perspectives intermingled freely, feminists generated a critique that was simultaneously ramified and systematic. In the ensuing decades, however, the three dimensions of injustice became separated, both from one another and from the critique of capitalism. With the fragmentation of the feminist critique came the selective incorporation and partial recuperation of some of its strands. Split off from one another and from the societal critique that had integrated them, second-wave hopes were conscripted in the service of a project that was deeply at odds with our larger, holistic vision of a just society. In a fine instance of the cunning of history, utopian desires found a second life as feeling currents that legitimated the transition to a new form of capitalism: post-Fordist, transnational, neoliberal.

In what follows, I propose to elaborate this hypothesis in three steps, which correspond to the three plot points mentioned earlier. In a first step, I shall reconstruct the second-wave feminist critique of androcentric state-organized capitalism as integrating concerns with three perspectives on justice—redistribution, recognition and representation. In a second step, I shall sketch the coming apart of that constellation and the selective enlistment of some of its strands to legitimate neoliberal capitalism. In a third, I shall weigh the prospects for recovering feminism’s emancipatory promise in the present moment of economic crisis and political opening.

I. Feminism and State-Organized Capitalism

Let me begin by situating the emergence of second-wave feminism in the context of state-organized capitalism. By ‘state-organized capitalism’, I mean the hegemonic social formation in the postwar era, a social formation in which states played an active role in steering their national economies. We are most familiar with the form taken by state-organized capitalism in the welfare states of what was then called the First World, which used Keynesian tools to soften the boom–bust cycles endemic to capitalism. Drawing on the experiences of the Depression and war-time planning, these states implemented various forms of dirigisme, including infrastructural investment, industrial policy, redistributive taxation, social provision, business regulation, nationalization of some key industries and decommodification of public goods. Although it was the most wealthy and powerful OECD states that were able to ‘organize’ capitalism most successfully in the decades following 1945, a variant of state-organized capitalism could also be found in what was then termed the Third World. In impoverished ex-colonies, newly independent ‘developmental states’ sought to use their more limited capacities to jump-start national economic growth by means of import-substitution policies, infrastructural investment, nationalization of key industries and public spending on education.

In general, then, I use this expression to refer to the OECD welfare states and the ex-colonial developmental states of the postwar period. It was in these countries, after all, that second-wave feminism first erupted in the early 1970s. To explain what exactly provoked the eruption, let me note four defining characteristics of the political culture of state-organized capitalism:

Economism. By definition, state-organized capitalism involved the use of public political power to regulate (and in some cases, to replace) economic markets. This was largely a matter of crisis management in the interest of capital. Nevertheless, the states in question derived much of their political legitimacy from their claims to promote inclusion, social equality and cross-class solidarity. Yet these ideals were interpreted in an economistic and class-centric way. In the political culture of state-organized capitalism, social questions were framed chiefly in distributive terms, as matters concerning the equitable allocation of divisible goods, especially income and jobs, while social divisions were viewed primarily through the prism of class. Thus, the quintessential social injustice was unfair economic distribution, and its paradigm expression was class inequality. The effect of this class-centric, economistic imaginary was to marginalize, if not wholly to obscure, other dimensions, sites and axes of injustice.

Androcentrism. It followed that the political culture of state-organized capitalism envisioned the ideal-typical citizen as an ethnic-majority male worker—a breadwinner and a family man. It was widely assumed, too, that this worker’s wage should be the principal, if not the sole, economic support of his family, while any wages earned by his wife should be merely supplemental. Deeply gendered, this ‘family wage’ construct served both as a social ideal, connoting modernity and upward mobility, and as the basis for state policy in matters of employment, welfare and development. Granted, the ideal eluded most families, as a man’s wage was rarely by itself sufficient to support children and a non-employed wife. And granted, too, the Fordist industry to which the ideal was linked was soon to be dwarfed by a burgeoning low-wage service sector. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the family-wage ideal still served to define gender norms and to discipline those who would contravene them, reinforcing men’s authority in households and channelling aspirations into privatized domestic consumption. Equally important, by valorizing waged work, the political culture of state-organized capitalism obscured the social importance of unwaged care work and reproductive labour. Institutionalizing androcentric understandings of family and work, it naturalized injustices of gender and removed them from political contestation.

Étatism. State-organized capitalism was also étatist, suffused with a technocratic, managerial ethos. Relying on professional experts to design policies, and on bureaucratic organizations to implement them, welfare and developmental states treated those whom they ostensibly served more as clients, consumers and taxpayers than as active citizens. The result was a depoliticized culture, which treated questions of justice as technical matters, to be settled by expert calculation or corporatist bargaining. Far from being empowered to interpret their needs democratically, via political deliberation and contestation, ordinary citizens were positioned (at best) as passive recipients of satisfactions defined and dispensed from on high.

Westphalianism. Finally, state-organized capitalism was, by definition, a national formation, aimed at mobilizing the capacities of nation-states to support national economic development in the name—if not always in the interest—of the national citizenry. Made possible by the Bretton Woods regulatory framework, this formation rested on a division of political space into territorially bounded polities. As a result, the political culture of state-organized capitalism institutionalized the ‘Westphalian’ view that binding obligations of justice apply only among fellow citizens. Subtending the lion’s share of social struggle in the postwar era, this view channelled claims for justice into the domestic political arenas of territorial states. The effect, notwithstanding lip-service to international human rights and anti-imperialist solidarity, was to truncate the scope of justice, marginalizing, if not wholly obscuring, cross-border injustices.

In general, then, the political culture of state-organized capitalism was economistic, androcentric, étatist and Westphalian—all characteristics that came under attack in the late 1960s and 1970s. In those years of explosive radicalism, second-wave feminists joined their New Left and anti-imperialist counterparts in challenging the economism, the étatism, and (to a lesser degree) the Westphalianism of state-organized capitalism, while also contesting the latter’s androcentrism—and with it, the sexism of their comrades and allies. Let us consider these points one by one.

Second-wave feminism contra economism. Rejecting the exclusive identification of injustice with class maldistribution, second-wave feminists joined other emancipatory movements to burst open the restrictive, economistic imaginary of state-organized capitalism. Politicizing ‘the personal’, they expanded the meaning of justice, reinterpreting as injustices social inequalities that had been overlooked, tolerated or rationalized since time immemorial. Rejecting both Marxism’s exclusive focus on political economy and liberalism’s exclusive focus on law, they unveiled injustices located elsewhere—in the family and in cultural traditions, in civil society and in everyday life. In addition, second-wave feminists expanded the number of axes that could harbour injustice. Rejecting the primacy of class, socialist-feminists, black feminists and anti-imperialist feminists also opposed radical-feminist efforts to install gender in that same position of categorial privilege. Focusing not only on gender, but also on class, race, sexuality and nationality, they pioneered an ‘intersectionist’ alternative that is widely accepted today. Finally, second-wave feminists extended the purview of justice to take in such previously private matters as sexuality, housework, reproduction and violence against women. In so doing, they effectively broadened the concept of injustice to encompass not only economic inequalities but also hierarchies of status and asymmetries of political power. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that they replaced a monistic, economistic view of justice with a broader three-dimensional understanding, encompassing economy, culture and politics.

The result was no mere laundry list of single issues. On the contrary, what connected the plethora of newly discovered injustices was the notion that women’s subordination was systemic, grounded in the deep structures of society. Second-wave feminists argued, of course, about how best to characterize the social totality—whether as ‘patriarchy’, as a ‘dual-systems’ amalgam of capitalism and patriarchy, as an imperialist world system, or, in my own preferred view, as a historically specific, androcentric form of state-organized capitalist society, structured by three interpenetrating orders of subordination: (mal)distribution, (mis)recognition and (mis)representation. But despite such differences, most second-wave feminists—with the notable exception of liberal-feminists—concurred that overcoming women’s subordination required radical transformation of the deep structures of the social totality. This shared commitment to systemic transformation betokened the movement’s origins in the broader emancipatory ferment of the times.

Second-wave feminism contra androcentrism. If second-wave feminism partook of the general aura of 1960s radicalism, it nevertheless stood in a tense relation with other emancipatory movements. Its chief target, after all, was the genderinjustice of state-organized capitalism, hardly a priority for non-feminist anti-imperialists and New Leftists. In mounting their critique of state-organized capitalism’s androcentrism, moreover, second-wave feminists had also to confront sexism within the Left. For liberal and radical feminists, this posed no special problem; they could simply turn separatist and exit the Left. For socialist-feminists, anti-imperialist feminists and feminists of colour, in contrast, the difficulty was to confront sexism within the Left while remaining part of it.

For a time, at least, socialist-feminists succeeded in maintaining that difficult balance. They located the core of androcentrism in a gender division of labour which systematically devalued activities, both paid and unpaid, that were performed by or associated with women. Applying this analysis to state-organized capitalism, they uncovered the deep-structural connections between women’s responsibility for the lion’s share of unpaid caregiving, their subordination in marriage and personal life, the gender segmentation of labour markets, men’s domination of the political system, and the androcentrism of welfare provision, industrial policy and development schemes. In effect, they exposed the family wage as the point where gender maldistribution, misrecognition and misrepresentation converged. The result was a critique that integrated economy, culture and politics in a systematic account of women’s subordination in state-organized capitalism. Far from aiming simply to promote women’s full incorporation as wage-earners in capitalist society, second-wave feminists sought to transform the system’s deep structures and animating values—in part by decentring wage work and valorizing unwaged activities, especially the socially necessary carework performed by women.

Second-wave feminism contra étatism. But feminists’ objections to state-organized capitalism were as much concerned with process as with substance. Like their New Left allies, they rejected the bureaucratic-managerial ethos of state-organized capitalism. To the widespread 1960s critique of Fordist organization they added a gender analysis, interpreting the culture of large-scale, top-down institutions as expressing the modernized masculinity of the professional-managerial stratum of state-organized capitalism. Developing a horizontal counter-ethos of sisterly connection, second-wave feminists created the entirely new organizational practice of consciousness-raising. Seeking to bridge the sharp étatist divide between theory and practice, they styled themselves as a countercultural democratizing movement—anti-hierarchical, participatory and demotic. In an era when the acronym ‘NGO’ did not yet exist, feminist academics, lawyers and social workers identified more with the grass roots than with the reigning professional ethos of depoliticized expertise.

But unlike some of their countercultural comrades, most feminists did not reject state institutions simpliciter. Seeking, rather, to infuse the latter with feminist values, they envisioned a participatory-democratic state that empowered its citizens. Effectively re-imagining the relation between state and society, they sought to transform those positioned as passive objects of welfare and development policy into active subjects, empowered to participate in democratic processes of need interpretation. The goal, accordingly, was less to dismantle state institutions than to transform them into agencies that would promote, and indeed express, gender justice.

Second-wave feminism contra and pro Westphalianism. More ambivalent, perhaps, was feminism’s relation to the Westphalian dimension of state-organized capitalism. Given its origins in the global anti-Vietnam War ferment of the time, the movement was clearly disposed to be sensitive to trans-border injustices. This was especially the case for feminists in the developing world, whose gender critique was interwoven with a critique of imperialism. But there, as elsewhere, most feminists viewed their respective states as the principal addressees of their demands. Thus, second-wave feminists tended to reinscribe the Westphalian frame at the level of practice, even when they criticized it at the level of theory. That frame, which divided the world into bounded territorial polities, remained the default option in an era when states still seemed to possess the requisite capacities for social steering and when the technology enabling real-time transnational networking was not yet available. In the context of state-organized capitalism, then, the slogan ‘sisterhood is global’ (itself already contested as imperializing) functioned more as an abstract gesture than as a post-Westphalian political project that could be practically pursued.

In general, second-wave feminism remained ambivalently Westphalian, even as it rejected the economism, androcentrism and étatism of state-organized capitalism. On all those issues, however, it manifested considerable nuance. In rejecting economism, the feminists of this period never doubted the centrality of distributive justice and the critique of political economy to the project of women’s emancipation. Far from wanting to minimize the economic dimension of gender injustice, they sought, rather, to deepen it, by clarifying its relation with the two additional dimensions of culture and politics. Likewise, in rejecting the androcentrism of the family wage, second-wave feminists never sought simply to replace it with the two-earner family. For them, overcoming gender injustice meant ending the systematic devaluation of caregiving and the gender division of labour, both paid and unpaid. Finally, in rejecting the étatism of state-organized capitalism, second-wave feminists never doubted the need for strong political institutions capable of organizing economic life in the service of justice. Far from wanting to free markets from state control, they sought rather to democratize state power, to maximize citizen participation, to strengthen accountability, and to increase communicative flows between state and society.

All told, second-wave feminism espoused a transformative political project, premised on an expanded understanding of injustice and a systemic critique of capitalist society. The movement’s most advanced currents saw their struggles as multi-dimensional, aimed simultaneously against economic exploitation, status hierarchy and political subjection. To them, moreover, feminism appeared as part of a broader emancipatory project, in which struggles against gender injustices were necessarily linked to struggles against racism, imperialism, homophobia and class domination, all of which required transformation of the deep structures of capitalist society.

Parts two and three of this extract from Fortunes of Feminism will be published next week. 

Filed under: feminism