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Fortunes of Feminism

To combat the subordination of women requires an approach that combines a politics of redistribution with a politics of recognition.

Verso Books31 March 2020

Fortunes of Feminism

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Below is an excerpt from Nancy Fraser's Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. Complete your Nancy Fraser Bookshelf here!

Feminist theory tends to follow the zeitgeist. In the 1970s, when second-wave feminism emerged out of the New Left, its most influential theories of gender reflected the still-potent influence of Marxism. Whether sympathetic or antagonistic to class analysis, these theories located gender relations on the terrain of political economy, even as they sought to expand that terrain to encompass housework, reproduction, and sexuality. Soon thereafter, chafing under the limits of labor-centered paradigms, additional currents of feminist theorizing emerged in dialogue with psychoanalysis. In the Anglophone world, object-relations theorists began to conceptualize gender as an “identity.” On the European continent, meanwhile, Lacanians rejected the term “gender relations” as too sociological and replaced it with “sexual difference,” which they conceptualized in relation to subjectivity and the symbolic order. In neither case was the initial intention to supplant Marxism per se; rather, both currents saw themselves as enriching and deepening materialist paradigms that too often lapsed into vulgar economism. By the 1990s, however, the New Left was only a memory, and Marxism seemed to many a dead letter. In that context, lines of thought that had begun by presuming Marxism’s relevance took on another valence. Joining the larger exodus of intellectuals from Marxism, most feminist theorists took “the cultural turn.” With the exception of a few holdouts, even those who rejected psychoanalysis came to understand gender as an identity or a “cultural construction.” Today, accordingly, gender theory is largely a branch of cultural studies.

As such, it has further attenuated, if not wholly lost, its historic links to Marxism—and to social theory and political economy more generally. As always, the vicissitudes of theory follow those of politics. The shift, over the last thirty years, from quasi-Marxist, labor-centered understandings of gender to culture- and identity-based conceptions coincides with a parallel shift in feminist politics. Whereas the ’68 generation hoped, among other things, to restructure the political economy so as to abolish the gender division of labor, subsequent feminists formulated other, less material aims. Some, for example, sought recognition of sexual difference, while others preferred to deconstruct the categorial opposition between masculine and feminine. The result was a shift in the center of gravity of feminist politics. Once centered on labor and violence, gender struggles have focused increasingly on identity and representation in recent years. The effect has been to subordinate social struggles to cultural struggles, the politics of redistribution to the politics of recognition. That was not, once again, the original intention. It was assumed, rather, by cultural feminists and deconstructionists alike that feminist cultural politics would synergize with struggles for social equality. But that assumption, too, has fallen prey to the zeitgeist. In “the network society," the feminist turn to recognition has dove-tailed all too neatly with a hegemonic neoliberalism that wants nothing more than to repress socialist memory. 

Of course, feminism is hardly alone in this trajectory. On the contrary, the recent history of gender theory reflects a wider shift in the grammar of political claims-making. On the one hand, struggles for recognition have exploded everywhere— witness battles over multiculturalism, human rights, and national autonomy. On the other hand, struggles for egalitarian redistribution are in relative decline—witness the weakening of trade unions and the co-optation of labor and socialist parties in “the third way.” The result is a tragic historical irony. The shift from redistribution to recognition has occurred just as an aggressively globalizing US-led capitalism is exacerbating economic inequality. 

For feminism, accordingly, this shift has been double-edged. On the one hand, the turn to recognition represents a broadening of gender struggle and a new understanding of gender justice. No longer restricted to questions of distribution, gender justice now encompasses issues of representation, identity, and difference. The result is a major advance over reductive economistic paradigms that had difficulty conceptualizing harms rooted not in the division of labor, but in androcentric patterns of cultural value. On the other hand, it is no longer clear that feminist struggles for recognition are serving to deepen and enrich struggles for egalitarian redistribution. Rather, in the context of an ascendant neoliberalism, they may be serving to displace the latter. In that case, the recent gains would be entwined with a tragic loss. Instead of arriving at a broader, richer paradigm that could encompass both redistribution and recognition, we would have traded one truncated paradigm for another—a truncated economism for a truncated culturalism. The result would be a classic case of combined and uneven development: the remarkable recent feminist gains on the axis of recognition would coincide with stalled progress—if not outright losses—on the axis of distribution.

That, at least, is my reading of present trends. In what follows, I shall outline an approach to gender theory and feminist politics that responds to this diagnosis and aims to forestall its full realization. First, I shall propose an analysis of gender that is broad enough to house the full range of feminist concerns, those central to the old socialist-feminism as well as those rooted in the cultural turn. To complement this analysis, I shall propose, second, a correspondingly broad conception of justice, capable of encompassing both distribution and recognition, and third, a non-identitarian account of recognition, capable of synergizing with redistribution. Finally, I shall examine some practical problems that arise when we try to envision institutional reforms that could redress maldistribution and misrecognition simultaneously. In all four sections, I break with those feminist approaches that focus exclusively on gender. Rather, I situate gender struggles as one strand among others in a broader political project aimed at institutionalizing democratic justice across multiple axes of social differentiation.

To avoid truncating the feminist problematic, and unwittingly colluding with neoliberalism, feminists today need to revisit the concept of gender. What is needed is a broad and capacious conception, which can accommodate at least two sets of concerns. On the one hand, such a conception must incorporate the labor-centered problematic associated with socialist-feminism; on the other hand, it must also make room for the culture-centered problematic associated with putatively “post-Marxian” strands of feminist theorizing. Rejecting sectarian formulations that cast those two problematics as mutually antithetical, feminists need to develop an account of gender that encompasses the concerns of both.

As we shall see, this requires theorizing both the gendered character of the political economy and the androcentrism of the cultural order, without reducing either one of them to the other. At the same time, it also requires theorizing two analytically distinct dimensions of sexism, one centered on distribution, the other centered on recognition. The result will be a two-dimensional conception of gender. Only such a conception can support a viable feminist politics in the present era. Let me explain. The approach I propose requires viewing gender bifocally—simultaneously through two different lenses. Viewed through one lens, gender has affinities with class; viewed through the other, it is more akin to status. Each lens brings into focus an important aspect of women’s subordination, but neither is sufficient on its own. A full understanding becomes available only when the two lenses are superimposed. At that point, gender appears as a categorial axis that spans two dimensions of social ordering, the dimension of distribution and the dimension of recognition.

From the distributive perspective, gender appears as a class-like differentiation, rooted in the economic structure of society. A basic organizing principle of the division of labor, it underlies the fundamental division between paid “productive” labor and unpaid “reproductive” and domestic labor, assigning women primary responsibility for the latter.

Gender also structures the division within paid labor between higher-paid, male-dominated manufacturing and professional occupations and lower-paid, female-dominated “pink collar” and domestic service occupations. The result is an economic structure that generates gender-specific forms of distributive injustice. From the recognition perspective, in contrast, gender appears as a status differentiation, rooted in the status order of society. Gender codes pervasive cultural patterns of interpretation and evaluation, which are central to the status order as a whole.

Thus, a major feature of gender injustice is androcentrism: an institutionalized pattern of cultural value that privileges traits associated with masculinity, while devaluing everything coded as “feminine,” paradigmatically—but not only—women. Pervasively institutionalized, androcentric value patterns structure broad swaths of social interaction. Expressly codified in many areas of law (including family law and criminal law), they inform legal constructions of privacy, autonomy, self-defense, and equality. They are also entrenched in many areas of government policy (including reproductive, immigration, and asylum policy) and in standard professional practices (including medicine and psychotherapy).

Androcentric value patterns also pervade popular culture and everyday interaction. As a result, women suffer gender-specific forms of status subordination, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and domestic violence; trivializing, objectifying, and demeaning stereotypical depictions in the media; disparagement in everyday life; exclusion or marginaliza- tion in public spheres and deliberative bodies; and denial of the full rights and equal protections of citizenship. These harms are injustices of misrecognition. They are relatively independent of political economy and are not merely “superstructural.” Thus, they cannot be overcome by redistribution alone but require additional, independent remedies of recognition. When the two perspectives are combined, gender emerges as a two-dimensional category. It contains both a political-economic face that brings it within the ambit of redistribution, and also a cultural-discursive face that brings it simultaneously within the ambit of recognition. Moreover, neither dimension is merely an indirect effect of the other. To be sure, the distributive and recognition dimensions interact with each other. But gender maldistribution is not simply a by-product of status hierarchy; nor is gender  misrecognition wholly a by-product of economic structure.

Rather, each dimension has some relative independence from the other. Neither can be redressed entirely indirectly, therefore, through remedies addressed exclusively to the other. It is an open question whether the two dimensions are of equal weight. But redressing gender injustice, in any case, requires changing both the economic structure and the status order of contemporary society. Neither alone will suffice. The two-dimensional character of gender wreaks havoc on the idea of an either/or choice between the politics of redistribution and the politics of recognition. That construction assumes that women are either a class or a status group, but not both; that the injustice they suffer is either maldistribution or misrecognition, but not both; that the remedy is either redistribution or recognition, but not both. Gender, we can now see, explodes this whole series of false antitheses. Here we have a category that is a compound of both status and class. Not only is gender “difference” constructed simultaneously from both economic differentials and institutionalized patterns of cultural value, but both maldistribution and misrecognition are fundamental to sexism. The implication for feminist politics is clear. To combat the subordination of women requires an approach that combines a politics of redistribution with a politics of recognition. 

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(Image courtesy of Jessie Makinson and Fabian Lang, Zurich.Photo © Jessie Makinson)

Jessie Makinson
My fins are sleeping, 2019
Oil and pigment on canvas
118 1/8 x 82 5/8 in
300 x 210 cm

Fortunes of Feminism
Second Wave feminism emerged as a struggle for women’s liberation and took its place alongside other radical movements. But feminism’s subsequent immersion in identity politics coincided with a dec...

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