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The mainstream media continues to equate feminism, as such, with liberal feminism. But far from providing the solution, liberal feminism is part of the problem. Centered in the global North among the professional-managerial stratum, it is focused on “leaning-in” and “cracking the glass ceiling.” Dedicated to enabling a smattering of privileged women to climb the corporate ladder and the ranks of the military, it propounds a market-centered view of equality that dovetails perfectly with the prevailing corporate enthusiasm for “diversity.” Although it condemns “discrimination” and advocates “freedom of choice,” liberal feminism steadfastly refuses to address the socioeconomic constraints that make freedom and empowerment impossible for the large majority of women. Its real aim is not equality, but meritocracy. Rather than seeking to abolish social hierarchy, it aims to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women to rise to the top. In treating women simply as an “underrepresented group,” its proponents seek to ensure that a few privileged souls can attain positions and pay on a par with the men of their own class. By definition, the principal beneficiaries are those who already possess considerable social, cultural, and economic advantages. Everyone else remains stuck in the basement.
Fully compatible with ballooning inequality, liberal feminism outsources oppression. It permits professional-managerial women to lean in precisely by enabling them to lean on the poorly paid migrant women to whom they subcontract their caregiving and housework. Insensitive to class and race, it links our cause with elitism and individualism. Projecting feminism as a “stand-alone” movement, it associates us with policies that harm the majority and cuts us off from struggles that oppose those policies. In short, liberal feminism gives feminism a bad name.
Liberal feminism’s ethos converges not only with corporate mores but also with supposedly “transgressive” currents of neoliberal culture. Its love affair with individual advancement equally permeates the world of social-media celebrity, which also confuses feminism with the ascent of individual women. In that world, “feminism” risks becoming a trending hashtag and a vehicle of self-promotion, deployed less to liberate the many than to elevate the few.
In general, then, liberal feminism supplies the perfect alibi for neoliberalism. Cloaking regressive policies in an aura of emancipation, it enables the forces supporting global capital to portray themselves as “progressive.” Allied with global finance in the United States, while providing cover for Islamophobia in Europe, this is the feminism of the female power-holders: the corporate gurus who preach “lean in,” the femocrats who push structural adjustment and microcredit on the global South, and the professional politicians in pant suits who collect six-fi gure fees for speeches to Wall Street.
Our answer to lean-in feminism is kick-back feminism. We have no interest in breaking the glass ceiling while leaving the vast majority to clean up the shards. Far from celebrating women CEOs who occupy corner offices, we want to get rid of CEOs and corner offices.