Feminism should realign itself with social justice and avoid reducing all questions of women’s lives to issues of sexuality and sexual behavior.
Editor’s Note: Nina Power is a British philosopher and feminist, who published a must-read book, One-Dimensional Woman, out now from Zero Books. Power’s brand of feminism stands apart because, as she has been known to say, we’ve had the “c”-word wrong all along. Indeed, capitalism is behind most of the issues facing women today. (Her book nods at Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 One-Dimensional Man, which detailed the delusive freedoms of the capitalist system.) Power’s book is a fascinating read, as she tackles subjects ranging from the farcical feminism of Sarah Palin to the usurping of feminism — packaged as “women’s liberation” – to validate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Power is witty, biting and thoughtful in her analysis, and a departure from mainstream feminist thinkers today.
I should start by saying that this list should in no way be seen as an attack on anyone actively involved in feminist politics, or on the history of the women’s liberation movement. The fruits of feminism reflect the most successful and long-term social revolution that human history has ever seen — this should never be forgotten. The list is simply a set of personal reflections on some current dimensions of the struggle, and could equally well be applied to women in general, as opposed to just those who identify themselves as feminists.
1. Feminism should realign itself with movements committed to social justice, and reclaim its ties to other progressive movements, such as the gay rights movement and campaigns for racial equality. Feminism has sometimes allowed itself to become distracted by debates about essentialism (particularly in Britain), leading to ugly attempts to exclude trans-women from feminist debates, for example. Feminism needs to have a strategic and inclusive definition of “femaleness,” which avoids compounding the oppression heaped on those who are already more likely to be the victims of violence and discrimination.
2. At the same time, the word ‘feminism’ itself (and the battles it wages) should become much clearer and stronger. In an age in which Sarah Palin can describe herself as a feminist, despite passing anti-abortion legislation, the word needs to be reclaimed by the left and placed firmly back among broader questions of class, exploitation and oppression.
3. Feminism should not be misled by the successes of individual women at the top of their professions (politicians, CEOs, etc.). Better than thinking of these women as “tokens,” though, we would do well to see them as (sometimes) being “decoys” (as described by Zillah Eisenstein in Sexual Decoys). Which is to say, simply because they are women and successful, the success (and therefore end) of feminism is frequently announced by the media, and their noxious politics are ignored (think of Margaret Thatcher). Feminism would do well to remember how the struggle for real equality and fair income can sometimes be disguised by the purported success of the odd individual woman.
4. Feminism should be concerned with all women everywhere, and be careful not to focus on the experience of small groups of women in the West. Issues such as immigrant labor (which frequently revolves around childcare and housework for other families) often involve women from other parts of the world leaving behind their own families, and the misery that this entails. The issues affecting women in richer parts of the world may sometimes obscure the struggles against oppression, violence and economic exploitation taking place in poorer countries. Western feminism must not cut itself off from the rest of the world: there are many groups working and fighting for grassroots feminist activism around the world — feminists everywhere should see themselves as part of the same global struggle, whilst nevertheless paying attention to the differences that exist in different parts of the world as part of this shared struggle.
5. Feminism should be wary of believing the fight has been won. Keeping up the pressure on those who would roll back the achievements of the women’s movement (abortion rights, workplace legislation against discrimination, etc.) is a matter of urgency and perpetual vigilance. In Italy, for example, female pay has dropped to 40 percent less than a man’s pay for the same work; at the same time 46 percent of women there are unemployed. Berlusconi’s TV stations spew out endless game-shows featuring scantily clad young women pretending to be stupid. Things can always get worse: the point is to stop them before they do.
6. Contemporary feminism should avoid ghettoized debates of the ‘sex work good/sex work bad’ or ‘porn good/porn bad’ type. While these are clearly important issues with wide cultural significance, not to mention involving the immediate impact on the lives of women involved in such work, such debates, if they simply involve mudslinging, avoid confronting economic reality in favor of a purely moral or personal stance.
7. Feminism should avoid reducing all questions of women’s lives to issues concerning sexuality and sexual behavior. Although the unhappy relation between production and reproduction forms one of the major contradictions of contemporary work, if feminism spends too much time focusing in on questions of sexuality, it risks losing sight of other significant questions — unequal pay, non-sexual violence, and so on.
8. Feminists should be aware of the co-optation of the rhetoric of female liberation in the name of imperialism. The invocation of “women’s liberation” in the military campaigns against Afghanistan and Iraq was a terrible development, both for the meaning of feminism and for the feminist movements on the ground in those countries. The rise of a “feminism” that uses bombs to make its point is no feminism at all. “Western” feminism should be wary of being opposed to supposedly regressive religious movements and different cultures; rather it should pay attention and aid those genuinely feminist movements in repressive countries from the ground up.
9. The women’s movement should campaign for fairer and better work, even in the midst of an economic crisis. The news that for the first time in human history, there are now more women than men in the U.S. workforce should be understood in all its complexity. Women’s mass entry into the workforce is of course cause for celebration in the financial independence it affords individual women; however, if that work is non-unionized, precarious, poorly paid and unpleasant, then feminism should be very wary of being too one-sidedly happy about the rise of this work. The flipside of the so-called “mancession” in the U.S. (the idea that men are losing their jobs at a faster rate than women) is the possibility that employers have realized they can pay women less for the same work and are therefore more likely to keep them on, whilst making no concessions to the difficulties of childcare for either men or women.
10. Feminists of different ages, with or without children, gay or straight, should be wary of seeing too many differences between generations of women. To this end, perhaps the talk of “waves” hides more similarities than it reveals. Paying attention to the history of feminism avoids repeating too many of the same conversations, whilst at the same time helps to provide answers to problems which, despite certain differences, have remained the same for many decades.
Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University (UK). She is the co-editor of Alain Badiou’s ‘On Beckett.’ Her book ‘One-Dimensional Woman’ is out from Zero Books.