How liberal feminism fails women
How liberal feminism fails women

At the time of its founding by the International Socialist Women’s Conference in 1910, the slogan of International Working Women’s Day (as it was originally called) was “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism”.

The first International Women’s Day event in Australia – a rally organised by the Communist Party-aligned Militant Women’s Group in 1928 – demanded an eight-hour day for women shop workers, an end to piecework, the basic wage for the unemployed and paid annual leave.  

Fast forward nearly 100 years, and the mention of socialism at most International Women’s Day events is more likely to result in a call to security than a round of applause.

The Australian HR Institute’s event, for example, brings together human resource professionals and business leaders at a cost of $189 per head to discuss building “a gender-balanced world” through the appointment of women to boards and top management positions. Less staid but just as pricey is the “Business Chicks Lunch”, which claims an attendance of thousands and a snappy hashtag #EachForEqual. In a fierce battle for dominance in the champagne breakfast market, almost every major corporation in Australia hosts a similar event. There is even an internationally coordinated ringing of the bells for gender equality at 75 stock exchanges around the world on the day. 

The metamorphosis of International Women’s Day reflects a broader trend: that of feminism away from being any sort of challenge to the system and towards a means primarily of career advancement for wealthy women and hypocritical politicians.

Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was the epitome of this. Arrogantly assuming that all women would take as much satisfaction from her history-making presidential bid as she clearly did, Clinton and her backers were confounded by her spectacular loss – and weak performance among women. As Yasmin Nair, writing in Current Affairs, put it: “[W]ealthy feminists ... because they do not understand how women’s interests can actually conflict based on economic class, cannot understand opposition to Clinton as anything other than sexism. Thus when fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump against the first female major-party presidential candidate, it created a puzzle”.

Only sexist reaction could explain Clinton’s loss for liberal feminists, not her long association with the deeply unequal status quo. What they couldn’t see for the smug was that Clinton’s main achievement was to associate women’s rights with the cynical, self-serving spin that keeps this system of inequality, nepotism and privilege in place.

Ironically, this is also exactly what made the campaign successful. As Nair puts it, “The reason rich Democrats overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton in the primary is that Hillary Clinton offers their ideal political platform: symbolic gains for the gender, without the actual material gains that might require sacrificing some wealth”.

Closer to home, former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard’s famed misogyny speech is a similar example. The spine-tingling effect Gillard’s oratory had on the liberal media and Labor functionaries, thrilled by a rare moment of animation on the part of their leader, was not universally shared. For the 100,000 mostly female single parents facing the loss of up to $100 per week as a result of the Gillard government’s cut to the single parents payment – pushed through the Senate on the very same day as the misogyny speech – the effect was somewhat muted. Asking these women to celebrate the very person responsible for increasing the difficulties and pressures in their lives as an anti-sexist champion seemed calculated to drive cynicism towards women’s rights.

Just as exploitation is “teamwork” and contemptible sociopaths are our “leaders” in modern capitalism, we are meant to accept that our female oppressors are now “empowering” us. This form of feminism “appears to empower, while in fact reaffirming power as it already exists”, as Nair puts it. It involves symbolism and gesture much more than real material measures that could improve women’s economic position: grandstanding speeches divorced from action, individual advancement dressed up as collective gains, awareness raising that doesn’t address the cause of social problems.

Social grievances that should help fuel opposition to the system on the part of the oppressed and exploited thus come to be seen primarily as the domain of those who do the oppressing and exploiting.

It is not only Marxists who recognise this – the rise of “intersectional” feminism also reflects it. Adding “intersectional” to feminism is most often intended to signal a more progressive manifestation, counterposed to the dominant liberal variety and better attuned to other forms of oppression.

But the critique underpinning this, that liberal feminism’s main failing is its insensitivity to other forms of social injustice, misses the point. Acknowledging racism, homophobia and other oppressions might make liberal feminism less objectionable, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem: its commitment to the system and unwillingness to challenge the underlying structures that maintain sexual and all other forms of oppression.

Getting more women appointed to boards or elected to high office, whether they’re black, queer, refugee, trans or women who grew up in public housing, will not change the fact that the vast majority of women have to accept low pay, poor working conditions, inadequate housing and underfunded social services every day of their lives. The success of powerful women largely hinges on their contribution to maintaining this situation as it is.   

Nor is it enough to “centre” a wider array of women’s “voices” in the all-important “conversation”. What is needed is radical social transformation that elevates those at the bottom to the top of society and gives the mass of people real power. This can’t and won’t be done by women in high places; it must be done by the mass of working class women and men without a stake in this system.

This requires a profound politicisation and a dramatic increase in the level of organisation on our side of the class divide.

It is no coincidence that times when the working class has been most combative and political have also been times when gains have been won for women. The formal achievement of equal pay, for example, occurred in the late 1960s, when strike levels were high and one in every two workers was a union member.

There are immense barriers to women’s equality today. They are the sort of barriers that champagne breakfasts with motivational speakers will never overcome. That will require a new wave of radical action with a vision for a society of real equality between all people.

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