Eleanor Robertson critiques liberal forms of feminism, and offers some suggestions for what a class-struggle approach could look like. This article first appeared in Meanjin Quarterly.
Late last year I went to a conference session on sexism in the workplace. About 25 of us, mostly young professional women, sat around in a circle and swapped demoralising anecdotes about how the pay gap, motherhood, sexual harassment and oppressive gender expectations had impacted our careers. In terms of narrating these experiences, we were all on pretty much the same page. There was furious agreement that women are subjected to sexism in the public sphere, and that this is harmful to individuals and to society as a whole. Fantastic, I thought. We’re switched on, we know what’s what, and we’re here together to talk about what we can do to fix things.
But as the focus shifted from describing the problem to proposing solutions, it was like watching a train derail in slow motion. What about mentoring, somebody said. What if we teach women to negotiate for higher pay? What if companies are encouraged to set targets for women in executive roles? What if we build a culture of open negotiation in our own workplaces, where women are empowered to ask for more flexible hours?
I shifted in my seat, waiting for someone to bring up public day care, or government-funded parental leave, or the proliferation of underpaid pink-collar jobs, or the economic devaluation of women’s reproductive labour, or any of the issues that have historically been sites of feminist struggle. Nobody did, so I raised my hand to mention my sister, who is a part-time childcare worker. How would training women to ask for higher pay help her, as someone who earns a set award wage and has very little power to negotiate anything? How would professional mentoring empower her? How would her life be improved by quotas for women on boards?
A mildly uncomfortable pause followed. I ploughed on, motivated half by an immediate anxiety about filling the conversational gap and half by raw indignation. Shouldn’t our demands be for universal changes to the structure of society that will help all women, I asked. There was a subdued murmur of assent, and a couple of women voiced agreement. But the matter was soon forgotten, and I spent the rest of the session in a state of tense disappointment.
• • •
A few weeks before I went to the conference, a student petition emerged from Cardiff University calling for the cancellation of a lecture on twentieth-century feminism to be given by Germaine Greer. The petition’s author, Rachael Melhuish, objected to Greer’s beliefs concerning transgender people: ‘Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether,’ it reads.
Greer responded to the petition on BBC Newsnight: ‘Apparently people have decided that because I don’t think that post-operative transgender men are women, I’m not to be allowed to talk,’ she said. ‘I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that procedure, what I’m saying is it doesn’t make them a woman.’
In the ensuing debates, much of the conflict concerned whether calling for Greer’s exclusion from the university constituted a threat to freedom of speech and, more broadly, whether the current culture of campus feminism is oversensitive or censorious. Commentators who disagreed with her views on the ontology and political valence of trans people’s genders mostly didn’t enter into explicit arguments about why, instead pointing out the obvious reality that trans people are subjected to severe discrimination and violence, and that Greer implicitly endorses the beliefs by which transphobic violence is normalised and excused. That is, they took issue with her opinions in a functional capacity, rather than directly engaging with them.
This was a pity, because teasing out the threads of ideological disagreement between Greer and the petition-signers is thoroughly illuminating if you can stand the sound of people shouting at each other from across a 45-year gap. Greer’s belief that surgery can’t ‘turn a man into a woman’ and the biological essentialism to which this commits her, is not just a hallmark of Second Wave feminism, but the very basis on which it sought to build a common movement. It’s not some wacky metaphysical conceit she and many other feminists of her era happen to believe for no reason; it is, or historically was, invested with a tremendous amount of productive and positive meaning that made feminism possible as a project. Whatever criticisms of seventies feminism are warranted (I won’t go through them because I don’t have all day), it did achieve substantial progress for many women, partially enabled by this belief.
The burden of reproductive labour that has characterised women’s oppression—sexual availability, pregnancy, birth, childrearing, housework, the constant threat of rape and assault—arises, on this account, directly from biological causes. It’s not hard to see why the existence of trans people poses a challenge for Greer; if she accepts trans women as women, her account of the material basis for female solidarity—biological sex—is extinguished. Her rejection of the legitimacy of trans identities is therefore a sort of cipher for fears about the stability and cohesion of the ‘women’s movement’ as a whole.
Of course Greer is seriously misguided with respect to her specifics. Biology means nothing in a vacuum; only the forces of culture and society intervening on biology can be said to produce any meaning at all, including oppression. ‘Female bodies’, which she defines as bodies capable of pregnancy and birth, only become the instrument by which women are subjugated when patriarchal social forces, the class interests of men, act to produce this state of affairs. This might seem an insignificant point, but it really is crucial. When Greer refers to women’s biology, she is referring to a constructed set of meanings that are produced by oppressive social forces. By reifying these meanings, she implicitly accepts a model of women’s bodies that is created by and serves the interests of patriarchy.
Similar oppressive forces shape the meaning of trans women’s bodies, and produce trans misogyny. That’s why it makes complete sense for non-trans, or cis, women to take trans women at their word regarding their identities: what we all have in common is that our lives are shaped by the operation of sexism. Cis women’s occupation of an inferior spot within the gendered hierarchy is also the only thing that we all have in common. It’s class all the way down.
When Greer says trans women aren’t women, she is policing a line of demarcation she perceives as the enabling force of collective struggle. Unfortunately, what her words effect is an attack on nascent forms of solidarity she doesn’t understand.
• • •
Despite her incorrect and destructive analysis of the role of biology, Greer’s concerns about the dissolution of the women’s movement are worthy of serious consideration. In recent years we’ve witnessed an incredible renaissance within feminism, especially in online spaces. Liberal feminism has cemented itself as the dominant intellectual mode in this new wave, so much so that its fundamental analysis of social relations, or lack thereof, is now almost synonymous with feminism itself.
It’s always hard to pin down particular ideological tendencies as they play out in front of us, but liberal feminism is broadly characterised by its naturalisation of Enlightenment values: individual choice, meritocracy, autonomy, progress, the emancipatory power of technology and an acceptance of the basic structures of capitalist social organisation.
This manifests as a self-help philosophy that is typified by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In, which attributes women’s difficulty achieving career advancement to their docile, people-pleasing socialisation. Sandberg’s utopia is one in which women inspire themselves out of the effects of sexism by becoming more assertive in the corporate sphere. On this account women’s belief in their own competence takes on a quasi-magical power, and their individual striving in the current order is the key to ending oppression.
This mythology is only available to women who share most of Sandberg’s own social positions: middle- or upper-class, white, educated, heterosexual, able, employed. It doesn’t really attempt to engage in analysis of material or structural factors that circumscribe women’s freedom. Few modern liberal feminists are pro-Sandberg, but her views are the logical distillation of liberalism applied to women. The concepts it excludes from its analysis—solidarity, collective action, bottom-up democracy—are the ones most essential to the project of emancipating women as a class.
• • •
Liberal feminism’s theoretical poverty and ignorance of structural factors explain the gap between its omnipresence in public discourse and seeming lack of ability to achieve material gains for women. Even at the height of this new feminism’s cultural ascendancy its victories have been few and far between, and this is now increasingly being recognised from within. In December 2015 prominent American women’s website Jezebel published an essay by one of its editors, Jia Tolentino, titled ‘No Offense’. She writes:
The offense model has failed, and dramatically. Women have a prominent voice in online media; feminism is a broad and verbally defended platform, and what has it all amounted to except a nightmarish discursive juxtaposition between what feminism says and what it is able to do? Pop stars preach female solidarity while reproductive rights roll back all over the country; we have politicized and vindicated every possible manifestation of female narcissism without getting any legislative movement towards mandatory paid parental leave. Feminism is proliferating essentially as merchandise; we can buy anything that suits us and nothing that we really need.
The avowal of something does not instantiate it.Is that as obvious as I think? Fervent support for a political position does not automatically translate into any meaningful gains. The failure of the feminist offense factory to result in much else other than better TV and extremely woke 12-year-olds should be sufficient proof of that.
Tolentino’s description of the way feminist messages are deployed by online media as one giant, many-tentacled, always-changing monster spectacle should be enough for us to realise that maybe Greer has a point about uniting around an axis of struggle, even if the axis she prefers is morally and organisationally bankrupt. Tolentino and I are both in our mid twenties, and the sense of fatigue that permeates her essay is familiar to me; the edifice of popular feminism is a carnival of hot takes and gifs and Twitter wars and celebrities and language policing, so much language policing. It’s entertaining and enraging but leaves very little trace of itself the next day, like a dropped ice-cream washed away by the rain.
Endless blooming and wilting of new identities based on this circus of images constitutes the psychological-affective dimension of liberal feminism’s lack of organising power. The horizontal seepage of capitalist imperatives through feminism since the early 1990s explains why identity-based politics now responds and reshapes itself constantly as a series of trends and conflicts, all mediated by chains of response emanating from mass cultural images: as Tolentino intimates, it is a consumer marketplace in search of new target demographics, not a social justice movement.
The conversations sparked by these images frequently concern issues of diversity in media, business and entertainment. Profit-seeking products and enterprises such as movies, television and corporate boards are invested with crucial significance that they clearly do not possess; being able to recognise an image of oneself in these domains is reconstrued as liberation itself. Disadvantage functions as a cleansing ritual bath, with the power to wash away the sliminess of equating pleasure-seeking consumer practice with political action.
A simple follow-the-money approach is enough to call this lazy embrace of commodity fetishism into serious question: who benefits when a television show is perfectly diverse and responds to the psychological needs of its audience, Tolentino’s ‘extremely woke 12-year-olds’? Ultimately it’s the industry itself, which has now gained the institutional knowledge necessary to extract more profit by appealing to the sensibilities of consumers. This is not just an absence of material politics, but its negation: twenty-first-century feminism’s primary medium, the diversity critique, has as its functional terminus the ‘freedom’ of consumers to purchase a picture of a utopia from a company whose interests lie in preventing any of those utopias from occurring.
• • •
Lean In feminism operates using the same logical engine, except Lean In stinks more because of the already privileged positions of the women it appeals to. Going to see a politically correct movie from which you will gain personal psychological enjoyment and negotiating a pay rise are acts with the same level of consequence: you, as an individual, doing something to improve your own life. But seeing a movie is something a lot more people have access to; this gap explains why Lean In is widely mocked by feminists but the pursuit of entertainment diversity is beloved, despite their obvious similarities.
These common operating principles are, again, the opposite of a material, collective struggle: if women are a class defined by a particular oppression, action performed to elevate the status of that class will, in theory, benefit everyone in it. On the other hand, single women, or a small group of women, attempting to raise their individual status or secure more personal enjoyment within the current order clearly will not (and does not even try to) help all women; therefore it must be considered anti-political.
Even more perniciously, the characterisation of anti-political self-advancement as political practice serves to funnel time and resources away from sites of real struggle by convincing people that their personal journeys and consumption habits have outsize collective significance. The effect of this narrative is to reduce the scope of the possible by assigning radical importance to stuff that either doesn’t matter much from a collective perspective or is ultimately negative. It makes thinking about real alternatives harder, and moves those better worlds further outside the realm of the possible. It closes people’s imaginations and encourages them to think ever smaller and smaller, endlessly to refine their own tastes and knowledge, to compete more efficiently rather than to cooperate.
At the pay gap panel session I mentioned earlier, the women present seemed unperturbed by the idea that swapping corporate career tips was feminism. When I brought up collective possibilities, it was an act of rudeness: I was literally changing the subject, moving the conversation away from its agreed-on parameters for apparently unclear reasons. Yet almost all of them had earlier offered a story of workplace sexism from their own experience, and some even spoke of being subjected to near-daily harassment.
Clearly their occupation of positions in the upper socioeconomic echelons of society, the result of their own and their parents’ and grandparents’ pursuit of individual advancement through material accumulation, had not protected them against manifestations of structural sexism. Yet this was still the accepted approach, as it is in modern feminism.
What to do, then? How to fill the gap created by the irrelevance of second-wave organising principles, the neoliberal destruction of institutions such as unions, mass political parties, churches, community groups, movements that might once have been sources of collective practice?
This void is the vacuum into which the synthetic progressivism of the past decade has rushed; people don’t prefer alienated posturing to a transformative political program, it’s that there isn’t a program at all.
Luckily for my own limited political imagination, we seem to be waking up on our own. It was almost hard to believe Tolentino’s ‘No Offense’ essay could have been written for Jezebel, so decisively did it criticise the mostly unspoken assumptions of its own publication platform. This must be the first move: rejecting the current state of affairs, recognising that consuming the correct cultural products and getting mad about particular offensive things do not constitute a strategy. The constant anxieties, internecine conflicts and egocentric vanity-virtue produced by contemporary feminist politics are not natural or inevitable or radical; we can get rid of this.
We can’t eliminate all conflict, and the rejection of naive liberalism will not resolve itself automatically into a political movement that prevents illegitimate forms of domination. But we do have some things going for us: contrary to what a lot of older commentators believe, young women care just as much about change as every other generation. Given that we have skin in the game, especially in terms of our diminishing access to the ‘goods of life’ (housing, stable employment, a non-fucked climate, avenues for exercising civic power and so on), we’re in a prime position to organise.
In the United States, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has tapped into this vein of enthusiasm to produce a burgeoning movement based heavily on volunteer organising among youth populations. It remains to be seen how successful this effort will be, but it does prove that such action is indeed possible. The Black Lives Matter movement continues to operate, protesting the extrajudicial killing and mass incarceration of America’s black population. #BlackLivesMatter has already been courted extensively by Sanders and his rival, Hillary Clinton; it has put racial justice squarely back on the public agenda and drawn a mass of attention to the ongoing harm caused by US racism.
Closer to home, an increasing awareness of Australia’s harrowing domestic violence epidemic has led to the formation of new coalitions based on the rejection of male domination in the private sphere. This popular outcry remains somewhat unfocused and contains some of the flaws I’ve examined in this essay, but it’s promising nevertheless. What these initiatives have in common is a new focus on building something better, envisaging what the world might look like if being poor, being black, and being a woman didn’t mean being ground into the dirt by arbitrary power. In this scenario, instead of leaning in, we would dig up.