Female machinist, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, California, 1942. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer
A couple of important book reviews for you to read on feminist texts, both of which go after the “marketplace feminism” that currently passes for mainstream feminism in many circles. First, Sarah Jaffe on Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement.
In writing this book, Zeisler aims to turn our attention back to systems, not individuals. The current moment in pop culture is obsessed with the latter: with the questions of which celebrity called herself a feminist this week, whether makeup can be feminist, if Game of Thrones is too “problematic” to be watched by right-thinking feminists. All of this has shrunk feminism down to the size of a pair of trendy panties; it has made it into yet another box to check off, another set of restrictions on what women can do.
It’s a particular kind of feminism that dovetails perfectly with the rise of neoliberalism—the period of capitalism that features deregulation, privatization, and hyper-individualism. Under neoliberalism, we are all entrepreneurs with “personal brands”; we are all free to choose whatever we want, as long as we can afford to. Neoliberalism has brought us the global supply chain, where fast fashion is sewn by women in sweatshops in Cambodia and Bangladesh, out of sight and mind from the women who will ultimately wear the clothing. Despite the cheery rhetoric of freedom and choices, its icon remains “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, with her forbidding warning that “there is no alternative.”
The problem with “choice” as the key metric for feminism is that not everyone is actually free to make those choices, as Thatcher’s maxim ought to remind us. The point for feminism as a movement, then, is not to get into endless battles about whose choice is the feminist-est of them all, but to critique the ground we’re walking on, to change the rules of the game, not to hate the player.
Zeisler cites Marjorie Ferguson’s 1990 argument about the “feminist fallacy”—the idea that images of powerful women in the media translate into power for women out in the world. In this moment we too often fall under the spell of this and of another kind of “feminist fallacy”: that the success of powerful women will trickle down to the rest of us. In fact, as Zeisler notes, famous and powerful women often mistake what is best for them for what is good for all women; when we put too much weight on the feelings of celebrities, we end up cringing when their uninformed opinions, divorced from solidarity with anyone who might be affected, end up making headlines and even policy, as when Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham put their own feelings ahead of actual research and organizing on the subject of the decriminalization of sex work.
Take, for example, the treatment of race in the book. Slaughter includes a set of data points about race (and class) in her discussion of wage earnings. She rightly points out that black, brown, and poor women do most of the nation’s low-paid service-sector work. She also points out that many of her proposals for narrowing the high-status gender gap might not be feasible for these women. That’s a to-be-sure. But then Slaughter returns to her theory of change, arguing that women are less likely to speak up at work and in class. This gendered deference to masculine authority plagued Slaughter early in her career until her husband taught her to “act like a man”—that is, how to speak up with authority. But there is ample data that black women don’t have the same problem of speaking up. “Acting like a man” is an unfortunate allusion. What they have is a problem of disproportionate, and racist, approbation for speaking up and the racist-sexist double standard that they should speak up on behalf of the nonblack women who are just too painfully afflicted to do so.
If the data on race and class had informed her theory of change, Slaughter might have critiqued the racist, gendered, and classed dimensions of speech and behavior. Data show these social patterns of what is considered acceptable behavior privilege well-to-do white women in mate selection but penalize them at work while also penalizing all other women across the board. Despite minimal engagement with data on race, class, and gender, Slaughter’s revised have-it-all thesis never goes so far as to interrogate the power relations of her positionality. Nor does she allow anything like empirical reality to alter her theory of tipping status competition in favor of highly educated, mostly white women.
There is no more persistent debate in feminist theory and praxis than ones about inclusion. “Big-tent feminism” has been critiqued and, to be fair, has responded, however marginally, to some of the critiques of its elitism, racism, capitalist impulses, and normative social reproduction. All versions of the have-it-all thesis are susceptible to the same critiques because the thesis is just a manifestation of capital’s creative translation of our precarious, post-work political economy. At its heart, for some women to have it all, most women cannot ever have enough. In practice this looks like extracting loyalty from poor women in the service sector while using service-sector labor to negotiate economic elite parity with men in the contracting, competitive good-jobs sector of a global knowledge economy.
The veneer of feminist talk is just that—a veneer and just talk. Even in her revision, Slaughter does not present a feminist theory of change. She presents policy prescriptions for coping with precarity and stratification, not challenges to precarity and stratification. The good news is that there are theories of feminist change for this moment. Take the intersectional politics of Black Lives Matter or the interethnic coalition of the Fight for $15 labor movement for a higher minimum wage. Those debates are happening, and we are all better for holding them to the extent that some of us are actually holding them.