The feminist movement under the neo-liberal system
With recent market deregulation and globalization of the capitalist system, the feminist movement appears to be split (at least) in two: on one hand, the focus on individual experiences and the meritocratic advance of elite women and, on the other hand, a transnational wave of solidarity. While the first is highly embedded in neo-liberal discourse, the second strives for alternatives which benefit all women, regardless of their social status.
First of all, capitalism is, a priori, an anti-feminist system. Considering that capitalism is a system resting on inequalities, with an exploited class and exploiting class, it should also be noted that , historically it has been a system which preys on the most vulnerable sectors of the population it exploits.
Secondly, women’s unpaid work has been (and continues to be) a fundamental basis for maintaining the status quo. Women are still delegated to household chores, what Marxist theory refers to as “reproductive work” in Marxist theory, the unpaid work of maintaining personal needs in the private sphere. But most women don’t just wash their clothes or cook their dinner, they do it for everyone in the household. And if on the one hand this type of work is not taken into account in the capitalist system, since the producer does not receive remuneration, on the other hand there has been a transfer from the private sphere to the public sphere, with women occupying positions related to the gender stereotype, generally underpaid and undervalued. And have you heard of emotional labour?
This is overlooked by mainstream feminism (i.e., white feminism), which, while advocating female emancipation through the rise of women to top jobs and positions (often as tokens), forgets that in the private sphere the division of labor remains unequal, and thus places a double burden on working women’s shoulders .
The discourse perpetuated by the elites is that ‘’we can have it all’. The reality is that an exclusive focus on gender without taking into account cultural, social and economic circumstances exacerbates the existing cleavages between women of different classes. The conciliation of the private and public sphere can only be done by those with the means to do so. How can a housemaid be integrated in a movement of emancipation that defends the female CEO who exploits her?
However, this narrow minded tokenization of the gender narrative focuses on success stories A good example is Facebook’s millionaire executive Sheryl Sandberg: a woman who has overcome all obstacles has risen to the top in a man-dominated hierarchy. The problem of this type of discourse fails to recognize the structural barriers embedded in the system, replacing them with barriers and personal successes based on self-improvement, characteristic of the North American capitalist model. Collective women’s emancipation is thus replaced by the emancipation of the woman as an individual. Why? Because the narrative of the poor woman does not sell the desired product – the maintenance of the status quo.
Everyone want to see success stories and hope that luck will come their way. People want to buy cool feminist t-shirts (made by underpaid women in Bangladesh), they want to #FreeTheNipple (and rip away the headscarves of women who chose to wear them), they want to organize conferences about female empowerment in the business world (charging 500 euros to participants), they want to talk about gender roles (dismissing trans women and gender non-conforming folks), they want to go to Africa and help poor kids (and snap some pictures for the ‘gram); and the list goes on and on. Under the neo-liberal system, still benefiting from its imperialism past (and present), not only is the emancipation of women seen as a mere vehicle for capital accumulation, but has established power dynamics between women from different social groups and cultures which encourage Western women to hold on to their privilege at the expense of others.
At this point, it is also important to highlight that the acclaimed integration of women in the labor market was made possible not in the name of social justice and gender equality, but for mostly in the name of capital. This type of ideology is often reproduced by the West’s discourse on developing countries, hidden under the “potential” of girls and women, a popular catch-phrase in the development sector. Effectively, it all boils down to women’s potential as players in international economy, disregarding structural inequalities, in many cases created by the West’s continued colonialist and imperialist practices and policies.
The instrumentalisation of feminism in economic and political agendas often exacerbates situations of inequality, putting additional pressure on these women, giving them the honour of ‘saving the world’ that broke them in the first place, a responsibility they did not ask for. Women are placed in the same cookie-cutter, which focuses on their condition (in this case merely victims waited to be rescued by the brave white saviour) instead of their intersectional position in the structure of the patriarchal and neo-liberal system.
There is therefore a perpetuation of the status quo in both developing and developed countries by the economic and political elites and the ones that follow them. And in the past years, with economic and political crisis and the rise of far-right movements, we are witnessing the crystallization and in some cases a regression of feminist advances, for which, as usual, non-white women are paying the highest price.
Today’s brave new world is not based on equality. It is based on low wages, public service deterioration, precariousness, poverty, inequality, and discrimination. White feminism, bourgeois feminism, trickle down feminism…whatever you want to call it, has continuously proved that it does not have neither the capacity, nor the interest, to help those who need it the most.
New feminisms will have to return to the idea of community, this time with a transnational and intersectional perspective which does not leave half of its passengers off the boat, something that the vanguards of black feminism or trans-inclusive feminism have been doing for years, despite of the elites’ dismissal . Quoting Laurie Penny: “While we all worry about the glass ceiling, there are millions of women standing in the basement — and the basement is flooding.”