I wanted to like Sylvia Walby’s book. I bought it on the strength of Zoe Williams’ favourable review in the Guardian. But the hackles went up on page one. There, Walby cites an important article by Nancy Fraser, written soon after the 2008 financial crisis, and Hester Eisenstein’s book Feminism Seduced, also published in 2009, as examples of the claim that feminism has been co-opted by neoliberalism. By coincidence (because I’m not really as well-read as my familiarity with those texts suggests) I recently read Fraser’s article, and heard Eisenstein speak in London when she was launching her book at Marxism 2010. Both of these writers might be classified as ‘socialist-feminists’, although I’m not sure if they’d accept that precise label. And Walby gets them both wrong. This wasn’t a good start for Walby and me, but I liked the general message in that first chapter (in short, “feminism is not dead”) and I enjoyed Walby’s clear, spare style. So I persevered and I kept my mind open.
What I hoped for was an appraisal of where we have got to, how we got here, and where we might be going. The book’s title is, after all, The Future of Feminism. What I hoped for was something like this:
I would like here to take a broad look at second-wave feminism. Not at this or that activist current, nor this or that strand of feminist theorizing; not this or that geographical slice of the movement, nor this or that sociological stratum of women. I want, rather, to try to see second-wave feminism whole, as an epochal social phenomenon. Looking back at nearly forty years of feminist activism, I want to venture an assessment of the movement’s overall trajectory and historical significance. In looking back, however, I hope also to help us look forward. By reconstructing the path we have travelled, I hope to shed light on the challenges we face today—in a time of massive economic crisis, social uncertainty and political realignment.*
I didn’t get that. What I got was an odd book: odd in that it does a number of different things and seems to lack a clear sense of its audience. Some of it is 101 stuff. A good chunk of it is dry, lengthy description of feminist projects at grassroots, state, EU and UN levels. Some of it sounds journalistic, some scholarly. And, yes, some of it concerns the future of feminism, but, for a short book (150 or so pages), it lacks focus. Far too much time is spent on description; too little on those basic questions I hoped to see addressed.
Walby’s argument is that feminism is not dead. On the contrary, feminism has been so successful that it has moved into the mainstream (what Walby terms ‘gender mainstreaming’), making the transition from the vocal grassroots social movement of the second wave to less visible ‘governmental programmes’ of today. Feminism, then, is taking new forms – not necessarily labelled as ‘feminist’ – and the idea that feminism has been in decline is rooted in the mistaken belief that it can only take the form of highly visible grassroots activism. Walby goes on to describe at some length feminist projects at all levels, acknowledging the relatively recent resurgence of grassroots activism, pointing to The F Word, UK Feminista, Object and other UK-based projects. She then talks about ‘mainstreamed’ feminist programmes at state (her focus being on the UK with some reference to the US), EU and UN levels. This section of the book gives a useful overview of what’s going on and how these governmental frameworks are structured, but it doesn’t make for scintillating reading.
Better were the sections where Walby outlines the challenges facing feminism in this unstable contemporary context of neoliberal crisis. She looks at the various ways in which feminism has been contested, from backlash to the ‘men’s rights’ contestation of maternalist successes to ‘postfeminism’ to neoliberalism. She looks at how feminist projects intersect with other movements for social justice, taking a pragmatic approach to ‘intersectionality’ and exploring the possibilities for a synthesis of feminist, social democratic and human rights projects. Such a synthesis provides the most conducive context for feminism in the future. It is hardly original to speculate on whether social democracy will make a comeback following the crisis of neoliberalism, but, in the closing pages of the book, Walby’s claim that the EU could replace the US as global hegemon, heralding a new era of social democracy … well, this seems far-fetched, to put it mildly.
Going by this book you would think that feminism doesn’t exist outside Europe and North America. Admittedly Walby is upfront about her focus on the UK and that’s fair enough, but she fails to mention grassroots activism outside the European/North American context at all and this, it seems to me, is an unforgivable omission, more keenly felt in the wake of the first wave of Arab revolutions. More generally, it’s difficult to talk about feminist grassroots activism in one place without reference to what feminists are doing elsewhere. We’re not working within hermetically sealed national boundaries, after all. Issues that affect women in Africa or India or the Middle East are issues for activists in the UK too: feminists everywhere support the liberation struggles of other feminists. Like Marxism, feminism is an inherently transnational project. Unfortunately Walby does, I think, take a rather unthinkingly singular view of feminism in her neglect of the highly significant grassroots activism going on outside the European/US context. It seems to me that the timing of Walby’s book is unfortunate. It was written after the 2008 economic crisis, but before the Arab Spring. So, although the book is brand new, it already feels out-of-date: it could – like Fraser’s article – have been written in the early months of 2009.
Don’t get me wrong: I agree with many of Walby’s points. She is rightly critical of ‘raunch culture’. She is rightly critical of neoliberalism. She is rightly critical of the backlash and of men’s rights activism. But – for all the reasons outlined above – Walby’s account is problematic, muddled, and – in its conclusion – misguided. Fraser’s analysis, on the other hand, is rigorous and specific in its suggestions for the future.
If you haven’t read Fraser’s article, you really should. It is a brilliant piece of work, placing the second wave in its historical context and examining feminism’s relations to capitalism. The ‘cunning of history’ in the title refers to what Fraser describes as a “disturbing convergence” through which “utopian desires found a second life as feeling currents that legitimated the transition to a new form of capitalism: post-Fordist, transnational, neoliberal” (p.99). She goes on to analyse the ways in which second wave feminist critiques of four dimensions of state-organized capitalism – economism, androcentrism, étatism and Westphalianism – have been resignified under neoliberalism. Feminism, Fraser argues, seemed to prosper in the ‘new spirit of capitalism’:
What had begun as a radical countercultural movement was now en route to becoming a broad-based mass social phenomenon. Attracting adherents of every class, ethnicity, nationality and political ideology, feminist ideas found their way into every nook and cranny of social life and transformed the self-understandings of all whom they touched. The effect was not only to vastly expand the ranks of activists but also to reshape commonsense views of family, work and dignity. (pp.107-8)
She goes on to ask whether this prospering was coincidental, or the result of “some perverse, subterranean elective affinity” between second wave feminist and neoliberal ideas that allowed the former to be resignified by the latter. Ideas that were, in the context of state-organized capitalism, “unambiguously emancipatory” became “fraught with ambiguity, susceptible to serving the legitimation needs of a new form of capitalism”.Where neoliberalism and second wave feminism have converged, Fraser argues, is in their respective critiques of traditional authority. Feminists have long fought for emancipation from traditional (read: patriarchal) authority, whereas neoliberals fight against a traditional authority that tempers capitalism. The projects diverge in their antithetical proposed solutions to the problems of traditional authority. Neoliberalism’s adherence to the free market is entirely opposed to feminist struggles for emancipation from “market-mediated processes of subordination”. Both Walby and Fraser agree, then, that neoliberalism is a hostile context for feminism. But whereas Walby argues in what seems to me a naive way for a renewal of social democracy (how? how can such a renewal be framed?), Fraser asks us to confront both traditional and neoliberal modes of domination:
Today, accordingly, [market-mediated processes of subordination] should become a major focus of feminist critique, as we seek to distinguish ourselves from, and to avoid resignification by, neoliberalism. The point, of course, is not to drop the struggle against traditional male authority, which remains a necessary moment of feminist critique. It is, rather, to disrupt the easy passage from such critique to its neoliberal double – above all by reconnecting struggles against personalized subjection to the critique of a capitalist system which, while promising liberation, actually replaces one mode of domination with another. (p.115)
Fraser concludes her article with specific indications for the future of feminism, including the following points:
- use this moment of capitalist crisis to reconnect feminism with the critique of capitalism, “thereby [repositioning] feminism squarely on the Left”;
- “break the spurious link between our critique of the family wage and flexible capitalism”;
- echoing the work of Carol Gilligan and Joan Tronto on the ethic of care, “militate for a form of life that decentres waged work and valorizes uncommodified activities, including carework”;
- “militate now for a new organization of political power, one that subordinates bureaucratic managerialism to citizen empowerment”.
Fraser concludes with a stirring call: “this is a moment in which feminists should think big”.
Yet, somehow, Walby – Professor of Sociology and UNESCO Chair of Gender Studies, no less – misinterprets Fraser’s article, accusing Fraser of “blaming feminism”. She says:
Fraser appears to be more interested in what non-feminists make out feminism to be than in what feminists actually do. She presents no evidence about any of the activities of contemporary feminists, let alone any evidence of any feminist group welcoming neoliberalism. (p.22, my emphasis)
and then with reference to Hester Eisenstein, who advances a similar argument to that of Fraser:
as with Fraser, the core of her argument is that neoliberals have chosen to represent feminism as consistent with neoliberalism. No evidence is provided to show that any feminist group supports such a view. (ibid)
Here, Walby is being deliberately obtuse, surely. It is odd, because there are many points of agreement between the two writers. Both are critical of neoliberalism for the same reasons, both are self-identified feminists who want to see a deepening of democracy and the narrowing of economic inequalities that have widened so much over this thirty (or more) year period during which neoliberalism has gone from project to fully institutionalized social formation. Their main point of divergence, it seems, is in the positioning (or not) of feminism on the Left. Fraser – by virtue of the fact she wrote this so soon after the 2008 crisis – is more circumspect about the possibility of a renewed social(ist) democratic project, whereas Walby speaks of the social democratic project as if it is fully-fledged, exhorting it to “embrace more fully its feminist partners” (p.162) in order to enhance its chances of success. I find Walby’s approach utterly unconvincing. We feminists can’t afford this kind of delusion if our movement is to have the kind of future we would want. Rather, we need to have the courage Fraser demonstrates in uttering the ‘heresy’ of the elective affinity between feminism and neoliberalism, and thereby understand that we must fight on two fronts of subordination.
* this quote is from Nancy Fraser’s article, p.97
NB: Sylvia Walby will be discussing her book with Anne Phillips at the LSE in November 2011: details here.