Pop feminism in the United States.
Taking a look at the US, there is an undeniable link between gender and class, with women throughout the US not getting the right to vote until 1920. While women can now participate in electoral politics, their economic position has hardly budged since the suffrage movement. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, wealth inequality in the US was as bad as it was in the roaring 20s, and it’s only worsened since the outbreak; further, women are still far more likely to live in poverty than men. The gendered nature of poverty can largely be attributed to what labor capitalism deems valuable: “Women do at least twice as much unpaid care work, such as childcare and housework, as men – sometimes 10 times as much, often on top of their paid work.” As a result, feminine persons often work more and get paid less than their masculine counterparts. Women’s rights are largely workers rights, meaning feminism cannot really be divorced from class in a coherent way.
Hilary Clinton, girl boss.
These are all genuine problems…so how did feminism seriously become Hilary Clinton’s brand? This person is wealthier and more powerful than anyone I’ve ever met in real life. The Clintons are currently multi-millionaires, with Bill and Hilary both attending Yale Law School. While it’s often stated she came from modest means, her father was a college-educated businessman who owned his own textile company. Which maybe isn’t as relatable as political pundits think it is.
Beyond this, Hilary grew up in a different economic time:
Like all women of her generation, Hillary faced formidable sexism, fighting for rights women now take for granted. But like many women of her generation, she also benefited from being born in an era when upward mobility was arguably more feasible, at least economically. […]
The Clintons rise to power was not buoyed by inherited wealth, but by a system that allowed lower and middle-class baby boomers increasing access to higher education and prestigious jobs. But the contemporary versions of Bill and Hillary Clinton—talented middle-class or lower-class students from the Midwest or South—may find that achieving the same success will be stymied by their family’s class status or their geographical distance from centers of power. The prototype for a future Hillary is someone who grew up more like Chelsea Clinton—wealthy, connected, and able to pursue multiple advanced degrees.— Most women won’t be able to follow in Hillary Clinton’s footsteps—unless they’re already rich, Sarah Kendzior, Quartz
Now I’d forgive a naive, well-meaning baby boomer for being unaware of this economic shift, but Hilary Clinton literally played a role in this push towards a neoliberalized economy. She made life materially worse for many women in America, all while putting her girl boss power into absolutely ruining the lives of many women abroad: “As Secretary of State Clinton was a forceful advocate for escalating US military operations in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. She also presided over the expansion of drone attacks that have killed hundreds, if not thousands of civilians (up to 90% not being the intended targets).”
So how the hell did someone like this become some sort of icon of feminism?
Sometimes movements just need a little rebranding before they’re profitable.
While identity politics and social movements are all susceptible to recuperation, we’re going to focus on the feminist movement in the US.
This is when more radical ideas become sanitized so as to eliminate their more threatening aspects. That is, anything that threatens the powerful must be sanded away. Done well, once radical concepts can become tools for maintaining the current structure of power. It may even become laughable that these ideas ever posed a genuine threat to the ruling class.
We’ll refer to this degenerated form of feminism as liberal feminism; The book Feminism for the 99 Percent explains that the aim of liberal feminism is,
“…not equality, but meritocracy. Rather than seeking to abolish social hierarchy, it aims to ‘diversify’ it, ‘empowering’ ‘talented’ women to rise to the top. […]
“In general, then, liberal feminism supplies the perfect alibi for neoliberalism. Cloaking regressive policies in an aura of emancipation, it enables the forces supporting global capital to portray themselves as ‘progressive.’”
Liberal feminism is one example of how social movements are essentially de-fanged under capitalism, re-configured to be a tool that sustains oppression, often under the guise of being “progressive.” Capitalism is a system that requires homelessness, prison labor, and colonialist resource extraction (such as oil extraction aided by the threat of military force). To justify these extreme inequalities, proponents of the system (1) must maintain that no real alternative exists, and (2) absorb any movements that assert otherwise (e.g. recuperation), giving themselves the aesthetic of social progress (e.g. “good” capitalists), all while maintaining the status quo.
How was feminism ever a threat to the powerful?
Child labor laws? That’s communism!
The suffrage movement drastically altered the US political system. Keep in mind this doubled the number of eligible voters, and this meant a sudden, significant shift in voting demographics. While this was more piecemeal due to some states altering voter eligibility before others, this was nonetheless a rapid shift in voter concerns. This altered the scope of electoral political issues permanently. The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibited the employment of minors, e.g. this was the main law that outlawed the use of exploitative child labor in the US. This law passed in 1938…just 18 years after women won the right to vote. The movement against child labor was actually originally sparked by census results:
“The 1900 census revealed that approximately 2 million children were working in mills, mines, fields, factories, stores, and on city streets across the United States. The census report helped spark a national movement to end child labor in the United States. […] Social reformers began to condemn child labor because of its detrimental effect on the health and welfare of children. Among those helping to incite public opinion against it were Karl Marx and Charles Dickens, who had worked at a factory himself at age 12.”
While generally people in the US oppose the use of child labor today, it’s important to understand that this was a massive change in US economics, one fueled by the political shift following the suffrage movement. Nowadays, many view child labor restrictions as “common sense,” but this was far from the case. Capitalists were harshly opposed to the movement, with many claiming this was a “communist-inspired plot to subvert the Constitution.” I think the why here should be obvious: without child labor, capitalists would stand to make money at a reduced rate (they still fucking made money off other people’s labor, of course).
Tonight while we sleep, several thousand little girls will be working in textile mills, all the night through, in the deafening noise of the spindles and the looms spinning and weaving cotton and wool, silks and ribbons for us to buy.— Child Labor & Women’s Suffrage – July 22, 1905, Florence Kelley, women’s suffrage advocate and Marxist feminist
There was a great deal of overlap between women’s suffrage and the movement against child labor. Without the feminist movement, it’s difficult to imagine how the Fair Labor Standards Act would have ever passed. This was truly deemed an “extreme” position. So yes, the feminist movement posed a massive economic threat to those in power…and they won. Because organizing does work, and maybe the reason you think it doesn’t is because it threatens someone’s profit margins.
The Russian Revolution began with women protesting on International Women’s Day.
The Russian Revolution was a mass uprising of workers that ultimately overthrew the Russian monarchy. It’s typically cited as happening in 1917, but this was really a culmination of labor organizing and political action. On January 22, 1905, workers led by priest Georgy Apollonovich Gaponmarched marched to the Czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg with a petition of demands, including fair wages and the gradual transfer of land to the people. A year earlier, similar demands for reform were made at a conference of regional governments (an assembly originally held to drum up support for an incredibly unpopular campaign for war with Japan), but these demands had continued to go unmet. Thus, workers took to marching their petition to the palace doors. There, imperial forces open fired on the unarmed workers, killing over a thousand people according to police records, in a massacre that would later be referred to as Bloody Sunday.
Strikes and massive protests followed the massacre, eventually forcing the Czar to form a series of representative assemblies (e.g. the king gave concession of representative democracy). This, uh, didn’t work out. I know, shocking, seeing how effective our representative democracy has been so far. Turns out all the parties were loyal to the ruling class and not the workers. So, like, totally unlike the Democrats and Republicans in the US…nothing to see here, guys.
Working conditions worsened, and overlord Czar was pushing for a war no one wanted. Tensions finally broke on International Women’s Day in 1917:
“Historians generally agree that the February Revolution began in Petrograd on International Women’s Day, 23 February (Old Style: 8 March) 1917, when thousands of women from different backgrounds took to the streets demanding bread and increased rations for soldiers’ families.”— Women and the Russian Revolution, Katie McElvanney, British Library
Pamphlets were handed out, and it’s likely this literature ignited the ensuing 1917 revolutions that would eventually end the rule by the Russian monarchy. A translation from one such pamphlet reads:
Proletarians of all countries, unite! […]
Factory owners work both male and female comrades to exhaustion. Both men and women are thrown in jail for going on strike. Both men and women need to struggle against the owners. But women entered the family of workers later than men. Often, they still are afraid and do not know what they should demand and how to demand it. The owners have always used their ignorance and timidity against them and still do.
On this day, especially, comrades, let’s think about how we can conquer our enemy, the capitalist, as quickly as possible. […]
This terrible slaughter [e.g. WWI] has now gone into its third year. Our fathers, husbands, and brothers are perishing. Our dear ones arrive home as unfortunate wretches and cripples. The tsarist government sent them to the front. It maimed and killed them, but it does not care about their sustenance [hence the call for increased rations]. […]
There is no end in sight to the shedding of worker blood. Workers were shot down on Bloody Sunday, January 9, 1905, and massacred during the Lena Goldfields strike in April 1912. More recently, workers were shot in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Shuia, Gorlovka, and Kostroma. Worker blood is shed on all fronts. The empress trades in the peoples’ blood and sells off Russia piece by piece. They send nearly unarmed soldiers to certain death by shooting. They kill hundreds of thousands of people on the front and they profit financially from this. […]
It is hard for working people not only in Russia, but in all countries. Not long ago the German government cruelly suppressed an uprising of the hungry in Berlin. In France, the police are in a fury. They send people to the front for going on strike. Everywhere the war brings disaster, a high cost of living, and oppression of the working class.
Comrades, working women, for whose sake is war waged? Do we need to kill millions of Austrian and German workers and peasants? […] War is waged for the sake of gold, which glitters in the eyes of capitalists, who profit from it. […] Workers and peasants will bear all the sacrifices and pay all the costs. […]
They are ruined themselves. The government is guilty. It began this war and cannot end it. […] The capitalists are guilty. It is waged for their profit. It’s well-nigh time to shout to them: Enough! Down with the criminal government and its entire gang of thieves and murderers. Long live peace! […]
Down with the autocracy!
Long live the Revolution!
NOTE: Check out the following related article for one awesome example of revolutionary, anti-colonialist feminism in Africa during this same time period:
The feminist movement played a key role in overthrowing a massive empire. The Romanov family ruled over Russia for over 300 years, and this abusive, tyrannical regime finally began to collapse thanks to the organizing of some revolutionary women, saying no, you’re not sending our men off to certain death in a rich man’s war just to let them starve if they make it back home. Enough is enough.
Contrast this to Hilary Clinton: “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat,” and it becomes clear why so many hold a negative view of feminism. Liberal feminism co-opts a radical movement based on working class solidarity, and morphs it into something petty and isolating. This isn’t some blunder, this is the strategic recuperation of a movement that has proven to be dangerous to the ruling class elite.
Reproductive rights, or the lack thereof.
What does liberal feminism have to do with immigration policy?
In Angela Nagle’s piece on the liberal dystopia that is Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, she points out the material affect this labor distribution has on a population where neoliberal policies prevail:
“US fertility rates are the lowest since records began in 1909 at about 1.85 births per woman. The US population, in other words, is no longer “naturally replacing” itself. Unlike the tale however, this is not due to ecological disaster. Today women’s long work hours combined with the continued burden of domestic work are causing increased levels of stress and ill health, with short maternity leave, expensive child care, and a low level of social prestige to the unpaid work of motherhood and domestic labor. Despite all of this Pew research shows that while birth rates may have collapsed the desire to have children has not, with the ideal in polls still remaining “two or more,” and 40 percent of American women nearing the end of their childbearing years having fewer children than they would like.”— The Market Theocracy, Jacobin
While the leftwing capitalist party in the US (the Democrats) oppose criminalizing abortion and tout the importance of (liberal) feminism, they seem uninterested in addressing certain forms of gendered violence. In fact, the “progressive” issues they often focus on tend to obscure their own support of continued systems of oppression. Lean in feminism, and “girl boss” aspirations insist that women ought to find fulfillment in the workplace, framing all criticism of this liberal brand of feminism as backwards women belong in the kitchen sentimentality. Keep in mind, a declining population means capitalists would eventually face a labor shortage. Thus, when liberals say, “immigration fuels the economy,” take them at their word. This is the motivation for their pro-immigration stance, not concern for the lives of actual immigrants.
“U.S. immigration law and its enforcement have never eliminated Mexicans from the workforce, but indirectly control the conditions under which they live and work. Mexican academic Jorge Bustamante argues that a primary purpose of U.S. immigration law historically has been—and still is—to regulate the price of Mexican labor in the United States.”ㅡ‘Close to Slavery’ or Legalization? The Farmworkers’ Hard Choice, The American Prospect (2019)
From their perspective, it’s cheaper to push American women into the workforce and instead rely on importing a new generation of workers (or exporting the work itself)…viewing this as some sort of generosity requires a complete misunderstanding of the global economy. Undeveloped countries aren’t merely lagging behind, they’re intentionally kept in a state of underdevelopment, as this is optimal for western exploitation. For a specific example of this, check out our article Capitalism in Nigeria, and a call for unity of the proletariat!
NOTE: Further, see The Guardian’s piece on how poor countries develop rich countries, not the other way around, economist William Easterly’s book The Tyranny of Experts, and anthropologist David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
“But Democrats are the lesser evil of the two parties.”
This pro-immigration stance coupled with “girl boss” feminism is the platform of their “progressiveness.” This isn’t accidental. There will always be a moral argument for why some current mode of oppression is liberating, and this will always be contrasted with some previous mode of oppression…that is the “progress” of liberalism. How exploitation is carried out never really changes beyond an aesthetic shift, and very often the backwardsness of rightwing political figures is in their inability to let go of the old aesthetics. Once this becomes clear, the “lesser evil” of either capitalist political party becomes nothing more than personal preference. Politics collapses into the spectacle of a “culture war.”
NOTE: There is a racist, antisemitic, and misogynistic conspiracy theory, referred to as the Great Replacement that’s motivated mass shooters, including the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand, and the El Paso shooting (with the gunman stating, “this attack is in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”). The bit is that “the Jews” are encouraging immigration and interracial marriage as a way to “genocide” the so-called white race. Oh, and women “fall for it” because they’re dumb whores with no loyalty, or something. If you think anything I’ve just said here about abortion and immigration “proves” this bullshit, seriously fuck off.
For more on this rise in violence fueled by white supremacist ideology, read Kathleen Belew’s book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. So many of these far-right terror attacks originate in white supremacy and misogyny, many of them not involving guns at all (such as the Toronto van attack, or the fatal car attack in Charlottesville), which is why I genuinely don’t think guns are the problem, and yeah, I think the focus on gun reform has more to do with disarming the working class (especially the black working class) than a genuine concern for safety. If you think leftists are anti-gun, check out the Socialist Rifle Association (SRA), and consider the words of Marx and Engels: “under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.”
Considering the previous considerations for why capitalists may promote liberal feminism, it becomes clear that the Democratic stance in favor of reproductive healthcare (such as access to contraceptives and abortions) likely has less to do with an individual woman’s right to her own body, and has more to do with the push towards women entering the workforce. If the next generation of labor can be outsourced to other countries, then they eliminate the cost of care labor (for themselves). Further, the gendered wage gap likely means women entering the workforce translates into increased profits. The increase in job-seekers overall allows for a “job market” where companies hold all the power over people desperate to find work. This pushes us further towards gig economy work (Uber, DoorDash, OnlyFans), a shift that undermines a century of workers protections.
NOTE: It’s also worth mentioning that the “right” to an abortion is often not blocked by the legality of the procdure, but is rather blocked by a lack of healthcare funding or accessible facilities. And by “accessible,” I mean that in the concrete-sense. Democrats often discuss access to healthcare, not in the way that obtaining coverage is easy and affordable, but instead that coverage technically exists, provided you’re willing to put a lien on your house, sell your first-born, and never retire. This is not real access.
Reproductive rights that don’t extend past the pregnancy itself are not really reproductive rights at all. Rather, they constitute a reshuffling of capitalist labor extraction. A reshuffling that would never be considered if it didn’t maintain or increase profits. Keep this in mind next time a liberal attempts to use “feminism” as a bludgeon against the working class. This deceptive notion that feminism means “more female CEOs” is recuperation at its worst. Beyond a mere perversion of revolutionary ideas, this liberal conception of feminism as equal opportunity plutocracy is damaging to the vast majority of working class women. Pretending it is harmless is ignoring the cynical way in which it is employed to shield powerful politicians from criticism.
Manufactured Misogyny: The DNC doesn’t give a shit about women.
Skepticism of a standing US Senator’s political honesty is sexist since feminism = “girl boss” idol-worship, apparently.
During the 2020 Democratic primary in the US, we witnessed the media pushing a narrative that Bernie is a sexist. This really kicked off after the other so-called progressive candidate Elizabeth Warren claimed Bernie made sexist remarks in a private meeting they had, supposedly stating that he did not believe a woman could win. Despite this being a one-on-one meeting and Bernie denying the comments were made at all, CNN published an article as if this were a confirmed event, backed up by (multiple) sources. Keep in mind, if Bernie really did claim a woman couldn’t win, that doesn’t mean he believed a woman shouldn’t win. Rather, such a statement (at least to me) comes off as genuine concern that sexism could play a significant role in the 2020 election. I mean, is electability not one of the primary things mainstream media focused on in this primary election?
Despite this likely interpretation of a conversation that can’t even be confirmed as happening, Bernie Sanders and his “Bernie Bros” were deemed sexists. Actually, anyone expressing skepticism that Warren was being truthful was deemed sexist, with hit pieces flooding in that America has a problem with “believing women,” (which…if that’s the case, then wouldn’t the conclusion be that a woman is not likely to win in 2020, just like Bernie supposedly said?). With influential liberals like Neera Tanden and Julia Loffe describing this event with “believe women” rhetoric, there is a very intentional link being made between skepticism of a major political figure’s statements and literal sexual assault survivors in the #MeToo movement.
NOTE: Warren walked back her support on Medicare for All…this is what led many of her progressive supporters to second-guess her political honesty. That, and her weird PR stunt “proving” her Native American heritage.
Biden can have a little rape.
Naively, I would have thought drawing a parallel between sexual assault victims, and a US Senator facing criticism online, would be highly offensive within the realm of liberal feminism. But it’s not! Because the rules aren’t logical, the rules are meant to serve the ruling class by shutting down genuine criticisms under the guise of morality. Which is why credible sexual assault allegations launched at Joe Biden don’t matter. Instead, there is rampant shaming directed at those genuinely upset over this, with liberals claiming any and all criticism of Joe Biden is “helping” Donald Trump. The DNC did not have to make a rapist their nominee.
We’re seeing that for many liberal feminists, maintaining the legitimacy of the Democratic party as a “progressive” party is the goal…the #MeToo movement was merely a tool for achieving that goal. One that could be dropped and replaced with the bludgeon of capitalist realism in the form of enforcing the two-party political system as the absolute extent of US politics: vote blue no matter who, not voting Biden is a vote for Trump, and voting third party is ‘throwing away’ your vote.
Two parties, one goal.
I’m going to propose something that may seem a little crazy…the leftwing of the ruling class doesn’t really care if Trump wins. Their real enemy was you. This is a class war.
The fact that Bernie’s campaign and many of his followers insist that a third party isn’t viable, the fact that Bernie’s endorsement of Biden has made many “lose hope in the revolution,” the fact that this whole campaign has genuinely convinced a lot of younger leftists that change only happens through the ballot box…the ruling class won. And they didn’t even need to give you a participation trophy because you never actually threatened their position of power. You have zero fucking leverage.
If you’re a Bernie supporter who’s interested in being bullied by my hot takes, check out my follow-up article The Democrats don’t care about democracy. (it’s shorter than this article), where I go into a bit more detail of why I think running Bernie in the DNC was a failed battle from the start.
NOTE: I thought it was a solid idea to “take over” the Democratic party by the way. It’s only in the last few months that I’ve really started to investigate strategy enough to conclude this was sort of a doomed mission. It’s ok to be wrong because you didn’t have all the information. We need to stop letting ego dictate the conversation, and we need to start genuinely collaborating.
Further, I propose an approach to revolutionary politics that I think is more sustainable. One that appears to work historically…I relate this back to the push to abolish child labor in the US. I plan on eventually publishing another article that goes into more detail about how these approaches can be adapted to the present.
If you’re interested in feminism beyond this cynical “girl boss” outlook, check out the book Feminism for the 99%, and consider attending the upcoming webinar discussion with one of the authors Tithi Bhattacharya; event hosted by International Women Strike (IWS) CT and Central CT DSA on May 27th at 7:00 PM EST. Further, consider checking out the article Feminism for the 99%: A Debate about Strategy by Andrea D’Atri on Left Voice.
NOTE: This piece reflects my own political views, and not that of IWS CT or Central CT DSA.