I identify as a feminist, in casual conversations, almost weekly. It’s a label that makes conversing easier because most people know the term well enough that I do not need to give too many follow up explanations. Especially in The Netherlands, where I live, feminism has been part of policies and political agendas for the past 30+ years. It is quite telling that, in Dutch, the word that politicians use when they speak of women’s rights is “emancipatie” (emancipation), which is more or less equivalent to the English “Women’s Liberation”, but always makes me think of its Roman Law origins in reference to the freedom of slaves.
Where I live, this “liberation” is on the news almost daily. Because, see, those of us labeled Non Western foreigners, apparently hinder the struggle for equality. We are the women who bring the country’s reputation down.
So, I’ve been thinking about equality quite some these days. At least, gender equality and what the term has been made to be in contemporary discussions about gender, immigrants and the rights of all minorities. Yeah, I know, too many intersections and variables that certainly do not lead to an easy answer. However, I did come across one point where all these variables seem to intersect: capitalism. The discussion has been hijacked by market forces. To be equal in today’s world means to participate in market transactions. We even frame the discussions in ways that highlight the necessity for market insertion: immigrants should have the right to work, women should have access to corporate boards, the glass ceiling, etc. It’s all about the “right to produce in a capitalist society”. Even the current attacks on reproductive rights seem to be shaped by “productive rights”: budgets, expenditures, “free” or “paid” contraception, etc.
To be equal is to have equal access to the means of production (yeah, yeah, I love to throw around some big Marxist words every now and then), to have access to purchasing opportunities and to define ourselves in terms of our individual success. Contemporary Western feminism, as it is depicted in mass media (mainstream blogs, magazines, news, etc) has become the cult of the pursuit of personal achievement. However, to succeed in the current model, we necessarily need to partake in intra gender oppression. We succeed at another woman’s expense, even if we do not mean to, even if we do not wish to have any part in these forces at play. The more we grow as individual women, the more some of us are left behind. Successful gender equality, as French sociologist Francois Dubet defined it, becomes another tool of oppression.
We have gone as far as opposing the beauty standards imposed by corporate media. We rebel against these forces that inform our life choices. However, we have defined ourselves by opposition without producing an alternative of our own. We have failed to create an aesthetic, an ethos, that would pull us, collectively, out of these binds. Even when we oppose the beauty standards, we talk about “individual choices”. We stress the importance of the personal over the collective. Because, I suspect, we have bought into the current stigma over the C word: Class. Contemporary, Western feminism is apparently classless. Or should I dare say it? Bourgeois in aspiration.
Martha E. Gimenez, in “Marxism and Class, Gender and Race: Rethinking the Trilogy” said:
The working class is of course composed of women and men who belong to different races, ethnicities, national origins, cultures, and so forth, so that gender and racial/ethnic struggles have the potential of fueling class struggles because, given the patterns of wealth ownership and income distribution in this and all capitalist countries, those who raise the banners of gender and racial struggles are overwhelmingly propertyless workers, technically members of the working class, people who need to work for economic survival whether it is for a wage or a salary, for whom racism, sexism and class exploitation matter. But this vision of a mobilized working class where gender and racial struggles are not subsumed but are nevertheless related requires a class conscious effort to link Race Gender Class studies to the Marxist analysis of historical change. In so far as the “class” in RGC remains a neutral concept, open to any and all theoretical meanings, just one oppression among others, intersectionality will not realize its revolutionary potential.
I suspect that, until we collectively realize our social rank, or, to go back to Marxist theory (and I swear I am not Marxist but I have yet to find a better framework to place these discussions), until we become Class Conscious, we will continue, however unintentionally, to contribute to the systems of oppression that permeate our social constructions, gender or otherwise. For as long as we continue buying into Feminist Middle Class aspirations and models, we will not break free from the faux equality myth. But, with so much stigma attached to Working Class struggles and the constant media depictions of Middle Class paradigms as the only desirable living conditions, how do we move from a feminism of individual successes to one of collective achievements?