This has been the week of backlash against feminism. In fairness, it is always backlash week against feminism but Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece at The Atlantic, Why women still can’t have it all, has revived some of those sentiments. Feminism has failed us, she implies. We were promised a balance between career and private life. We were told that if you worked hard and juggled between your work, your children, your spouse and your social life, you too, could be successful. If your spouse embraces this model of cooperation and takes on their fair share of housework and child rearing then you could also reach the highest echelons of power and, in the words of existential philosopher Mr. Spock, live long and prosper. All it took, we were told, was commitment and creativity.
All of this is, of course, pure unadulterated bullshit.
Ms. Slaughter delivers a long moment of rhetorical deceit. Of course we cannot have it all because we were never supposed to have it all in the first place. The fact that not even once does she question the inherent systems of inequality created by capitalism and corporate dictate is the first alarming sign in her long piece that fails to contextualize her own position in relation to well, pretty much everyone else. Ms. Slaughter laments that she couldn’t manage the pressure of her work, her teenage son’s puberty and her other family and social obligations. Nobody could possibly do that. And right there is the first form of exclusion which is not just about her status as “woman” but as active participant in this model that is set up specifically to leave some out and create scarcity. Unless you belong to the very top (and she did, but obviously not high enough to merit full inclusion and success), you are always going to be purposefully left out so that you can continue fighting in the supposed “race to the top” by further alienating and participating in the creation of further exclusion to prevent others from taking your job. Such is the system in which she failed: set up so that, in order to succeed, you need to make sure others fail.
I do feel for Ms. Slaughter. I am not being trite. I do feel for those women who did everything they thought was “the right thing” and still did not manage to succeed. In a lot of ways, I even admire her (as I admire Hillary Clinton). Obviously these are exceptional women who deserve praise not only for their hard work but also for their finely honed intellectual and political skills. However, I cannot pretend that their success would, in some ways, improve my chances of success or the chances of other millions of young girls and women. Moreover, in a sense, their success implies further suffering and possible death for women the world over. By being active participants in State administrations specifically created to further the gap between the haves and the have nots, their success is directly proportional to the oppression of other women. And right there is where Ms. Slaughter lost me in her piece. She failed to account for that, even as a footnote, as an aside, as a mere figure of speech in passing. Not only did she personally fail because the system is rigged so that we all fail, but she did not take into account how she contributed to make it worse for million others, domestically and overseas.
We are women, hence, we are part of the underclass. However, and this is where I get meta Marxist (yes, there has to be such a thing as meta Marxism and if there isn’t we should invent it), there are underclasses within the underclass. Women of Color, trans* women (and of course, trans* WoC), migrant women, women living in some parts of the so called Global South, women who do not conform with stereotypical notions of gender identification, lesbian and queer women, lesbian and queer WoC, women with disabilities and of course WoC with disabilities, trans* women with disabilities, trans* WoC with disabilities etc etc. I could go on and on with this list. The hierarchies even within this underclass that are enforced, fostered and promoted within our current modes of sociopolitical organization. This is the reality for this category that Ms. Slaughter calls “woman”. However, it is not “woman” as she defines it, but a very specific subset of women that are allowed to even have a go at success. Only some women are allowed to try.
We cannot escape participation in any of this (unless, of course, one so chooses to live completely outside the system which is something very few people have the privilege of opting into). Which is to say, I do not point fingers at people who do whatever it takes to lead a life of comfort. I understand this and, moreover, by virtue of living in Europe, I cannot escape this set up either. I consume, I produce, therefore I participate. However, I do have to bring up my disillusion with most of mainstream feminism. I do have to denounce this hegemonic feminist discourse that promotes success without questioning the very context in which said success is supposed to take place. I do have to protest the increasing promotion of corporate participation as a measure of “feminist achievement” and women’s prosperity. Because for as long as we do not question at whose expense we are succeeding, we are going to continue creating a deeper gap between those women who are allowed to succeed and those who never stood a chance to begin with. We are not meant to have it all in our current set up. Moreover, we are supposed to always aspire to more. This is a model based on some nonsensical idea of permanent growth and the exploitation of more and more resources and people to uphold it. The perversity of it all is that we hardly have the chance to even consider alternatives. Who has the luxury of time for debate or political/ social organization when it is necessary to work two jobs, take care of children, family, social life and some scarce leisure time in order to barely survive? We cannot have it all, in part, because we are forced to participate in the illusion that we can have it all. And a growing portion of feminism has taken to the sidelines, in this role of reactive respondent to the news cycle, barely fighting so that what we have so far achieved cannot be taken away.
The truth is, we no longer seem to have dreams. We have abandoned the creative potential of political reverie to embrace the siren call of “breaking the glass ceiling”. Mainstream feminism (and by this, I mean, the feminist discourse that has the most presence and power across media, be it corporate or independent) has become a tool to enforce the current system of inequalities. We no longer present an alternative. We want full participation in what already is. And again, I say bullshit to that. I want my feminism to be a feminism of daydreaming. I want my feminism to believe in the transformative power of imagining the impossible. I want my feminism to stop chasing this faux equality that puts us on the race to be better managers of exclusion and, instead, gives us the possibility of re-thinking a future where we no longer have underclasses within the underclass. I do not want any more of this reactive feminism that is devoted to creating opportunities for the few that are allowed in detriment of the millions whose only role is to cheer other women’s success in the name of sisterhood. I want a feminism of utopias and imagination.
Then, maybe, we will be able to have it all. Even though probably, “all” would be something entirely different than how it is defined today.