When Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, came out I didn’t have much to say. I just scribbled a short comment on my personal blog about the fact that capitalist feminism is being presented as “the neutral” and everything else outside this paradigm needs to be qualified. Instead of writing something myself (which I couldn’t do as I was dealing with some pressing stuff), I recommended people read two pieces that more or less articulated what I would have said, had I written about the book (in fairness, my writing is a lot more fragmented and less articulate so read this statement as: what I would have said, had I been as articulate as these two women). Namely, I thought that both Sarah Jaffe at Dissent and Melissa Gira Grant at The Washington Post were expressing many of my ideas around Sandberg’s book.
Now the media attention around Sandberg’s book has passed I have had time to reflect on my short statement about “capitalist feminism” and I realize I was wrong in my assessment. This is probably the reason why I am not keen on reactive critique (meaning, writing about a topic right in the middle of the polemic instead of waiting for my ideas to simmer so that I can better identify my discomforts). The realization about my wrong approach came to me earlier this morning when I was already trying to draft a post about this topic; it happened when I read Kelly Exeter’s post at Women’s Agenda “’Feminism’: Why it might be time for a rebrand”. Exeter’s premise is that feminism is failing to attract women into its core because the values of feminism are “ill defined”. In her piece, she praises Sandberg’s book and she then quotes blogger Cate Pearce as the kind of feminism that we should be striving for:
Blogger Cate Pearce thinks it’s time to re-claim the word ‘feminism’ and attach it to the concept of choice: “The key to feminism, for me, is equal choices. If a female chooses to wear a business suit and carry a laptop, good for her. If a female chooses to wear an apron and carry a Household Hints handbook, good for her. If a female chooses to wear black leather and carry a whip, good for her. As long as it is her own choice.”
This is the ethos behind Sandberg (and Anne Marie Slaughter’s “Having it all”) kind of feminism: women should be able to chose a career and have the very same options as men. Here’s where I was wrong: this is not merely capitalist feminism. This is a neoliberal, libertarian articulation of feminism. It was John Stuart Mill who stated “that no one should be forcibly prevented from acting in any way he chooses provided his acts are not invasive of the free acts of others“. Or, should I say, it was Stuart Mill who set the foundations of contemporary libertarian politics. This idea of personal freedom is then presented to us as “neutral and universal”. We all have the same choices (or so we are told). However, I want to challenge this idea of freedom just by bringing out the fact that slavery was abolished in the US only 148 years ago; in the colonial territories of The Netherlands, it was abolished 150 years ago; France abolished slavery in its former colony of Anjouan in 1899 (to give a perspective of how contemporary this event is, there is a man in Japan who was already alive when this abolition took place). So, our ideas of freedom are not only not universal but they haven’t been universally granted and, moreover, the choices available to us as a result of this freedom (or lack of it) are not universally equal either. These choices come with a heavy legacy of racial, class, ability and gender normativity histories, both personal and affecting our families, communities and heritages.
In The Handbook of Social Geography, edited by Susan Smith and others, Clive Barnett spells out some principles of neoliberalism that I believe are useful to situate my statements further, specifically, he states that “Neoliberalism brings off various changes in subjectivity by normalizing individualistic self-interest, entrepreneurial values, and consumerism”. This neoliberalism is then normalized and presented as “a benevolent mask full of wonderful-sounding words like freedom, liberty, choice, and rights, to hide the grim realities of the restoration or reconstitution of naked class power”.
Sandberg, Slaughter, choices… etc. Or quoting Catlin Moran’s How to be a woman “if we have fabulous underwear we’ll be somehow above the terrifying statistic that only one percent of the world’s wealth is owned by women.” This is the credo: we want a bigger share of the capitalist pie. We need to correct the market.
The result of this constitution of neoliberal feminism as “the neutral” or the default, has also led to a sense of “amplified agency”. We are told to “maximize our freedom”, we should “brand ourselves better”, we should “choose our choices” and demand a better distribution of the resources. In the process, we are left with a feminism that imposes on us the moral task of maximizing our own value.  This is a feminism of the individual with an inflated sense of the self that is devoted to the creation and administration of individual business opportunities in detriment of systemic change or, at the very least, in detriment of an analytical approach that examines our individual relations as part of a whole and our interactions and participation in a system of inequalities we cannot escape.
This hegemonic model of feminism based on a hyper-focused sense of self renders any notions of sisterhood moot. If all that matters is personal advancement in a neoliberal, capitalist context, then what room is there for ideas of solidarity or mutual support? These ideas begin and end with “those like us”, which is to say, a feminism that will stand only for certain values, class, gender normativity, racial contexts and abilities. To demand inclusivity in a feminism based on a model of exclusion is to meet accusations of bullying. Helen Lewis , editor of The New Statesman, with her assertion that “There’s no point in your language being “correct”, if only 12 of your friends can understand it” triggered a series of posts attempting to respond whether intersectional feminists are bullies for “demanding inclusion”. According to Lewis, “sexist, racist, homophobic language is bad. But who decides that? The affected groups themselves?” Of course not, in this hegemonic version of individualistic neoliberal feminism, we should surrender ourselves to “the market” (i.e. the dominant discourse, represented by none other than Lewis herself, in charge of one of the most read publications in the English language). Why would we leave the decision of what is and isn’t offensive to “the affected groups”? What Lewis forgets is that as someone with editorial control in The New Statesman, her words are not just scribblings on the walls of some adolescent blog exploring politics and gender but the words of “the media”. When (neoliberal, capitalist) feminism demands that women are represented fairly in media, it is valued as “working towards gender equality”. When women that are excluded demand from the same media (and the people representing it) that we are included, we are either erased or labeled as bullies.
In instances of cultural hegemony a ruling class imposes their beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, etc so that these values and beliefs become the cultural norm. In this cultural hegemony that has become neoliberal feminism, there is no place for diversity of representation, diversity of models of organization or acceptance of difference. In order to belong, we should be in the business of maximizing our own value instead of “bullying for inclusion”. After all, if we just re-brand ourselves, the market should take care of the rest. This is what Lean and Mean feminism looks like.
1. With thanks to Professors Judith Butler and Engin Isin who posited some of these ideas last week in Amsterdam, not in regards to feminism but to neoliberalism in general, in turn helping me rethink my discomforts further.
2. Ms. Lewis most likely doesn’t remember me but, last year she dismissed me when I complained that her publication was quoting me without attribution. It seems that when a for profit publication deems something as “widely used” there is no need to have accountability or responsibility towards the women who created it, especially if said material was created specifically as part of an anti racist feminist praxis. And alas, in the next link I am also quoted as “example” of intersectional bullying, but it seems naming me is not warranted in any of these cases. I suppose this is what “erasure in the name of feminism” looks like.