Skip to content

Choice, neoliberal, libertarian feminism and intersectionality bullies

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. [1] 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 [2], editor of The New Statesman, with her assertion thatThere’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.


  1. Spot on, as ever.

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  2. Voidsman wrote:

    This is spot on. I’ve been trying to explain something much like this about Thatcher and Eva Peron, as a lot of misinformed people consider them feminists, which isn’t entirely accurate.

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  3. Sarah TX wrote:

    I am familiar with this capitalist or neoliberal narrative of the individual making choices outside the context or influence of society to ‘better their brand’ in other spheres, such as anti-union propaganda. Your analysis of it as a reaction to feminism which challenges entrenched economic structures is very useful framing.

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  4. mamram wrote:

    So, I haven’t finished reading her book yet, so really I hope I’m not jumping the gun here, but I’m wondering about this:

    “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.”

    If I’ve been understanding the criticisms of the book correctly, this is key. But Sandberg doesn’t argue that women should maximize their own value at the expense of systemic change. She argues that, in parallel with systemic change, there are a number of things that women and their allies can do to create positive change in an immediate way for those around them (colleagues, subordinates) and that pending systemic change, there are a number of things that women specifically can do to cope with the obstacles they face in the workplace. She further argues (I think convincingly) that systemic change occurs more easily when a critical mass of people are taking these steps as individuals. She acknowledges repeatedly that she’s focusing on the narrow context that she’s equipped to discuss, but a lot of her suggestions are more widely applicable (to activist spaces, for instance).

    So, first I’m wondering if I’m the only person here who got that from the book? And second, I’m wondering if critics consider a book that focuses on the concerns of white-collar American women (basically, people like me) inherently suspect?

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  5. @mamram, what Sandberg is advocating is not systemic change, she is merely advocating for “reform-light” (which is to say, more of the same but including women). She is not challenging capitalism or neoliberalism, in fact, she is peddling those systems as the path to success. More women within this system does not equal change, it is simply a soft reform of what we already have.

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 4:48 am | Permalink
  6. Beth wrote:

    Hey-are Butler’s comments re: neoliberalism online? Thanks!

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 9:51 pm | Permalink
  7. @Beth, the comments were made in person which is why (sadly), I am not quoting verbatim but only using them as starting points. I feel icky not acknowledging the existence of those remarks which, in turn, allowed me to think through these ideas further (imagine the hypocrisy of denouncing how certain media erases us because they deem some stuff as “widely used” and then doing the same to others).

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 4:46 am | Permalink
  8. Cel wrote:

    Excellent piece.

    I’m also noting how dismissals of systemic critique from women are framed as those women being “mean girls” or “jealous” – incredibly misogynist stereotypes to be perpetuated by the media today.

    A 19th century rebuttal of critique – women can’t read or think, only react out of spite.

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink
  9. Jo (@jonanamary) wrote:

    Outstanding stuff. *applauds*

    As ever, please keep doing what you do, Flavia; you’re a brilliant writer, and I really value your voice.

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  10. mamram wrote:

    I think I understand. I feel like, this being the inescapable reality of my life, there is value (to me) in a book that presents coping mechanisms for that reality, mechanisms that I truly believe are not to the detriment of greater systemic change. But I guess I’m getting stuck on some black and white thinking here, since that doesn’t exclude your argument at all.

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  11. @mamram, I have said this numerous times before (I believe in the piece I wrote about Anne Marie Slaughter linked above as well), I certainly do not begrudge people for doing what it takes in the current set up we live in. I do it myself, it’s inescapable. My issue is certainly not with what we must do as women to be able to make it. My issue is twofold 1) with these ideas embraced uncritically by “feminism” (quotation because as I said in my piece, it’s a very specific subset of feminism that has become mainstream) and then presented to us as the only path to success, eschewing any kind of political intervention or analysis to offer alternatives to this exclusionary models and 2) my issue is with the media that uncritically promotes and embraces this neoliberal models of individualism again, as the only ones available or possible.

    Of course you (and anyone else) might find value in Sandberg’s book to better cope in the current state however, it pains me to see that the only form of feminism currently considered acceptable and worth of mainstream promotion is one that furthers exclusion for billions of women everywhere. Neoliberalism is about the success of the few on the backs of the resources of billions that will never be near those “choices”. That mainstream Western feminism has been hijacked by peddlers of inequality disguised as “empowerment and choice” is not only sad, but contrary to the principles of inclusion and certainly against any chances of dismantling white supremacist, heteronormative patriarchy (the very root and basis of this neoliberalism now sold to us as “feminism”).

    Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink
  12. Very thought-provoking piece. What we seem to be talking about in a nutshell is blindness to myriad privileges which then co-opt the concepts of not only choice but what it means to be a woman. The feminism that is advocated as being all (and in fact only) about individual choice and that a “woman” should be able to “choose” whatever she wants assumes a whole lot of non-existent equal playing fields.
    Even *if* your aim is to have some tools with which to navigate the system as it is, the “choices” turn out to not really be choices at all. In the same way that women are exhorted to love their bodies and have a better body image (in the interests of this individualistic self-promotion), we are told we should be able to “choose” to wear high heels and lipstick or go makeup free in flats. But we can all see the what happens when we take one option over the other. “Choice” is clearly a loaded and simplistic term whatever the aim.

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  13. Aaliyah wrote:

    “’There’s no point in your language being ‘correct’, if only 12 of your friends can understand it’”

    Today I learned that encouraging inclusive language usage isn’t a thing. It can only be used by a few people. It’s impossible for inclusive language to become widespread.

    I’m astounded by the absurdity of that statement.

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink
  14. Beth wrote:

    Thanks for the response to my question, Flavia!

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  15. Ms. Sunlight wrote:

    I hate the idea that feminism is exemplified by the rare few women who succeed in a screwed-up system. There’s far too much focus on glass ceilings, when far greater numbers of women and girls are having to deal with sticky floors instead. Here in the UK we’ve recently had newspapers eulogising Margaret Thatcher, when this was a woman who systematically worked to remove benefits from the poorest, demonise immigrants, marginalise LGBT people and destroy trade unions.

    Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  16. steph wrote:

    No, that’s what I got from it too. She’s very careful about qualifying that she’s speaking not for long-term change, but how career oriented women can handle their existing workplaces. I think it’s okay for a book to have scope, and not try to be all things to all people. But I think non-feminists in various media binges have tried to paint this as a feminist manifesto and, while it’s certainly popular, it simply isn’t. Feminists, meanwhile, have tended to be incensed (as far as I’ve seen) and responded as if this was Sandberg’s argument all along.

    I think there are some valid criticisms to be made of “Lean in” but I think the whole thing is over-inflated.

    Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 3:22 am | Permalink