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What does equality mean these days?

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?


  1. AnneBonney wrote:

    “(and I swear I am not Marxist but I have yet to find a better framework to place these discussions)”

    It’s ok, you can’t find a better one because Marxism IS the most comprehensive framework to critique and describe weaknesses in capitalism. (There’s a reason that everyone who has even the slightest issue with “the free market” is labeled a socialist.)

    And though you don’t have to claim it, there are enough of us Marxist Feminists out there that we’d stand with you if you did… and liberal feminists would have something to learn if they’d listen. Thanks for this.

    Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink
  2. Heh, I’ll clarify something (I didn’t want to extend the post too much and that’s why I only added the caveat about not being Marxist): I identify mostly with ideas of direct democracy and syndicalism than with Marxism.

    Still, as you rightly say, Marxism provides the most comprehensive framework for these analysis.

    Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink
  3. Brigid wrote:

    I think this post is really smart and important — thank you for writing it.

    On the issue of being a Marxist: as an anthropology student, I learned to distinguish Marxist theory (including concepts like “means of production” and “class consciousness”) from political Marxism (which I gather is what you don’t want to identify with). In the academe, at least, there’s no reason that using Marxist concepts in analysis requires one to be a Marxist in the way Western free market capitalists usually mean the word. I say, go for it and don’t apologize!

    Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Randall wrote:

    Really liked the points this raised. Working some things out in my head over it, but can’t help to see it at work in a lot of areas other than just feminism, gender. Which, you totally sort of point towards at the end… so I didn’t miss it. Just… shock of recognition.

    Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink
  5. N'Awlins Contrarian wrote:

    Your idea that much western feminism focuses primarily on work- and wealth-based equality is interesting. Could this focus result in part from treatment and the degree of equality being easiest to quantify, analyze, and regulate in the economic sphere? In other words, this is the focus in part because it is the low-hanging fruit? (And I would think most would agree that economic treatment is at least an important area.)

    re: “The more we grow as individual women, the more some of us are left behind.”

    Many years ago I had an epiphany about communism while watching a documentary. A woman at a commune, when asked why she didn’t wear make-up etc. (i.e., pursue what you call “beauty standards”), responded, “We can’t all be beautiful, but we can all be ugly.” The psychology / behavioral science behind valuing fairly strict outcome-equality (as differentiated from opportunity-equality) far above individual achievement that leaves some behind–even when equality means a notably lower average–would seem an important area to study. I have no answer there, but I do find the mindset at a minimum a fascinating rejection of what most people regard as social norms. I have no clue where it leads / what is says.

    Friday, April 29, 2011 at 2:34 am | Permalink
  6. N'Awlins Contrarian wrote:

    Oh, a flip-side: do you think that there may be people with a deep psychological need to be ‘above’ somebody, even if they are below the average? That is, some people who would be on the whole better off by leveling everyone nevertheless don’t like the idea of strict outcome-equality because they’d rather be above a few people (but below most) instead of even with everyone. Or at least, I have that impression.

    Friday, April 29, 2011 at 2:44 am | Permalink
  7. @N’Awlins, yes, I do believe we live in a world where there will always be people who feel the need to be above someone else. However, much of my questioning of this set up comes from the conviction that this need to oppress is not innate but fueled by the conditions in which we live.

    Will there always be “bad people” (i.e. criminals, unethical individuals, etc)? Probably. However, I don’t think human nature is inherently evil. Given the choice, I think most people would prefer not to succeed at the expense of another human being. The problem is that currently we do not seem to have much of a choice. In the West, there is only one system at play: the market and it doesn’t leave much room for alternative means of organization or social constructions, does it?

    Friday, April 29, 2011 at 4:59 am | Permalink
  8. N'Awlins Contrarian wrote:

    re: “Given the choice, I think most people would prefer not to succeed at the expense of another human being. The problem is that currently we do not seem to have much of a choice.”

    That seems true of many people, although what proportion I don’t know. But is maybe one fundamental difficulty that sometimes it’s hard to know when success is exploitive or at least a zero-sum game, when it’s individual achievement based on creating real value but not exploitive, and when it’s of the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ variety? Surely in many cases we can reasonably classify it. How many / what proportion of the cases, I don’t know. Developing and giving individuals tools to evaluate the question of whether some success would be exploitive, as situations arise, might be a worthwhile undertaking.

    Friday, April 29, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink
  9. Devin wrote:

    There really ought to be a name for using Marxist tools and analytical frameworks while preferring or advocating other modes of organizing an ideal world. Marx and his heirs provide some really wonderful tools, and they also advocate a certain kind of society. Those aren’t unrelated to one another, but they’re not permanently wedded either: it’s quite possible to agree with the Marxist analysis of capitalism and take part in that conversation even if you’re more of a syndicalist yourself.

    Saturday, April 30, 2011 at 4:49 am | Permalink
  10. Sports and class go way back. Sports writers often talk about teams coaches and players in terms borrowed from the language of class. That was evident last week as the NCAA basketball tournament drew to a close. As many commentators noted the final match between Michigan State University and North Carolina was more than simply a game especially for MSU whose team was described as having rust belt values and ..Popular culture often relies on misrepresentations that reinforce negative stereotypes of the working class. In his documentary Pepi Leistyna outlines how television especially stereotypes the working class as both unintelligent and lazy and often reactionary in their political beliefs. Both teams and individuals are lauded for their commitment to hard work attention to detail and task and their toughness. While television sitcoms often lampoon the working class in sports working-class people especially men are often heroes..A similar pattern applies to communities. As weve found in studying representations of Youngstown deindustrialized communities are often described as survivors. They are seen as tough proud places where hard work and commitment to others are valued. In case of the NCAA championship game the commentary and references to the working class and to Michigan as part of the rustbelt assigned extra significance to the tournament. MSUs success some suggested provided hope for workers in the region who had been displaced by disinvestment and deindustrialization. The tournament also offered psychological relief from the pain and anxiety of unemployment as well as an economic boost to a struggling city..Talking about the team and the tournament in these ways falls into the category of what I call bootstrap journalism reporting that emphasizes the ways that people and communities are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. It focuses on survival and hope but that often unfortunately excludes serious analysis of the causes and effects of the economic problems associated with deindustrialization and unemployment. In other words it ignores the real experiences of people in the region..Im not suggesting that sports writers shouldnt use working-class imagery to talk about sports or that the excitement of seeing an area team make it to the finals isnt real. Indeed sports success matters. A successful team can give a struggling community a new identity both locally and nationally. As British sociologist James Rhodes has recently argued in a study of how boxer Kelly Pavlik has become a new symbol of Youngstown winning athletes can help create positive images for their hometowns..And Im all for the idea that winning something whether its a boxing match or a new factory contract helps people feel hopeful and hope counts. Hope can give people the energy to work through difficulties. We see that in the success of Barack Obamas campaign.

    Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink
  11. geraint wrote:

    I don’t think there needs to be any special name for it, it is called engaging in critical thought, just like any other robust application of concepts to a problem.
    By the way, Marx didn’t propose a blueprint for a future society and, famously, wrote that he wasn’t even himself “a Marxist.”

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink