Let’s face it, all week you’ve seen brands, influencers, politicians post about and celebrate women on social media. In fact, you might sick of the #InternationalWomensDay hashtag by now, considering it’s the same content every single year. Bonus points if you’ve seen #feminist t-shirts and the #Girlboss hashtag. These, in particular, might be passé by now, but the kind of feminism these trends promote is still very much present… and it’s the kind of feminism we don’t need. But what’s wrong with it, and what kind of feminism should take its place instead?
Let’s dive into this weeks scoop.
What is International Women’s Day (IWD)?
According to the IWD website, it’s “a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.” Celebrated every year on March 8th, this year’s theme is #ChooseToChallenge. “Individually,” it’s written, “we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day. We can choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help to create an inclusive world.”
I hope I’m not the first person you’ve read who’s challenged this approach to feminism. Because if it is, it’s going to be a hard pill to swallow. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just put it bluntly. The sort of “feminism” that many IWD campaigns promote—and certainly the global IWD campaign promotes—is a far cry from what feminism can and should be.
(On a related, but tangential note: henceforth I will refer to many brilliant feminist scholars and defer to their wisdom. But much of my theoretical understanding of feminism today is shaped by the activists around me, most especially a Singaporean activist called Deesha—and her Instagram highlight on feminism, which is entirely worth the scroll).
Here’s the problem…
The sort of feminism we tend to see promoted at this time of year is feminism that sees desirable change as men and women being treated equally at the workplace (specifically women being promoted to positions of power), men treating women “better” (i.e. issues of sexual harassment, abuse, etc.). Essentially, the ideal world is one in which women are elevated and empowered. To the level of men. And the way we get there is to make more ethical choices to create a more inclusive world. (According to this year’s theme, that is). And celebrate the women around us, call out inequality, etc.
These are in themselves useful calls to action. Don’t get me wrong, they are important: especially calling out to create a culture that does not tolerate misogyny. But individual action alone is certainly not the kind of feminism that we are looking for. And again, this is not to say that the feminism that these campaigns are promoting is in itself not useful at all: absolutely we should be advocating for equality and drawing attention to misogyny. But it is to say that these are wholly insufficient and not radical enough, and can even be harmful.
To understand why this is so, we must first talk about the brand of “feminism” IWD campaigns preach. (And probably the “feminism” that’s been all over our social media feeds all week).
Can there be wrong feminism?
Perhaps. But there certainly are brands of feminism that are more problematic than others. The kind of “feminism” being promoted is feminism that has been co-opted, corporatised, white-washed, eaten, and spat out by capitalism. It is liberal, or neolliberal, feminism.
As is argued by Cinzia Arruzza, Nancy Fraser, and Tithi Bhattacharya in Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, “[centred] in the global North among the professional-managerial stratum, it is focused on ‘leaning in and ‘cracking the glass ceiling.’ Dedicated to enabling a smattering of privileged women to climb the corporate ladder and the ranks of the military, it propounds a market-[centred] view of equality that dovetails perfectly with the prevailing corporate enthusiasm for ‘diversity.’
Although it condemns ‘discrimination’ and advocates ‘freedom of choice,’ liberal feminism steadfastly refuses to address the socioeconomic constraints that make freedom and empowerment impossible for the large majority of women. Its real aim is not equality, but meritocracy. Rather than seeking to abolish social hierarchy, it aims to ‘diversify’ it, ’empowering’ talented’ women to rise to the top. […] By definition, the principal beneficiaries are those who already possess considerable social, cultural, and economic advantages. Everyone else remains stuck in the basement.”
Further, as Lola Olufemi argues in Feminism, Interrupted, this feminism “argues that ‘inequality’ is a state that can be overcome in corporate environments without overhauling the system, centralises the individual and their personal choices, misguidedly imagines that the state can grant liberation, seeks above all to protect the free market and fails to question the connection between capitalism, race and gendered oppression.”
What is liberal feminism, if not patriarchy persevering
— inqilabi (@inqilabio) March 7, 2021
Not radical enough
The problem with this kind of feminism, as argued above, is that it is not aimed at the structural roots. It does not recognise that the oppression of women is intertwined with other forms of oppression under capitalism. And so it does not see that the empowerment of some women does not necessarily follow with the empowerment of all women, or liberation more generally. Certainly not, if the empowerment of some women means putting these women in equal positions of power as men.
As Deesha puts it: “[f]eminism is not about the advancement of an exclusive group of women at the expense of other vulnerable communities. Feminism is deeply tied to dismantling of capitalist social relations. We don’t celebrate women who ‘make it’ if they are simultaneously oppressing or remaining complicit in oppression.” To unpack this further, it’s worth taking a moment to revisit #Girlboss feminism, which Amanda Mull historicises for The Atlantic.
As Mull writes, #Girlboss feminism came from entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso (whom some of you may know as the founder of Nasty Gal). “Instead of dismantling the power men had long wielded in America, career women could simply take it for themselves at the office.” Effectively, Mull argues, this hit two birds with one stone: their “pursuit of power could be rebranded as a righteous quest for equality, and the success of female executives and entrepreneurs would lift up the women below them.” It took off. The concept was a hit. And Amoruso sold over half a million copies of the book #Girlboss. And even started a media company with the same name and there was even a Netflix series.
#Girlboss feminism reproduces oppression
These #Girlbosses centre their worldview “around their own office hustle”. What this does is it “just re-creates the power structures built by men, but with women on top”. Then what we begin to see is these privileged (because that’s often what you see) women succeeding at the top. And many others aspiring towards that success, while cementing the system that oppresses those below them.
In the end, these #Girlbosses care mainly about themselves. And as Mull argues, this “basis in self-interest, however, makes girlbosses particularly unsuited to a moment that has stopped prioritising their personal achievement—and is instead focused on the national reckoning over racial injustice.” Mull is only talking about America, but this line of logic travels well. In a world that’s slowly waking up to the realities of injustices and oppression of all kinds embedded into our system, there’s no place for #Girlboss feminism.
“Making women the new men within corporations was never going to be enough to address […] the broad abuses of power that afflict the daily lives of most people.”
IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A VINTAGE PHOTO OF AUDRE LORDE, WITH BOLDED YELLOW TEXT ON TOP, WHICH READS “AUDRE GERALDINE LORDE, “SOME PROBLEMS WE SHARE AS WOMEN, SOME WE DO NOT. YOU FEAR YOUR CHILDREN WILL GROW UP TO JOIN THE PATRIARCHY AND TESTIFY AGAINST YOU; WE FEAR OUR CHILDREN WILL BE DRAGGED FROM A CAR AND SHOT DOWN IN THE STREET, AND YOU WILL TURN YOUR BACKS ON THE REASONS THEY ARE DYING.”, (FEBRUARY 18, 1934 – NOVEMBER 17, 1992)”.
What kind of feminism do we need?
We must reject the kind of neoliberal/liberal feminism that’s being foisted upon us by women and men in suits. But then what? Olufemi argues in Feminism, Interrupted, that refusing this would “open you up to a world where ‘feminist’ means much more than ‘woman’ or ‘equality’. Making these connections is crucial to any revolutionary work because it means that nobody is left behind, nobody’s exploitation goes unseen. It asks us to practice radical compassion, to refuse to ignore the pain of others. It demands that we see how tackling seemingly unrelated phenomena like prison expansion, the rise of fascism, neocolonialism and climate crisis must also become our priorities.”
In Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, the solution is for all movements to come together to form the 99%. It is a feminism that is all-inclusive, that seeks to entirely undo the power hierarchies in our world today. It calls for all radical movements, to fight with and for each other. To fight for “a just world whose wealth and natural resources are shared by all, and where equality and freedom are premises, not aspirations.”
IMAGE DESCRIPTION: TEXT ON A WHITE BACKGROUND, FEATURING A QUOTE FROM FEMINISM, INTERRUPTED BY LOLA OLUFEMI WHICH READS “BUT FEMINISM DOES NOT PROMISE US EASY ANSWERS. IT PROMISES US THE HARD WORK OF SEEING EACH OTHER FOR ALL WE ARE: INCLUDING OUR FAULTS, OVERSIGHTS AND THE WAYS WE FAIL ONE ANOTHER. […] SOLIDARITY IS IMPEDED BY THE DEFENSIVENESS AND A REFUSAL TO RECOGNISE THAT WOMEN CAN BE PERPETRATORS OF STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE TOO.”
How do we practice feminism for the 99%?
As Olufemi makes clear, the sort of feminism we want isn’t meant to be easy. It’s holding up a mirror to the system we’re embedded in, and often holding up a mirror to ourselves, too. How are we privileged and empowered by the system? Beyond redistributing the power we hold, are we destroying the very notion of holding power? Or are we holding onto it? And in doing so, reproducing hierarchies and oppression?
All this may sound very abstract, but let’s examine a case in point: fast fashion. Throughout the supply chain, fast fashion is a women’s rights issue that requires structural change in order to liberate poor women of colour who are exploited. Yet for neoliberal, corporate feminism, the solution is to slap a catchy “feminist” slogan on a t-shirt (that probably screams #Girlboss feminism), produce it in the same exploitative system, and call it a day. Probably this also involves donating to some charities, hiring more females at the headquarters, or even having a female CEO. In doing so, they promote “feminism” for a certain group of women. “Feminism” that advances one group while oppressing and exploiting the rest.
What is real feminism, then? It’s intersectional, radical, and in solidarity. This means advocating for the rights of these garment workers. Asking questions about whether they’re being paid a living wage or if their feminism only extends to printing an aesthetic t-shirt.
A moment to reflect
All of this is to say: before we declare ourselves as feminists, do we really know what that means? Are we really willing to look at ourselves critically? And this critical reflection is a long process. It involves learning and unlearning, listening and discussing. But in practicing this sort of reflexivity, perhaps in the process, we can find roads toward the collective liberation we want. And to end off, in the spirit of learning, here are some useful resources:
🎧 A special conversation hosted by Progressive International featuring a panel of activists, from South Asia to Latin America to discuss how we can focus our fury in the face of injustice
🌏 The Intersectional Environmentalist page
Featured image: Billie on Unsplash
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