Gary Gutting: You’ve recently written: “As a feminist, I’ve always assumed that by fighting to emancipate women I was building a better world — more egalitarian — just and free. But lately I’ve begun to worry that . . . our critique of sexism is now supplying the justification for new forms of inequality and exploitation.” Could you explain what you have in mind?
Nancy Fraser: My feminism emerged from the New Left and is still colored by the thought of that time. For me, feminism is not simply a matter of getting a smattering of individual women into positions of power and privilege within existing social hierarchies. It is rather about overcoming those hierarchies. This requires challenging the structural sources of gender domination in capitalist society — above all, the institutionalized separation of two supposedly distinct kinds of activity: on the one hand, so-called “productive” labor, historically associated with men and remunerated by wages; on the other hand, “caring” activities, often historically unpaid and still performed mainly by women. In my view, this gendered, hierarchical division between “production” and “reproduction” is a defining structure of capitalist society and a deep source of the gender asymmetries hard-wired in it. There can be no “emancipation of women” so long as this structure remains intact.
Mainstream feminism is focused on encouraging educated middle-class women to “lean in” and “crack the glass ceiling” — in other words, to climb the corporate ladder. By definition, then, its beneficiaries can only be women of the professional-managerial class.
G.G.: Why can’t responding to feminist concerns be seen as just one major step in correcting the social and economic flaws of our capitalist society, not a fundamental transformation of the system?
N.F.: It certainly can be seen that way. But I am questioning whether today’s feminism is really advancing that process. As I see it, the mainstream feminism of our time has adopted an approach that cannot achieve justice even for women, let alone for anyone else. The trouble is, this feminism is focused on encouraging educated middle-class women to “lean in” and “crack the glass ceiling” – in other words, to climb the corporate ladder. By definition, then, its beneficiaries can only be women of the professional-managerial class. And absent structural changes in capitalist society, those women can only benefit by leaning on others — by offloading their own care work and housework onto low-waged, precarious workers, typically racialized and/or immigrant women. So this is not, and cannot be, a feminism for all women!
But that is not all. Mainstream feminism has adopted a thin, market-centered view of equality, which dovetails neatly with the prevailing neoliberal corporate view. So it tends to fall into line with an especially predatory, winner-take-all form of capitalism that is fattening investors by cannibalizing the living standards of everyone else. Worse still, this feminism is supplying an alibi for these predations. Increasingly, it is liberal feminist thinking that supplies the charisma, the aura of emancipation, on which neoliberalism draws to legitimate its vast upward redistribution of wealth.
G.G.: Can you give some specific examples of what you see as mainstream feminism aiding capitalist exploitation?
N.F.: Sure. In the 1970s, feminists developed a powerful critique of the postwar cultural ideal known as the “family wage.” That ideal held that women should be full-time homemakers and their husbands should be the family’s sole (or at least principal) breadwinners, earning enough to support an entire household. Certainly, only a minority of American families managed to achieve this ideal. But it had enormous currency in a phase of capitalism premised on mass-production manufacturing and relatively well-paid unionized work for (especially white) men. All that changed, however, with the eruption of second-wave feminism, which rejected the family wage as sexist, a pillar of male domination and women’s dependency. At this stage, the movement still shared the anticapitalist ethos of the New Left. Its critique was not aimed at valorizing wage labor, still less at denigrating unpaid carework. On the contrary, the feminists of this period were challenging the androcentrism of a society that prioritized “profits over people,” economic production over human and social reproduction. They sought to transform the system’s deep structures and animating values — in part by decentering wage work and valorizing unwaged activities, especially the socially necessary carework performed by women.
G.G.: So how has the critique of the family wage changed?
N.F.: Today, the feminist critique of the family wage has assumed an altogether different cast. Its overwhelming thrust is now to validate the new, more “modern” household ideal of the “two earner family,” which requires women’s employment and squeezes out time for unpaid carework. In endorsing this ideal, the mainstream feminism of the present aligns itself with the needs and values of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. This capitalism has conscripted women into the paid work force on a massive scale, while also exporting manufacturing to the global south, weakening trade unions, and proliferating low-paid, precarious McJobs. What this has meant, of course, is declining real wages, a sharp rise in the number of hours of paid work per household needed to support a family, and a desperate scramble to transfer carework to others in order to free up more time for paid work. How ironic, then, that it is given a feminist gloss! The feminist critique of the family wage, once directed against capitalism’s devaluation of caregiving, now serves to intensify capitalism’s valorization of waged labor.
G.G.: But not all feminist efforts focus on upper-class women. What about the project of providing small loans (“microcredit”) to poor women in underdeveloped countries to help them develop small businesses?
N.F.: I’m really glad you asked about this because it’s another example of the way in which feminist ideas are being twisted to serve neoliberal, capitalist ends. Microcredit is touted as a way of “empowering” women in poor rural regions of the global south. But it is also supposed to represent a new, more participatory, bottom-up way of combating poverty, which releases grass-roots entrepreneurial energies, while avoiding the bureaucratic red tape of the large-scale, state-led development projects of the previous period. So microcredit is as much about the glorification of the market and the vilification of the state as it is about gender equality. In fact, it weaves those ideas together in a dubious amalgam, invoking feminism to dress up free-market ideology.
But the whole thing is a sleight of hand. Microcredit became the rage at exactly the moment when international financial institutions were pushing “structural adjustment” on the global south — setting conditions on loans that require postcolonial states to liberalize and privatize their economies, to slash social spending, and to abandon macro-level anti-poverty and employment policies. And there is no way whatsoever that microlending can replace those policies. It’s a cruel hoax to suggest otherwise.
So here again feminist tropes are invoked to legitimate policies that are deeply harmful to the overwhelming majority of women, as well as to children and men.