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The Women Rewriting Feminism for a Late Capitalist World

"Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto" argues that liberal feminism has failed to address the deep-seated systems of inequality that undergird gender oppression. So what's next?

by Marie Solis
Mar 4 2019, 1:00pm

Verso Books

In November, writer Mari Uyehara wrote in The Nation that Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's 2013 book, had been "discredited for good." Uyehara's postmortem arrived on the heels of a bombshell New York Times report that found Facebook, and specifically Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, had intentionally minimized and denied the rise of Russian trolls' political influence on its platform—a finding so damning, Uyehara posited that Sandberg's brand of corporate feminism couldn't recover.

According to a new book, it's not just Sandberg's facade that's crumbling. In Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, authors Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser argue that liberal feminism—a version of feminism that encourages women to pursue equality with men through individualist and often careerist endeavors—is in decline. The three women call Hillary Clinton's 2016 defeat a "wake-up" call that drew attention to the holes in the message liberal feminism has sold women: that the advancement of women in the top one percent of the income bracket is good for all women; that the ultimate goal of feminism is "empowerment" in its most basic form; that you could improve the condition of women as a group while leaving intact capitalism, the system Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser say is responsible for reproducing inequality and gender oppression.

"On one hand, Sandberg and her ilk see feminism as the handmaiden of capitalism," they write early in the book. "They want a world where the task of managing exploitation in the workplace and oppression in the social whole is shared equally by ruling-class men and women. This is a remarkable vision of equal opportunity domination."

Where some might see a bleak wasteland of "She-E-Os," feminist tote bags, and "The Future Is Female" T-shirts stretching out endlessly before them, Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser see an opportunity: a space to define a new kind of feminism rooted in anti-capitalism. The trio began arguing for a "feminism for the 99%" in 2017, when they joined five other feminist activists to plan the International Women's Strike, a collective action they say provided the basis for "re-politicizing" and "re-animating" a feminism that had been co-opted by capitalism.

Now, they're growing the seeds they planted in 2017 into a full vision for an intersectional, anti-capitalist feminism where no one is left behind. Arruzza and Bhattacharya told Broadly more about it.

BROADLY: You started working to define a “feminism for the 99%” over the last couple of years, starting around the time you organized the International Women’s Strike in 2017. Why did you feel like it was the right time to redefine contemporary feminism?

CINZIA ARRUZA: We had a sense that we were probably at the beginning of a historic moment—that there was the potential, worldwide, for a new feminist way. Right now, we have a feminism about women promoting themselves and breaking the glass ceiling—this isn’t the feminism we have in mind. We want a feminism where we take seriously the effects capitalism has on women’s lives, and how capitalism reproduces forms of oppression.

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: Part of why we thought the conditions were right is related to the crisis neoliberal capitalism was facing at the time, one [piece of] evidence for which was the financial crash of 2008. Speaking to what Cinzia says about breaking the glass ceiling—we were seeing that the breaking of it could only be done by one percent of women, and that the success of that one percent of women was then taken to be empowerment for women as a whole. We want empowerment for women, but not the kind of empowerment where some women become CEOs and then become responsible for the violence toward the vast majority of [other] women.

When we’re talking about empowerment feminism or feminism for the one percent, we’re often talking about liberal feminism, which, in the book, you argue is collapsing. How have we begun to see the cracks in liberal feminism’s facade?

TB: The election cycle of Hillary Clinton was a culminating moment which signified the absolute bankruptcy of liberal feminism. She was out there advocating for Wall Street, war, and other ways for American capitalism to succeed. That was her basic message. More than we can argue Trump won the 2016 election, we can say that Hillary Clinton lost it. We’ve also seen that the entire period of neoliberalism has been marked by attacks on institutions and infrastructure that allow working class people and communities to live their life with dignity. When you attack these structures of care, the burden falls on working-class women. Yet we’ve seen neoliberal feminists either fail to acknowledge the pain and struggles these working-class communities suffer from, or, in the worst-case scenarios, have seen them support neoliberal privatization.

CA: This kind of crisis of legitimacy for liberal feminism has been accelerated by young women who have reclaimed the strike as a form of struggle.

"We want empowerment for women, but not the kind of empowerment where some women become CEOs and then become responsible for the violence toward the vast majority of women."

Around the time of the 2017 International Women’s Strike, in the wake of the first Women’s March, there was a lot of discussion—and a lot of anxiety, I think—about what counts as a feminist issue. Some worried that taking up too many causes would dilute the movement. Can you talk a little bit about how a “feminism for the 99%” would redefine feminist or "women's" issues?

TB: Liberal feminism has made abortion one of its feminist issues. In a world where right-wing fanatics and neo-fascists are attacking women’s bodies, if liberal feminists say abortion rights should be available to all, that’s great. But that’s the end point for liberal feminism. For us, it’s the starting point: What good is abortion rights if abortion is not available to the vast majority of women, and is too costly? What good is abortion rights if you’re plagued by border police or harassed by your sweatshop boss for being pregnant? Those issues are not separate from abortion.

CA: What kind of feminist project demands women’s abortion rights and women’s freedom in some countries, but is absolutely fine with their country bombing women around the world? Or putting up border walls? Or having migrant women being raped in detention centers? If we want the universal liberation of women, we can’t avoid talking about these issues. There’s no way to separate them.

You talk about how this new feminism can overcome the “stubborn and divisive opposition between ‘identity politics’ and ‘class politics.’” That seems particularly salient considering the political discourse surrounding the 2020 Democratic primary race. What factors led to this divide, and how does a new feminism have the power to overcome it?

CA: The term "identity politics" was originally intended to draw attention to the idea that, if we want to work together in our struggle for liberation, we can't ignore our different forms of oppression. But [the term] has since been taken in a different direction and divorced from class issues, which has made people think about identity in a really static way that makes it impossible to be in alliance in struggle.

TB: Some of these problems come from our side—the broad left—and some come from the neoliberal side. There's a widespread assumption on the left that class is the space where the working class unites, while oppression is what creates the divisions within the working class. The truth is, class is absolutely divided in various ways. The labor market competition between workers has created clear divisions on race, gender, and sexuality. Capitalism is what divides us, but that division shouldn't be seen as something the left should get rid of without acknowledging. We're not all united in the working class, and unity is something to be achieved through cooperative work and solidarity. That unity doesn't preexist.

I didn't want to talk too much about the recent election mania—but since you bring it up, a clear example of the neoliberal distortion of identity politics is Kamala Harris. It's great that women of color are running—but [her candidacy] isn't about empowerment of particular individuals. She's championed legislation that would punish parents of children who have records of truancy in California—low-income people of color. This is the kind of identity politics that's been absolutely emptied of any class content.

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What's the challenge of distilling all of these ideas in a "feminist manifesto" when conversations about contemporary feminism have become so fraught?

TB: It was really daunting for us to write a manifesto, given the predecessors of manifesto that have come before us: Marx and Engels. That was a very large shadow looming over us. We drew strength from two things: Our world has changed a lot since the 19th century, when Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto. More than just theorizing a new feminist wave, we saw ourselves as giving more visibility to the one that's already happening—what is it capable of doing, and what does it mean in this current era? If a new generation of feminists feel this book provides an explanation for the world around them, then the book is a tremendous success.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.