To mark International Women’s Day 2015, Sydney Opera House hosted ‘All About Women’, a day long symposium of female-focused talks. A highlight of the event was ‘How to Be a Feminist’, a panel discussion featuring, amongst others, Roxane Gay, Germaine Greer and Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian. While outlining her vision for what it means to identify as ‘feminist’, Sarkeesian noted, “I realise this isn’t a popular thing to say but… feel good personal empowerment is not ‘how to be a feminist’. In order to be a feminist, we have a responsibility beyond ourselves. We have a responsibility to each other and we have a responsibility to work for the collective liberation of all women.”
Sarkeesian’s words replayed in my mind this week as I read Lean Out by journalist Dawn Foster. As its title suggests, Lean Out takes a sobering, critical look at Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book – the influence of which has morphed into popular philosophy. If women lean in, the thinking goes, if they take a seat at the table, get better at juggling home and career commitments and picking supportive spouses, they too will rise through the corporate ranks. Want to find out what is holding you back? Take a look in the mirror.
The problem with the Lean In phenomenon, as Foster describes, is that while it is relevant to some women, it leaves a great many others out in the cold. Worse still, by not engaging with the structural inequalities that have always and still continue to restrict and devalue women’s work at home and in their careers, Lean In perpetuates the neoliberal myth that we are autobot individuals whose success or lack thereof is entirely down to the quality of our choices and our ability to work, work, work. At a time of skyrocketing inequality, with austerity taking a hatchet to decent employment and welfare entitlements, telling women, especially those on the margins, to simply “work harder, be better” is perverse.
The problems inherent in naming Sandberg’s philosophy as “feminist” is something Foster does a stellar job of unpacking. This “corporate feminism” or “1% feminism” as she calls it, reduces one of the most powerful social justice movements in human history to a watered down, non-threatening shadow of itself, content to make-do with the world largely as it is without daring to imagine a radically different one.
“The feminism of the 1%,” Foster argues, “asks that the appointment of any woman to a high-powered job be treated as a victory for women as a whole, without examining whether it genuinely has any wider effect on society.” Her analysis behoves those of us who identity as feminist to ask tough questions of ourselves and the present state of the movement. That feminism is having a ‘fashionable’ moment is undeniable, but what kind of feminism is actually being celebrated?
Foster adds her voice to the many that are critical of what is commonly known as ‘choice feminism’, which loosely boils down to the notion that if a woman chooses something, that choice is feminist if she claims it to be. The problem with this arrangement is that it overlooks how our agency and the choices available to us are shaped by a society that is, to borrow a phrase from bell hooks, a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.
Foster outlines how choice feminism makes a wonderful bedfellow for consumerism, packaging an ever dizzying array of feminist ‘choices’ into a lifestyle, at a time when women’s economic and reproductive choices are under renewed attack. Like Sandberg’s brand of feminism, the choice variety, “maintains an inward-looking and insular view of what feminism can and should be.” It is the personal untethered from political, a key point, since without the political the connection between women’s struggles and the social structures which give rise to them is completely lost.
As a feminist, I know it is highly seductive to feel that this thing you believe in so fundamentally is finally being embraced, for the work of the feminist is often lonely and universally disparaged. We could all do with the “ feel good personal empowerment” Anita Sarkeesian rightly criticises, because claiming an identity like ‘feminist’ is not easy. All the more reason, then, to ask hard questions when being a feminist is made to look easy or indeed fashionable. The gains of the movement were not built on towing the line or pandering to power; they were built on the brave actions and tireless work of women, and sometimes men, who risked more than many of us could ever appreciate for something bigger than themselves.
“The problem with feminism,” Foster writes, “is that the demand for radical and collective action and structural change will never sit well with capitalism.” No wonder then that the feminisms endorsed in the mainstream are those least likely to present a challenge to the current order.
If we are in the grip of Western feminism’s Fourth Wave, as many suggest, what achievements will define this moment? What real, material change will today’s feminisms make, in the broadest, most inclusive sense, to the lives of ordinary women? Are we setting fire to the foundations of the master’s house or are we making do with the master inviting some of us to sit at his table? And if the latter is the case, we should hear the words of Audre Lorde whispering in our ears, “…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.
Mary McGill is a writer, journalist, contributor and rabble-rouser. She was recently awarded a Hardiman Scholarship for her research into gender performativity in the selfie phenomenon. She blogs here and tweets at @missmarymcgill