Feminism Today: How Neoliberalism Is Failing Us

By Lola Dickinson.

Feminism in 2019 can at once seem both real and tangible while also remaining elusive, and hard to define.  We have seen the recent successes of the International Women’s Strike and the admirable triumphs of the unionisation of strippers in London. Yet, alongside this, we are increasingly surrounded by the mainstreaming of feminism into popular culture: from the outpouring of ‘GIRL POWER’ merchandise and deals on International Women’s Day to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, run largely on her assertion that ‘women’s rights are human rights’. Feminism has become cool. At times, it is hard to know what all these ‘feminisms’ have in common aside from their shared use of the word.

One of the most prominent and dangerous forms of these strands includes ‘neoliberal feminism’, recognisable under labels such as ‘marketplace feminism’, ‘corporate feminism’, or ‘lean-in feminism’. We live in a neoliberal economic system where free markets are prioritised at the expense of social welfare provision, and responsibility is centred on the individual, not the collective. Indeed, David Harvey defines neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade” (Harvey, 2005). Within such a framework, neoliberalism has actively appropriated feminism, using it as a means to adopt ‘social liberal’ politics, whilst simultaneously maintaining a political and economic system that operates in the interests of elites (Eisenstein, 2010). The adoption of mainstream feminism has been an active project to maintain neoliberal capitalism, albeit with a more human face. Further, in a manner often unnoticed, this process caught feminism in its snares and made it palatable and watered-down – now it is something that can be adopted by people of all political leanings.

Neoliberalism has left feminism with almost no political agenda at all. It has become something that props up hegemonic narratives and fails to support the most marginalised – we need a feminism that will offer emancipation and solidarity for those who are most marginalised. Theresa May, who as Home Secretary led many migrant women to detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, and as Prime Minister has consistently advocated austerity measures shown to disproportionately affect women, repeatedly affirms her identity as a feminist; its current form reinforces the marginalisation of certain groups, while upholding the power of the elite. Furthermore, we now see a growing branch of self-labelled ‘radical’ feminists who attempt to establish a firm boundary around womanhood, usually excluding trans-women and sex workers from this definition. 

The word ‘feminism’ has been adopted within many different modern-day contexts. It has become so diluted that it now holds little weight and we are losing our ability to mobilise into a cohesive movement. We need a comprehensive feminism, now more than ever, which is centred on defending trans rights, supporting sex workers, pushing to abolish detention centres, and fighting for an anti-racist, internationalist, socialist future in which the rights of all individuals are guaranteed and protected. 

Since the 1990s, the rise of neoliberal feminism has drastically changed and modified the anti-capitalist feminist movement seen in previous decades. The most visible, and prominent version of such feminism typically centres rich, usually white women, such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. It advocates that women can make their own path, simply by having confidence and making more ambitious choices in their careers. At its most extreme, we saw the recent appropriation of International Women’s Day by BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest arms companies. As one of the leading suppliers of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, BAE Systems fuels the war in Yemen – exposing the drastic effects on women in the Global South of corporate feminism. In other contexts, companies span the intersection of liberation movements- Barclays is one of the biggest sponsors of London’s Pride Parade and has been involved in several IWD campaigns, yet also invests in arms companies that sell to Saudi Arabia where queer people are often killed for existing. 

Fundamentally, neoliberal feminism assumes that all women have the same, or at least a similar, amount of agency. It places the source of oppression on the individual: if only you try harder and be more confident, you will reach new heights. It detaches feminism from a common social movement, turning it into something that is individual, a competition with other women. Feminism becomes centred on personal advancement, a crucial component to neoliberal philosophy.

Neoliberal feminism shows little consideration for an experience that is outside that of a rich, cis white woman. It suggests that society will change through the individual action of women, not that society needs to be uprooted in order for women’s experiences to change. Neoliberal feminism ignores the barriers which capitalism poses on women, thus concealing the effect of socio-economic standing on the decisions and experiences of individuals. As Sarah Wright asserts, people’s decisions are largely limited by their class, rendering “individual empowerment…immaterial” (Wright, 2017). She highlights that all political stances of feminists are influenced by their relative class position. When looking at access to abortion in Britain, whilst it is formally a right accessible to all individuals the choice to exercise this right is often determined by socio-economic background and future prospects. This is not to say that such rights shouldn’t be fought for, indeed, the recent ‘Repeal the 8th’ movement in Ireland saw passionate and cohesive campaigning efforts which made historic and important change. We must, however, further consider the various factors that create the illusion of choice, such as class, race, religion or disability. At its best, neoliberal feminism will acknowledge such intersectionalities on a surface level, but it fundamentally fails to acknowledge the extent to which these can change and limit the experiences and perspectives of individuals. 

Directly, we can see the materialisation of neoliberal feminism in the rising trend of ‘feminist fashion’ within the fast fashion industry. ‘Feminism’ can now mean buying a t-shirt, wearing it, and identifying with the label on a personal basis, without substantive commitment to the movement as a whole. Almost every label, from Christian Dior to Topshop, has recently taken to designing clothes, bags, notebooks – anything they can sell – emblazoned with ‘feminist’ slogans. Transnational corporations have co-opted feminism, turning it into something which can be commercialised and sold. This form of brand activism works to increase sales by seemingly aligning companies with popular social values. These companies offer a public face that appears supportive of LGBTQIA+, body positivity, disability rights, and racial and religious equality movements while doing nothing practical to ensure that the rights of such marginalised identities are protected. Indeed, by capitalising from political movements, they succeed not only in making profit but also in weakening the potential of such movements to make impactful change.

Representation is important, especially in areas in which thin cis white women have often dominated. But it is also a basic requirement that should be met – not one that necessarily deserves congratulations. Further, while such representation appears to have social justice as its agenda, it must also be recognised that this also works to increase their consumer base to groups that have only recently grown in economic power after having gained bourgeois rights and prominence in the workplace. We must be cautious and aware of brands working to improve their reputation in the eyes of the consumer while profiting from social justice movements in ways that ultimately work against the movements themselves, by, for example, increasing the huge income of the global 1% and exploiting women in the countries where their products are manufactured. Whilst these companies profit, for those purchasing these products neoliberal feminism has meant that buying a t-shirt is seen as a form of activism, detracting from any actual grassroots work being carried out and diffusing the political potential of feminism as a movement. Feminism in this form is manageable and palatable; it is something that poses very little threat to the political and economic underpinnings of the hegemony of the Global North. Feminism in this form has no power.

Neo-colonialism, the control of the Global South by the Global North through indirect means that reinforces a strict hierarchy, has taken many subtle forms in contemporary society, notably within our ever-expanding fast fashion industry. The exploitation of labour, usually in South-East Asia, embodies how our capitalist and consumer-driven culture privileges the rights of Western Europeans and North Americans at the expense of those in the Global South. Within the fast fashion industry, factory workers are overwhelmingly women, with an estimated 80% of the world’s garment workers being female. This figure is as high as 70% in China, 85% in Bangladesh, and 90% in Cambodia. The horrific working conditions at factories employed by high street labels is a fact widely known though rarely reflected upon. The most extreme example of this is the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which resulted in 1,134 deaths. Rana Plaza workers provided clothes for brands such as Primark and Matalan in the US and the UK. The conditions and pay that workers are subject to would never be accepted in western countries. This can be seen as part of a continuing imperial legacy in which women continue to fare the worst. 

White neoliberal feminism shows little care or consideration for the conditions of non-white workers outside of Europe and Northern America. This can be seen on two planes: companies that brazenly adopt the word ‘feminism’ predominantly for profit, and the buyer either champions such adoption or (at best) fails to critically examine such a product in context. For example, The Fawcett Society, a charity in the UK that campaigns for gender equality, produced a t-shirt with the slogan ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’. However, these were exposed to be made in a Mauritian sweatshop by women earning an estimated 62p per hour. 

More recently, a Guardian investigation found that t-shirts sold by the Spice Girls to raise money for Comic Relief’s “gender justice” campaign were made in Bangladeshi factories where women earn the equivalent of 35p per hour during shifts in which they claim to be verbally abused and harassed. These women were expected to work up to 16 hours a day to hit targets. One machinist told the Guardian: “The wages we get are very minimum. It’s barely enough to survive.” (Murphy, A2019)The t-shirts they made were sold for £19.40, with £11.60 going to Comic Relief’s fund to “champion equality for women”.(Murphy, B2019) 

It is often the same large corporations, NGOs, and companies that continue cycles of oppression while claiming to be working towards its elimination. They co-opt the word ‘feminism’ in an attempt to increase sales and improve their social standing, but their practice is far from feminist. If such working conditions were exposed in factories in London, the same people who buy and wear the self-proclaiming ‘feminist’ t-shirts would be leading marches in protest. We must be aware that Britain’s imperialist legacies often mean that critical reflection on the conditions of workers producing imported goods is not engaged with, privileging the narrative of neoliberal Western feminism. Equally important, however, it must be acknowledged that while the consumers might unconsciously afford different reactions to working conditions in the Global North as abroad, neoliberal feminists, to some extent, show minimum level care about labour rights unilaterally. While we do not have comparable working conditions, neoliberal feminists side line the rights of sex workers, those struggling on zero hour contracts, or those in low-paid full-time jobs having to increasingly rely on food banks. The levels of poverty are strikingly different, but on an ideological level, the same lack of concern for labour rights or poverty is the same at a local or global level. 

The fast fashion industry shows no care for the conditions and experiences of its workers, the desire for profit is their principle incentive. Labour outsourcing has enabled UK companies to exploit workers under far worse conditions than if they looked for labour within the EU and has simultaneously made factory workers in South-East Asia reliant on the West for labour. Such economic arrangements have cemented the imperial power dynamics instated over the last several centuries. This form of imperialism is additionally gendered, female factory employees are often subject to lower pay rates and higher rates of abuse than their male co-workers. 

In this way, neoliberal feminism thrives and profits off the backs of non-white women’s hard work and labour. The capitalist drive from huge transnational corporations is steadily working to completely divorce the word ‘feminism’ from any tangible political struggle. If we want to identify as feminists we need to do better. We need to critique the capitalist drive which sees the exploitation of workers under intolerable conditions, reject the neoliberal narrative that it should be on individual drive and determination to better one’s personal position, and support grassroots movements which are working to support and change working conditions for individuals around the world.

The need to be anti-capitalist and transnational is apparent if feminism is going to be a movement that supports and provides for all genders in all contexts. Rachel Cargle’s assertion that without intersectionality, feminism becomes a new form of white supremacy can be seen as a continuation of this theme. Indeed, “if there is not the intentional and action-based inclusion of women of colour, then feminism is simply white supremacy in heels.” (Cargle, 2018) Neoliberal feminism incurs the privileging of a single narrative that excludes the voices and experiences of those who are not rich, white, straight cis women. The silencing of such voices is seen within ‘feminist’ movements today: both the neoliberal form and the so-called radical form have seen the identification of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and SWERFs (sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminists). This ‘radical’ form of feminism is proud in its firm conceptions of womanhood rooted in certain limited conceptions of biology and the body, they affirm that this is what defines and oppresses women. As such, it comprehensively works to silence and further marginalise any voices that don’t fit within these rigid boundaries. Though to very different ends, it is similar to neoliberal feminism in privileging a certain narrative of womanhood. 

The splintering of feminism has been accompanied by the blurring boundaries of what counts as feminism in the twenty-first century. We need to find a way to define it and to ensure that it protects marginalised identities and secures women’s rights all over the world. There are strands of feminism, such as neoliberal feminism, which we need to be equipped to identify and reject in order to pave the way for a feminism which is rooted in inclusivity and capable of causing real change. The need for an inclusive, international movement is ever increasing as the global far right continues to grow in size and influence. This has brought with it a surge in the prevalence of racist and islamophobic attacks, often taking the distinct form of misogynoir when committed against women, the recent attacks and death threats on US Representative Ilhan Omar a poignant example. Further, as the on-going climate crisis takes an even greater hold, disproportionately affecting women in the Global South and working class women in the North, we must be supporting a feminism that has the capacity to support and protect rights of all genders, classes, sexualities, and races. 

For International Women’s Day 2019, we saw an international strike with over 6,000 women, with sex workers at the forefront, demanding an anti-capitalist future that fights to protect the rights of workers globally. We should be supporting, encouraging, and learning from such movements at all costs. These are the moments in history and voices that we need to evaluate, in order to ensure feminism remains a revolutionary force with genuine political underpinnings. Feminism must be an intersectional, international, socialist, and ultimately coherent movement that fights for the rights of all if it is to have a genuine and important impact. The space is here for such a movement, and the time is now.

Artwork by Beth Simcock.

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