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The neoliberalisation of feminism

Hate is a strong word, but justified, I feel, for several circumstances: 8am lectures, Pret coffee (sorry), and influencer-era #girlboss feminism.

I have a visceral reaction to hearing people define feminism as “gender equality” or language feminism in terms of “empowerment” and choice. So, for the second instalment of my column, I’d like to explore how we got here – how the decades-long process of the neoliberalisation of feminism has watered feminism down so that it no longer threatens the status quo.

A movement which should stand for the liberation of all misogyny-affected people from the patriarchy has become a movement championing equality under the patriarchy. A movement that once prioritised social solidarity and mass mobilisation now promotes individual achievement and careerism in the name of “empowerment.” A movement once critical of capitalism has become subservient to it.

The neoliberalisation of feminism began in the late twentieth century. The second wave of feminism started out as a critique of the role of women in postwar, state-managed capitalist society. Yet around the time that the second wave of feminism was arising, so was neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism championed freedom, individual achievement, and self-optimisation. As women were granted greater freedom and autonomy through participation in the free market, second wave feminists began to view liberalism as the way forward for feminism. 

In becoming entangled with neoliberalism, however, certain tenets of feminism started to become the justification for new forms of exploitation.

As a reaction to the political vision of postwar, state-managed capitalist society (which placed class inequality above all other forms of oppression), feminism emphasised “non-economic” oppression and rightly challenged the cultural construction of gender. Yet as feminism turned to identity politics, it seemed to abandon its attention to the political economy. 

Yet as bell hooks articulated in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, the fight for equality under the current social systems would only result in gender equality between those of the same race and class statuses. So, while for upper class white women, gender equality under neoliberalism meant acquiring the same status as some of the most powerful men in society, this was not the case for neither women of colour nor poor women, for example, who were acutely aware of how systems of capitalism and white supremacy had oppressed the men in their lives. 

The nail in the coffin, though, was the development of choice politics: the idea that a woman’s autonomous choice is the ultimate expression of her personal freedom – and thus, any choice made by a woman must be empowering. The redefining of choice as a feminist act enabled neoliberalism to frame women’s enhanced ability to participate in the free market as liberating, irrespective of the realities underpinning the new ideal: rising poverty, declining living standards, decreased job security and wage levels, and so on.

Women should, of course, be able to make their own choices. But neoliberal feminism places importance only on the making of a choice – no critical thinking nor scrutiny is applied to this choice. For example, in a world in which one in three women will experience sexual and/or physical violence, and despite evidence of higher sexist and rape-accepting attitudes among males who watch porn, liberal feminism maintains that sexual violence depicted in porn is an empowered choice for women, simply because porn actresses have made the choice to be in the porn shoot. 

Essentially, under liberal feminism, a woman making a problematic choice is still considered a bona fide feminist act, which speaks to the individualist nature of this mainstream feminist movement.

The solution? Feminism that is both intersectional and radical. Integrating the struggle for women’s liberation with the struggle for economic and racial justice. Materialist feminism. Gender abolition. A radical re-ordering of society to dismantle the gender class system and eliminate misogyny in all contexts. 

Feminism must not be about equality; it must be about liberation.