One Dimensional Woman
Capitalism has had a complex effect on our understanding of ‘equality’. On the one hand, there is seemingly nothing discriminatory about the compulsion to accumulate — it doesn’t matter who does the work, as long as profit is generated & value extracted. What, then, would be the point of discriminating against women qua women? Or blacks qua blacks? Or homosexuals as homosexuals? On the other hand, as more or less everybody knows, women still earn less than men for the same work, & are heavily over-represented in part-time & badly-paid jobs, & it is clear that the ethnic minorities & homosexuals are massively under-represented in certain forms of employment.
Perhaps, though, we should be less concerned about representation than about serious structural & ideological factors. After all, the argument about getting woman, ethnic minorities & homosexuals into ‘top positions’ is an argument that is currently  being won by the Right. Barack Obama’s recent election is perhaps a progressive hint of things to come, but it remains to be seen just how redistributive his ‘change’ will be. Condoleezza Risa, Ayaan Hirsi Ali & Pim Fortuyn are (or were) all atypical candidates for their respective positions, but it doesn’t stop them being, respectively, a war-mongerer, a neo-conservative thinker & an anti-immigration politician who favored a ‘cold war’ with Islam. All those who (the first election around, anyway) made Margaret Thatcher the first female British Prime Minister ‘for feminist reasons’ were to be punished for their progressive aspirations with a slew of reforms of a rather different ‘progressively’ neo-liberal kind. It is not enough to have women in top positions of power, it depends upon what kind of women they are & what they’re going to do when they get there. As Lindsey German puts it:
It is the time of the token woman… Paradoxically the triumph of the rhetoric of feminism has taken place exactly at a time when the actual conditions of women’s lives have worsened, & this rhetoric has been used to justify policies which will harm women.
It has long been clear that we need to extend the concept of tokenism to take account of the fact that often these ‘exceptional’ women & minorities are not just included in positions of power but come to represent the worst aspects of it. Zillah Eisenstein uses the term “decoy” to describe the was in which ‘imperialist democracy’ covers over its structural sins with a thin veneer of representational respectability: ‘The manipulation of race & gender as decoys for democracy reveals the corruptibility of identity politics.” Getting women & ethnic minorities into positions of power is not necessarily going to improve the lives of women & ethnic minorities in general, & certainly hasn’t so far. Condoleezza Rica may well have been the United States first black, female Secretary of State, but it was black women (& black men & children) who suffered most during Hurricane Katrina under her command.
This creates problems for feminism, or at least for an unproblematic usage of the term.
Hawkish & Mawkish
One of the more profound & disturbing recent shifts in geopolitical discourse is the co-opting of the language of feminism by figures who ten or fifteen years ago would have spoken out against what feminism stands for. The invasions of Afghanistan & Iraq were both [partially] justified by an appeal to the emancipation of women, & the discourse of feminism was specifically invoked. George W. Bush’s wife, Laura, prepared the ground with a radio broadcast that declared that “only the terrorists & the Taliban threaten to pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish.” The battle for public support for the wars was played out through a combination of the liberal ‘feminist’ discourse of rights & the hawkish premise that only carpet-bombing the oppressive enemy could solve the problem. Just as the Bush administration neglected to ask their experienced diplomats about other ways in which geopolitics could be discussed, they neglected to work with grassroots feminists at work in Afghanistan or Iraq. As Katha Pollitt puts it:
US invasions have made the work of Muslim feminists much more difficult. The last thing they need is for women’s rights to be branded as the tool of the invaders & occupiers & cultural imperialists.
As a political term, ‘feminism’ has become so broad that it can be used to justify almost anything, even the invasion of other countries. As Katherine Viner puts it:
Feminism is used for everything these days, except the fight for true equality — to sell trainers, to justify body mutilations, to make women make porn, to help men get off rape charges, to ensure women feel they have self-respect because they use a self-esteem-enhancing brand of shampoo. No wonder it’s being used for bombing women & children too.
But how has this happened? Viner points out that the rhetoric of feminism in the name of war is not as new as it might seem:
…this theft of feminist rhetoric is not new, particularly if its function is national expansion; in fact, it has a startling parallel with another generation of men who similarly cared little for the liberation of women. The Victorian male establishment, which led the great imperialistic ventures of the 19th century, fought bitterly against women’s increasingly vocal feminist demands & occasional successes (a handful going to university; new laws permitting married women to own property); but at the same time, across the globe, they used the language of feminism to acquire the booty of the colonies.
Clearly if something is to be salvaged of the ‘fight for true equality’, the meaning of feminism must be clear. It must also recognize the way in which it has been colonized not only by warmongers, but also by consumerism & contemporary ideologies of work. […] Rather than retaining the idea of feminism as something that stretched form its radical incarnation to its liberal form, we have to broaden the scope of its reference to the whole of the political spectrum.
The Feminization of Labor
However terrible & disgusting the dissolution of the old family ties within the capitalist system may appear, large scale industry, by assigning an important part in socially organized processes of production, outside the sphere of the domestic economy, to women, young persons & children of both sexes, does nevertheless create a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family & of relations between the sexes.
~ Karl Marx
No discussion of the current fortunes of women can take place outside of a discussion of work. The inclusion of women into the labor force has brought about unprecedented changes in the way we understand the ‘role’ of women, the capacity of women to live independent lives & the way in which women participate in the economy more generally. Of course, women have always worked, that is to say, raised children, tended to the home, grown crops, etc., & how different the history of the world would have been had this been from the start regarded as labor & been rewarded. Nevertheless, as Marx notes, it is only when women enter work “outside the sphere of domestic economy” that transformations in relations between the sexes, the composition of families & so on, really start to happen. The ability to be ‘flexible’ that all goo pre-workers now imbibe with their mother’s milk is the admission that there is no natural role for women to occupy & that, at least at the beginning of one’s working life, no job is out of bounds. For the perky A level photos that beam out from August newspapers, to the successful young professional featured on the advertisement for a new luxury flat development, the job market seems, at least on the surface, a better place to be for women than men.
On the whole, women have adapted remarkably well to work. They no do better at school, better at university, & go to work before, during & after pregnancy. They have been ‘encouraged’ by a government desperate to get moths, in particular, back to work, even without providing adequate access to child care. In the UK, unlike many other European countries, female participation in the labor market has been high for a long time, & women, particularly young single women, are a key factor in the proliferation & success of job agencies, turning precarity into a virtue. One does not need to be an essentialist about traditionally ‘female’ traits (for example, loquacity, caring, relationality, empathy) to think that there is something notable going on here: women are encouraged to regard themselves as good communicators, the kind of person who’d be ‘ideal’ for agency or call-center work. The professional women needs no specific skills as she is simply professional, that is to say, perfect for the kind of work that deals with communication in its purest sense.
There is a curiously existential aspect to this now intimate link between women & labor. Male & female graduates have somewhat different attitudes to work, according to one 2006 study:
It would seem some men & some women graduates are approaching job-seeking rather differently, particularly when they are having trouble finding work straight away. The women’s view is, ‘My dream hasn’t arrived, so I will get a few more skills & more experience under my belt so that when it arrives I will be ready’. Men are perhaps thinking, ‘My dream job hasn’t arrived yet — I will just stay here until it does’.
Female pragmatism, the supposed sensibleness of women, finds itself translated neatly into the language of skill-acquisition & self-advancement.