Feminism in the New Gender Order

Against the Current, No. 97, March/April 2002

Johanna Brenner

A RECENT OPINION poll, showing that the percent of U.S. women willing to label themselves feminist has declined since the early 1990s, sparked another round of pronouncements about the death of feminism.  Yet in that same poll, women with a “favorable” opinion about “the women’s movement” ranged from a vast majority among women 18-29 (84%) to a solid majority among women 45-64 (63%).

Like this opinion poll, the place of feminism in U.S. political life is difficult to decipher.  I think one way to understand what’s happened to feminism and to chart a course of political action is to see this period as a time of consolidation of a new gender order, within a profound restructuring of the global capitalist economy.

By a gender order, I mean the social and cultural constructions of gender identities as well as institutionalized relations of power and privilege organized around gender difference.  Second wave feminism was truly historic—challenging and overturning a deeply entrenched web of culturally and legally sanctioned exclusionary practices, practices which disempowered women economically, socially and politically.

Assumptions about natural gender differences in intellect, character, or capacities have been, if not eliminated, fundamentally revised.  The old patriarchal system is disappearing, despite the attempts of a socially conservative right-wing movement to restore it.

In its place has emerged a gender order that is less unitary and stable, less reliant on fixed gender identities.  There is much more social and cultural approval for diverse household arrangements and gender relations—working mothers, “stay-home fathers,” cohabiting couples, blended families, gay families.

In one sense, this new gender order is the culmination of a century-long struggle by women against pre-capitalist constraints on their ability to participate in the capitalist market and the liberal political order.  All women in today’s United States have unprecedented freedom to compete with men in the labor force and the political system and to negotiate the terms of their sexual and domestic relationships.

But only some women—particularly those well placed by their class/race position—have been able to strike quite favorable bargains with employers and with male partners.  Their capacity to do so rests on a large, low-paid pool of other women employed in the rapidly expanding service economy.

The importance of immigrant women workers in the commodification of caregiving in the U.S. is linked to a global process of “primitive accumulation,” the forced removal of populations from their lands, which is driving women onto the labor market and out of their own countries.

The “internationalization” of caregiving work is one of the key features of the new gender order.  The women, largely women of color, performing caring labor as wage workers, and the millions more employed in clerical, technical, and manufacturing work, are far less able than women from the affluent upper middle class to take advantage of women’s new access to positions of economic and political power.

Yet the very fact that women with more cultural capital and economic resources do succeed “proves” that success is possible.  The dilemmas that so many working-class women experience in the new gender order appear as individual problems—the result of bad choices or bad luck. The constraints that reproduce gender difference and inequality in the household and the labor market are invisible because they take shape “behind the backs of women,” outside of relationships freely entered into.

These constraints arise from the fact that in this country primary responsibility for meeting human needs for care is still located in the private family household.  Families do draw on market services (e.g.  daycare) but still the sheer amount of unpaid labor most families must perform is large.

Because care is considered a predominantly private responsibility and not also a social responsibility, families are forced to manage pretty much on their own. This structure disadvantages women in relation to men within the economy and polity because it limits possibilities for breaking away from a gendered division of labor within the household, because it reinforces the devaluation of caring work and because it disadvantages women who are solo mothers.

To really socialize the responsibility of caregiving—and to reward caregiving at levels that would attract men to do it as family work and as wage work—requires a significant redistribution of wealth, reordered priorities in, and expansion of, government spending and increased regulation of employer practices.  All these changes would directly threaten powerful capitalist interests.

Not surprising, feminists have been here frustrated at every turn, even as they continue to successfully extend and defend the accomplishments of the second wave. This pattern of tremendous gains on the one hand, and abysmal failure on the other, is reflected in the new gender order.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that liberal feminism is now hegemonic in U.S. culture and politics.  Of course, this worldview continues to be contested, especially by a religious right which wants to restore the patriarchal family household.

But while social conservatives have caused both feminist and gay rights organizations much pain, they have achieved no definitive victories.  Posing a very broad socially conservative agenda, the right has been successful in attacking only relatively powerless groups.

For example, they have curtailed access to abortion for teenagers (with parental notification and consent laws), for rural women and for poor women (denying funding for abortions through public health provision), and forced public schools to include “abstinence” in sex education.  But they have not been able to roll back the clock on the sexual revolution.

In this particular battle they are up against not only a well-organized, well-funded and persistent “pro-choice” political lobby (that includes but is not limited to feminist organizations) but also powerful market forces that are driving the pervasive commodification of women’s sexuality.

The same can be said for their backlash movement against homosexuality.  The right has done better here, but is slowly being pushed back, partly because mainstream gay rights groups have increasing political clout, partly because the gay community has access to economic resources, partly because mainstream civil rights groups and unions have been won over to support gay rights, and partly because niche marketing has promoted gay visibility in the media.

Organizations that defend and support “women’s interests” have maintained a firm foothold in the U.S. political scene.  Feminist organizations have a legitimate voice, can amass financial resources, and influence politics when they remain within the terms of this now dominant political discourse.  They draw broad support from women insofar as they focus on equality of opportunity rather than equality of result, and on individual rights rather than group rights.

The declining numbers of women who identify explicitly with feminism reflect the highly selective and limited incorporation of second-wave feminist ideas into both social practice and culture.  Insofar as feminism (in comparison to “the women’s movement”) signifies a “gender first” political activism, radicalism, and separation from men it carries a challenge that, for many women, is either too scary or too far from the dilemmas that shape their daily lives.

It is not the “backlash” politics of the reactionary right but rather the triumph of neoliberalism that is feminism’s great challenge.  The celebration of the market and the demonization of the welfare state; the assertion of paid work as a moral good; and the invocation of “self-sufficiency” and “independence” as the touchstones of respectable adulthood—these are at the heart of what might be called, in contrast to the religious right, the modernizing right.

Although the “new” Democratic party puts a slightly more populist spin on this basic conservative message, Democrats have essentially adopted it. Witness Clinton’s vicious campaign to “end welfare as we know it,” which culminated in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 abolishing single mothers’ federal entitlement to income support.

By no accident was Clinton surrounded by several Black women, former welfare mothers, when he signed that bill. Clinton’s rhetoric about welfare’s “cycle of dependence” not only reproduced rather than challenged the racist figuration of poor Black women as undeserving welfare queens.  He also adopted the modernizing right’s discourse arguing that welfare reform would give single mothers “a hand up” rather than “a handout.”

This framing delegitimizes government efforts to improve the lives of people collectively through public spending (a handout).  Instead, the role of the state is only to “help” individuals enter into the market, where they can enjoy the supposedly equal opportunities for upward mobility that await those willing to make the effort.

The dominance of the modernizing right is made possible by the disorganization and weakness of the social forces that are the traditional base of the Democratic Party.  A highly competitive and turbulent economy now dominates life in the United States.

As in other significant periods of capitalist restructuring, the institutions of working-class political and economic defense which had been built up under the old economic order and which might have worked (although not all that well) previously are now utterly unable to respond to new conditions.  Just as the old forms of trade unionism won’t work in the new world economic order, the old forms of feminism won’t work in the new gender order.

In the 1960s and ’70s it was possible for a radical feminist movement to develop and to make substantial gains alongside a trade unionism that was for the most part bureaucratic and demobilized.  Today, feminism’s fate is tied to the fate of trade unionism and other forms of collective resistance to corporate capital.  Only in the context of a broad, militant and disruptive movement capable of wresting real concessions from capital can feminism hope to speak to the dilemmas of working-class women’s lives.

This renewed feminism is going to look very different—in organization and politics—from the second wave. Historically, feminism has been a movement by and for women to challenge gender oppression.  The issue of how gender oppression is linked to other relations of domination has never taken center stage, although working-class feminists and feminist women of color have had no choice but to think about it.

Within the second wave, there were important political currents, led by feminist women of color, arguing for a theory and practice that reflected the multiple, “intersecting” oppressions that shape most women’s experience and identities.  This insight—that a gender-only or gender-first politics cannot mobilize the majority of women, and will only reproduce within the movement the relations of domination outside it—is critical to a feminist practice capable of challenging the new gender order.

This implies that gender-based organizations will have to take up issues of race and class oppression.  For example, women’s organizations fighting domestic violence have gained increasing legitimacy for their cause through close working relationships with the police, the courts, and the corrections system.  They will have to risk those ties, becoming allies to the grassroots movements now organizing against the prison-industrial complex, the death penalty, and the criminalization of poverty through the so-called war on drugs.

Intersectionality implies also that women’s leadership and issues of gender oppression will have to become more central to anti-racism and trade-union organizing.  One of the crucial legacies of second wave feminism is changing attitudes toward women’s political leadership.

Where sexism drove women out of the ’60s left, today women are sharing leadership with men in many grassroots movements—anti-sweatshop groups on college campuses, mobilizations by high school students against anti-immigrant initiatives in California, the “Critical Resistance” mobilizations against the prison-industrial complex, the Black Radical Congress—and in the trade unions.

Women’s caucuses and informal women’s networks have often been effective strategies for integrating feminist perspectives into organizations.  Women of color are beginning to speak out against and in some instances successfully challenge the historic intensely masculinist and heterosexist biases of civil rights organizations.

Lesbians and gay men have convinced their unions to take a stand on and contribute to campaigns for lesbian/gay rights; and feminist trade union members have forced their unions to “come out” for abortion rights.

True, our movements are weak and now on the defensive.  But the gains of the feminist, anti-racist and gay liberation movements have opened up possibilities for coalition-building that are historically unprecedented.

Within the last two years, the world wide movement against global capitalism, focused on the World Trade Organization, the World Bank/International Monetary Fund, G8 etc. has brought renewed energy and hope to the left. The labor/environmental alliance has tremendous radical potential.

But let us be sure that within this movement, racism and gender oppression are central as well—the incarceration of poor men of color, the denial of welfare to single mothers, the cuts in public services and the disregard of our human right to be caregivers.  Let us not forget that these are the face of “structural adjustment” in the United States.

from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)