To live up to other people’s ideas of what one should be is both impossible and boring. It is, without doubt, far more entertaining to be able to decide for oneself what it might mean to exist, to love (or not), to work (or not), to have children (or not). Feminism – or really, the fear of feminism – has long been associated with forms of radical refusal: to not conform, to not marry, say, to not have children, to not be a doormat, to not dress in certain ways, or not having to speak nicely, or to stay quiet. Feminism has long been regarded as a menace to tradition, a disruptor of convention and a delirious up yours! to the image of a life that other people would like you to live. It is in this way perhaps better understood as a practice, a relation, a perspective rather than a dogma, a belief, a statement. It has not and will not go away and shut up: as an instrument it has incredible force, measuring the micro-injustices of everyday life as well as the seemingly immovable structures that can nevertheless be completely reimagined from multiple feminist perspectives – what if there was a world where rape no longer existed, where domestic violence was over, where looking after children was seen as a shared delight and not a gendered exhaustion-generating-machine. Where beauty and desire were not channelled into such narrow repetitive paths, and where what you did bore no relation to what people think you should do. A constructive refusal, a desire for autonomy, a total critique and a series of actions…and, dare we suggest, something wholly enjoyable…?
Feminism requires that the world be turned on its head, in stages or all at once. But opposing something does not of course mean that one accepts the logic of opposition on exactly the same terms as it is handed to you. Despite the fears frequently expressed in comment sections daily whenever a feminist view is expressed – ‘man-hater!’, ‘misandry!’, ‘but women hurt men too’, ‘what about men?’ – the flipside of a male-dominated world is not female supremacy, or female revenge. If some men hate all women, and all men benefit from structures that give them various advantages, the practical critique of this need not mean that those positioned as women would come to dominate in the same way – it would mean redrawing the debate, and life itself, in an entirely different way: not as a battleground where competition for goods, resources, cultural power continued to be fought over, but where an image of expansiveness and co-operation replaces that of scarcity and warring. Feminism would be a kind of gateway to thinking the world differently, to thinking it anew, perhaps a starting point for thinking inequality and oppression as such: the history of feminism itself is littered with moments where it hit its own internal limits – around race, class, essentialism, and so on – and reinvented itself because it had to.
‘But what mushy utopianism’ a little voice whispers! Look at the world as it is, look at how tangled and messy it is, and look at the way in which “feminism” itself has been co-opted by those who would use it to justify war, or sell shampoo, or to police who gets to count as a “woman”. How hard it is to pick out a single “feminism” that gets everything right, and yet how unhelpful it is to believe that multiple “feminisms” have equal value and equal relevance to all women, across class, race, age, geographical location. And yet it is possible to speak positively in broad terms of a ‘feminist revival’, of a ‘resurgence of feminist ideas’ across the political spectrum, of the multiple meetings, workshops, reading groups, blogs, websites, columns, Twitter feeds and so on that make up contemporary “feminism”. The opposition that this revival has been met with has been fierce, particularly on the internet which seems on one level so unreal, so insubstantial, but at the same time so laser-like in its focus and potential cruelty. But perhaps what is happening here is a kind of revelation: these ideas and lives are not going to go away, no matter how hard you push back against them. They don’t disappear through shaming, or resentment, or by forcing their authors to rehearse the same arguments over and over again: ‘no, we don’t hate men’, ‘sigh…yes, we have a sense of humour’, ‘no, just because the focus is on women’s experience in this one instance, it doesn’t mean that men don’t have it bad sometimes too’, and so on, and so on…
Because let’s face it, while life has gotten significantly better for a minority of women in a medium-sized portion of the world, it is nowhere near what it could be if the world had been truly turned on its head: in other words, what would it mean for feminism to be no longer needed? What would it mean to think from the standpoint of perfection (a rough one, anyway) and think backwards from there? Some structures are more easily imagined fixed than others: if we didn’t change things too much, it would be relatively easy to imagine equal political representation, truly equal pay, properly-shared childcare, zero domestic violence, the end of rape, the total stigmatisation of words like ‘slut’, ‘whore’, and so on. It is possible, albeit difficult, to imagine the end of what would classically be called ‘patriarchy’: but what would the elimination of patriarchy be without the elimination of every other mode of oppression?
A few years ago I tried, in a short pamphlet whose title, One-Dimensional Woman, was an obvious homage to Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, to present various paradoxes of contemporary life in a humorously angry way: how, for example, the rhetoric of feminism was being used by the right to justify imperial wars, or to sell products as objects of self-empowerment (‘because you’re worth it!’). But above all, I was interested in how a particular image of contemporary womanhood has come to tally so seemingly perfectly with the demands of contemporary employment and contemporary capitalism – how the image of a certain kind of young woman became the face (and body) of employability and supposed enjoyment. It should be noted that I have nothing against meaningful work and pleasure of course (sigh…yes, I have a sense of humour…), but what I missed at this point was the critical edge that feminism ought to bring to these questions of work, money and a life beyond and outside capitalist constraints – the same constraints that are marketed precisely as their opposite, as flexibility, freedom and success. But what has happened since then, and how can we understand it?
What I had been trying to analyse in One-Dimensional Woman was, in many ways, already dead or dying: a culture and economic vision based on personal debt, identifying oneself as a worker (potentially or actually) at all times, and a kind of mediocre positivity relating to selling oneself, and so on. Since the economic crisis, though, this set of images and the related critique seem dated, past, even though it had been ‘real’ until very recently. Austerity, while not exactly reverting to conservative stereotypes of women as home-makers and pushing them back into the domestic realm to try to keep unemployment low – which wouldn’t work anyway, for a number of reasons, not least because the ‘family wage’, if it ever existed, certainly does not now – has hit women harder. Just to keep afloat requires men and women to work harder and longer, whatever their domestic situation, but the jobs cut have been in the female-dominated public sector, and changes to benefits have disproportionately affected women, especially those with children.
Capitalism is a bastard. Everything you demand, it gives you but in the meanest, most self-serving way (and by self-serving, I don’t of course mean in the interests of those forced to work for it). You want flexible working hours because you want a life outside work, to spend time with your family, perhaps? Fine! Have a zero hours contract! You want pleasure and recognition? Fine! Have an infinite mountain of porn tropes and impossible beauty standards! You want a private life? Fine! The state will take away any support structure we might once have offered you! A feminism that sees injustice everywhere must think big and small, micro and macro all at once. It must be organised, but listen to those who get it twice as bad, if not three, four, five times worse…. It would not ever be enough even if there were a hundred more female PMs or CEOS if nothing else fundamentally changed. When feminism takes a hard look at the world and itself at the same time, all that is solid melts into air: suddenly it becomes possible to imagine a world without all those things that make life boring and miserable, and violent and nightmarish. A world without the impossible demands of labour – which is not the same as a world without activity; a world without enforced, ideologically-manipulated competition, whether it be for jobs or attention. A world where families are anything you want them to be and children are a delight, not a demand. And all this for all women, and by extension all men too. An anti-capitalism that starts with women’s work and role, and the way in which this is classed and raced and differently experienced across the world, is not quite the politics we might associate with the so-called organised left, who all-too-often remain trapped with masculinist and outdated models of the working class. It would be a question of shifting the frame once, twice, many times, so that the starting points blur into a complex whole: can contemporary feminism live up to such a demand? If ‘woman’ has been positioned as the other for so long, and this other further divided between itself, the challenge would be to start once more from the divisions themselves, and not pretend there’s some false unity waiting to be uncovered. In order to move beyond the battleground, it is important to first see how people have been positioned as unwilling soldiers in a war they never chose.
Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University and the author of One-Dimensional Woman.