by Lisa Jervis
[This article, first published in Fall 2005, is made available here as part of the online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow – The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt, (AK Press) – Full PDF]
The biggest problem with American feminism today is its obsession with women. Yes, you heard me: It’s time for those of us who care deeply about eliminating sexism within the context of social justice struggles to stop caring so damn much about what women, as a group, are doing. Because a useful, idealistic, transformative progressive feminism is not about women. It’s about gender, and all the legal and cultural rules that govern it, and power—who has it and what they do with it.
A transformative progressive feminism envisions a world that is different from the one we currently inhabit in two major and related ways. Most obviously, this world would be one in which gender doesn’t determine social roles or expected behavior. More broadly, it would also be one in which people are not sacrificed on the altar of profit—which would mean universal health care, living wages, drastically reduced consumption, and an end to the voracious marketing machine that fuels it. The link between these two elements is clear: Both gender and race, as they currently exist, are socially enforced categories that shore up a consumer capitalist system by providing opportunities for both marketing and exploitation.
But much of the contemporary American feminist movement is preoccupied with the mistaken belief—call it femininism—that female leadership is inherently different from male; that having more women in positions of power, authority, or visibility will automatically lead to, or can be equated with, feminist social change; that women are uniquely equipped as a force for action on a given issue; and that isolating feminist work as solely pertaining to women is necessary or even useful.
The influence of femininist thinking is broadly in evidence today, from casual conversations in which arrogant know-it-alls are described in shorthand terms like “typically male” and “how very boy” to nonprofit groups that exist to promote the leadership of women—any women—in business and politics. It manifests itself in the topics that are considered most central to feminism. The problems feminism should be trying to solve are not caused primarily by a dearth of women with power. The overwhelming maleness of the American population of congressional representatives and physics professors, CEOs and major-newspaper op-ed columnists is a symptom, sure, of a confluence of economic, political, and cultural forces that devalue women’s work, denigrate our ideas as less important than men’s, and discourage us from aiming high. Would more women in high places signify a change in that? Yeah. And that would be nice.
But any changes would likely be superficial: More women in high-paying corporate jobs might mean that women would finally be making more, on average, than 76 cents to the male dollar, but it would do nothing about the 35.8 million people under the poverty line—and it’s definitely not going to transform the values of profit maximization that keep them there. It wouldn’t even necessarily mean that large numbers of women were being paid wages closer to their male counterparts. Like the wage gap itself, it would be a symptom of power at work, a signal that women are being allowed more access to the benefits of a destructive value system. If we’re fighting just for that access on behalf of women, without mounting a challenge to it, then feminism is, to borrow a phrase from Barbara Smith, nothing more than female self-aggrandizement.
Furthermore, the most pressing issues facing women worldwide—slave wages, inadequate health care systems, environmental degradation, war and surveillance society, and the rampant corporate profiteering involved in all of the above—are a) no less important to feminists just because they also happen to be the most pressing issues facing men and b) directly related to the particularly ruthless brand of global capitalism we’re currently living under.
This vulture capitalism would not magically disappear if women were in charge of more stuff. Racism would not go away. Hell, sexism itself would probably be alive and kicking. God knows the gender binary would be stronger than ever. In short: The actual workings of power will not change with more chromosomal diversity among the powerful. Continue reading