News & Politics

Is Feminism Dead?

Whither feminism 20-plus years after the cries for liberation and the rush to the workplace? Is it paralyzed by its own success? Or is it stumped by the negative consequences it has wrought? Today's leading feminists debated these issues, and many more, at a recent UC Berkeley gathering.
On a warm evening in early February, several of America's leading feminists gathered at the University of California at Berkeley to discuss the future of the feminist movement. It was an extremely civilized discussion for a subject so unwieldy and fraught with contention. The panelists, who included like-minded feminists such as Susan Faludi, the best-selling author of "Backlash" and "Stiffed," and progressive magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich, engaged in no mudslinging, no cross exchanges about goals accomplished and possible political paths for "third wave" feminists. Instead there was general agreement that the feminist movement had accomplished much in the way of job equality and eliminating sexual discrimination, while spawning a host of unintended consequences, which the panelists indicated they are not on the path to solving.Whither feminism 20-plus years after the cries for liberation and the rush to the workplace? Is it paralyzed by its own success, namely women's widespread achievement of economic independence and access to formerly male-dominated careers? Is it stumped by the negative consequences it has wrought: the devaluation of mothering, in particular, and the consequent instability of family relations? Has its unity been diffused by divisions along race and class lines? Or is it -- as the panel's moderator Arlie Hochschild asked -- simply dead, its major goals accomplished?No one on the panel or in the audience at Berkeley's journalism school advocated funeral rites for the movement that has revolutionized 20th-century women's lives. But the difficulty in defining -- and finding solutions for -- today's leading feminist issues was palpable.Barbara Ehrenreich said the main problem facing the continuation of the women's movement is the widening class gap. She argued that it is very hard to mobilize powerful, affluent women around issues that affect lower-class women, such as the impact of welfare reform, which, she said, "has helped to eliminate the social infrastructure of neighborhoods and forced lots of women out of the home and into low paying, dead-end jobs." Ehrenreich doubted that cross-class unity among women was on the forefront. "There are many women who don't have healthcare for themselves and their kids," she said, "while the main concern of many upper-class women is cosmetic surgery and eating disorders."Evelyn Nakano Glenn, a UC Berkeley professor of ethnic and women's studies, addressed a similar feminist quandary born from class and race divisions. In a presentation on the crisis of caregiving, Glenn argued that one of the chief challenges for contemporary feminism is to resolve the growing trend among privileged women to exploit and benefit from the work of poor women, and particularly immigrants who have been coming to the United States in droves to take badly paying jobs as nannies, maids and at-home nurses. This kind of exploitation "was never sufficiently addressed in second-wave feminism," said Glenn, and as a result professional women in the U.S. are advancing their own careers on the backs of overworked immigrants, an irony, which she implied has made the formerly oppressed into a new class of oppressors.Angela Harris, a UC Berkeley professor of law, also argued that family economics are central to future feminist issues. Addressing the theme "Where Do We Go From Here?" in terms of the law, she said feminists need to think beyond equality issues to push the movement forward. Harris' point was that many feminists are too absorbed with closing the wage gap through measures that rest on equal rights legislation. "There are some things that legal equality cannot do for us," she said, giving the example of female lawyers who make wages equal to men but because of long hours and demanding work forego having children, hire nannies or "wait until they are 48 and have made partner." To the cheers of an audience packed with students and second-wave feminists, Harris called for "the restructure of the family market system," but she failed to provide any suggestions about how American women could go about doing this.Perhaps what makes the restructure of family economics so difficult for feminist activists to pursue is that it requires a seemingly unachievable goal: widespread institutional reform in areas as diverse as labor, healthcare and social services. "Why are we not seizing power?!" asked one impassioned student. "Why are women not taking the ropes of politics and pushing for significant economic, political and social change?" No panelist could give a satisfactory answer beyond noting that the system is hard to change and women are making inroads into politics, especially at the local level. But Professor Harris did observe that "this raises the problem of where feminism runs into corporate capitalism." An audience member chimed in: "With the creation of capitalist feminism, we have created a monster!"If there is an enemy among American feminists today it is not men or even the patriarchal system they have slowly been dismantling, according to scholars like Harris and Faludi and Ehrenreich. The enemy is something called corporate capitalism, a term which the panel never defined, but which, among other things, they believe devalues community and family and places making money and achieving career success above anything else."Capitalism has appropriated the work-family balance to its workaholic self," said Hochschild, a UC Berkeley professor of sociology and author of "Second Shift" and "Time Bend," who gave the example of "new corporate towns" or corporate campuses, where in exchange for long hours and corporate loyalty employees are made to feel that work is home. These office parks provide such perks as a full-time "hugger" and poetry slams in addition to social services like on-site doctors and therapists. This, said Hochschild, indicates a trend toward "privatizing civil society." Those in the corporate structure are protected and well-compensated and even offered official nurturing and cultural fun. Whereas those who are not must rely on the increasingly inadequate services of the state.Faludi also sees the culture of corporate capitalism as having devastating consequences for feminism. In her recent book, "Stiffed," she describes how the predominant values of fame, celebrity and wealth, as transmitted through the media, have created a de-politicized, "ornamental culture." "Where we once lived in a society in which men in particular participated by being useful in public life," she argues in her book, "we are now surrounded by a culture that encourages people to play almost no functional roles, only decorative or consumer ones." Faludi believes that men are now fighting the same commercial forces that women have long fought -- and that their sense of disempowerment, or "feminization," is turning them against the feminist goals of equality in the home and the workplace. Without the camaraderie of men, Faludi believes, the society that women envisioned in the 1970s will never come about.All is not lost for feminism, however. Ruth Rosen, author of "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America," argued that many goals previously allied with feminism have been absorbed into movements like environmentalism and labor and healthcare reform. "Almost all the issues that the women's movement raised are still being contested and are at the center of cultural debate," she said. "We seem to be invisible, but our agenda is right there at the heart of national politics."Deirdre English, former editor of Mother Jones magazine, agreed that feminist issues have now become national issues. She warned, however, that they are not necessarily identified as such by the mainstream media, which has great power to form national opinion. "The women's movement happened without institutional support, without media coverage, without celebrities, which is why debate thrived and why the mainstream media never understood it," she said. English argued that in order for feminist debate to thrive in today's media-saturated culture, women, and particularly women journalists, need to make it their business to make feminist issues known. "We have a whole host of hidden injustices, taboos, problems with no name," she said.Ehrenreich made the point even more urgently: "Young women need to define their issues. Step up. Take leadership. Please!"What can be done? What lies ahead? Will the next generation of feminists take up the call of their mothers and mentors and dismantle "corporate capitalism" in the name of widespread social reform? Or will they be overwhelmed by the forces of a money-making, celebrity-driven culture that Faludi indicates is our present and maybe our future. And can reform even be advanced through a self-designated feminist movement?One thing is certain in the bramble of these questions. The problems raised by family and work have moved to the center of contemporary feminist debate. The generation of women that once demanded equal pay for equal work and the right to be free from the shackles of wife- and motherhood are now grappling with very different issues: the cultural pressures to be rich and highly productive; the rising cost of living, which has made the two-income family the norm; and the realization that "having it all" -- work and family -- has created a situation where home and community life are both undervalued and increasingly scarce.At the end of the evening, Ehrenreich called for the "right to work less," a demand that is being met in many European countries like France, where the four day work week has government support. "Things have got to change," she said. "We've come to a breaking point. This is no way for humans of either gender to live."The question for young women is do they agree with Ehrenreich's analysis. Will they -- and their male counterparts -- decide that quality of life is more important than monetary success and try to institute widespread social reform?