Feminisms, unchained

There is a need to revolutionise reforms rather than reform revolutionary commitments, writes Eisenstein.

File photo of Sandberg CEO Facebook attending the annual meeting of WEF in Davos
Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg and other females in power are in part "new cover for old systems" [Reuters]

What gives? Everywhere you look there is another version of what women want, or need. Supposedly, women can have it all, do not want it all, or cut out of the “all” in structural ways by their racial, sexual, gendered, classed identity. Housewifery of the rich is being re-claimed as a creative choice; welfare for the poor demands marriage and fathers; Justice Ginsburg says that Roe v Wade overstepped its bounds; North Dakota, Mississippi and Alabama are hell-bent on making abortion totally illegal and impossible; and people seem to think that Hillary Clinton will run again in 2016, and should because “it is time for a woman president”. Gays may receive some parcel of equal marriage rights from the US Supreme Court, even if grudgingly. What is a girl to think? 

I want to engage in this cacophony of noise, but not with the tired and worn-out critiques. So let me try and radically burst the boundaries of mainstream rights feminism with a radicalised notion of feminism focused on the 99 percent – or at least the 85 percent who regularly move and shake the globe. This demands nuance and subtlety and the ability to maybe forgive past missteps. 

Female faces of power 

With Margaret Thatcher’s death and Hillary Clinton poised to run for US President, feminists committed to radically challenging the inequalities of the globe with its particular impact on women really need to decide what its relation to nation-states and their imperial endeavours is. Thatcher was the first (and only) female prime minister of England and named the Iron Lady for her unrelenting hard core beliefs: she welcomed war in the Falklands, the Gulf and Iraq. She crudely endorsed austerity programmes that broke the back of organised labour. She was a supporter of the powerful and the rich -considering anti-apartheid activists in South Africa terrorists. She authorised and normalised the austerity programmes that are now wreaking havoc everywhere. She might be an icon for conservative women and imperial feminists, but not for the rest of us. 

Hillary Clinton is no Thatcher, but she has a troublesome record on the Iraq and Afghan wars. After making the promise of “women’s rights” so central to US foreign policy, women in these countries face new vulnerabilities with little sustained attention from here. However, more recently she has been “evolving”, on both feminism and gay rights. Although often punished as a feminist icon while First Lady, she said little on behalf of everyday women workers and moms, and neither initiated or supported policies on their behalf. Her early campaign for Presidential nominee in 2008 was really more as Bill’s wife than as her own person. That did not work so well for her. She experienced misogyny firsthand, and by the Democratic Party elite. It changed her. By the time the brutal and bruising primaries ended, Hillary had become devoted to her faithful women supporters. Exactly how much she has changed is yet to be seen.  

 Vatican rebukes US nuns for ‘feminist themes’

So I am wary. Feminists inclined towards a radically innovative set of initiatives on climate change, sustainable economies, issues of day care, paid maternity leave, new unaccountable illegal forms and uses of war, need to organise such a coalition. And it is not adequately addressed by the talk of abstract and unequal “women’s rights” even if this is better than nothing. 

The unfinished business of the 21st century is “women’s rights“, according to Hillary. Many other feminists of the North and South, and First and Third World know that “rights” are not enough. “Rights” need access and access means a different structural relationship between the rich and the middle and the poor. And females of all colours and sexual choices inhabit each of these economic layers. The rights discourse does not need to be rejected; it needs to be radicalised and connected to the structural changes that can give it actual meaning. A “right” to abortion means little if you cannot get one. 

The year 2016 should not be used as an endorsement of an imperial rhetoric for “women’s rights”, which remain seriously unequal and easily undermined by structural constraints of poverty both in the US and across the globe. An Obama or a Hillary might be the best candidate that the US can hope for in these very conservative times, but our liberation movements must remain at the ready to demand more. It is imperative that the US does not go forward as usual on the global stage with a female face: not in “our” name. Biology is not destiny. Vaginal politics is not sufficient even if it might be necessary. 

Corporate nations and misogynist ‘rights’? 

Hillary is said to have done the hard work of readying herself for president. James Carville says she has paid her dues. Please. Do we all need to be married to Bill Clinton or groomed for decades? This might be “rights” feminism writ small; but it needs to be democratised for the rest. A Hillary run may mean something for women’s “rights” – but it does not entail enough for everyday life. That is where radically committed feminists come in.  

No female appears to have followed in Thatcher’s footsteps. And it does not seem clear that all that many women want to follow in Sheryl Sandberg’s at Facebook Nation either. This resistance is at the heart of a new anti-imperial anti-corporatist model for feminism of all kinds. Masses of women across the globe and in the US are working triple days of labour if they have been lucky enough to find a post-economic crisis low-waged job.  

Maybe this is what is new and changed in the larger scheme of things. After a few more decades of unrelenting and cruel inequality across the globe, and inside our home countries, feminists in what can be loosely termed Western, or Northern climes have become more critical of the intersectional misogyny of the global capitalist market. Its liberal and neo-liberal austere politics seems more problematic as it becomes more exclusive and mainstreamed in singular fashion. Let us put the global violence against women in view here with the women of One Billion Rising. Let there be more generosity of spirit for the fearless feminism of Femen as they bare their breasts in outraged defiance of Putin’s patriarchy. Let us connect to the variety of feminist revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt and South Africa. 

The historical moment we all occupy is always new, even if it also remains old and predictable. At this point, corporatism and militarist imperialism bind together in particular ways to utilise masculinist structures but with more and more females – in the military, in corporations, in politics. The capture of female bodies for these new locations begin to tell a troubling complex story in camouflage. 

Given these shifts it is not really all that surprising that Sheryl Sandberg along with Facebook, seem to be, and are everywhere. She is a new female face of corporate/imperial feminism. This is tricky business when corporations are said to be more powerful than countries, as Mark Zuckerberg likes to say and think. For “Facebook Nation” connectivity for advertising is the purpose – the height of the meaning of a privatised nation; a company copying a nation and a nation copying a company (Check out Kate Losse). 

The lean inposturing is merely the method that is necessary to be able to succeed. No one presumes this strategy is about or for the masses. The masses are not the players – we are instead the object of desire – to be networked for buying and selling. Work as hard as you can. Keep your focus. There is no end in sight – the endlessness of the day is the new ethic. Stick family inside it and keep going. 

'The Social Network' (2010) is an ode to Mark Zuckerberg and the new class power - its sheer arrogance, ruthlessness and technical genius.

by Zillah Eisenstein

The film The Social Network (2010) is an ode to Mark Zuckerberg and the new class power – its sheer arrogance, ruthlessness and technical genius. Hats off to male loners who can celebrate their nerdy white Harvard selves. The new global citizen will be ruthless and singular. Forget that people need one another or might want an interesting life. Life is a lottery and a very few win and they win big. 

Hillary, Sheryl and other females in power are in part new cover for old systems. This orchestrates a newer more modern and gender friendly misogyny. But horrific rape remains a scourge across this globe; and the unrelenting assault on legal abortion rights that are constitutional remains at a fever pitch. Hurray for the gains and reforms and the improvements but we need to watch all of our backs here. Yes to the rights of marriage equality for gays, but revolutionary reform still needs to mobilise a radical assault on misogynist heterosexism.  

Radically inventive anti-imperial, anti-racist anti-heterosexist feminisms need to become boisterously loud. Hillary is not really the issue here. We are. Pressures resonate from the outside-in. There needs to be a politics outside – when it is too unclear anyway where the “inside” begins – to risk ourselves with simply demanding entry. Women are entering education on all levels across the globe just at the point in time when it is not exactly clear how education will connect to the newest cyber-related jobs of the globe. Women have become the presidents of elite universities just as these very universities are being downsized. Women have entered law and medicine just as these professions are losing their place. 

Is it just possible that by the time the exclusivity of a location is made more inclusive or that something is given to women, or anyone for that matter, that what has been withheld and is then given, is no longer power-filled as it once was? I am wondering that in these changing times whether exclusive sites of power open to once excluded groups because the power is shifting elsewhere. Then inclusion of women may not mean what it once did, if it ever did. 

Newest audacious feminisms 

The varieties of how women can see themselves and their “rights” – from afar or up close – is more necessary than ever as the globe shifts and changes. The imperial forms of feminisms that can hurt any and all women anywhere is more complex and nuanced because of the mixed identities of time and place. 

Reform and revolution need reinvention because of the intersectionality and multiplicity of power. Let us revolutionise reforms rather than reform revolutionary commitments. The West is not simply the old “West” – it is filled with complexity and variations. 

Despair is too easy and allows the powerful their power. Female corporatism, female militarism, female nationalism does not work because each is deeply embedded in patriarchal and misogynist and racist practices. Let them not re-habilitate, resuscitate, hijack, coopt or feminise the imperial, colonising, oppressive forms. 

Women have been excluded from spheres of power throughout history. The particular spheres may shift and change, but exclusion is part of the systematic and systemic oppression of women. But simple inclusion does not change the structural problem sufficiently. It may loosen the grip of discrimination but it does not dissolve it. So I remain cautious of simply reforming the exclusivity of misogyny.  

It is important that feminists of all sorts – beyond the biological body – remember the wounds that imperial feminism has caused. They should also forgive them. A forgotten wounding cannot be healed. Instead it is left to fester. But without forgiving there is no movement. This is true of differences themselves – if they are ignored they remain problematic – and when they are remembered and embraced – they become a wonderful cacophony of feminist voices that maybe just can save the planet. So let us remember the wounds of imperial “rights” and re-make them, radically true and real.

Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past 30 years. She writes in order to engage in political struggles for social justice across the globe. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York. Her most recent books with Zed Press, London include: The Audacity of Races and Genders (2009); Sexual Decoys, Gender, Race and War (2007); and Against Empire (2004).