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Market Feminism: After the Revolution

This is the third installment summarizing a talk I gave at the University of Vermont on October 24.  The first and second installments are here and here.

One should hold fast to the fact that feminism is, first and foremost, a social movement. It is not a theory, but a massive social change that has proceeded in the start-and-stop, trial-and-error, generation-to-generation, and altogether messy manner that such historic movements always do.

During this often unpredictable unfolding, opinions on how to think about the problem have varied a great deal.  We can expect that our ways of thinking will continue to change in the future. But I would suggest that the adoption and evaluation of actual tactics should perhaps be less about coherence to the theory du jour and more about what experience suggests is effective. Perhaps we must alter our theory to fit the outcomes of practice, not vice versa.

Under the test of practical results, the idea of revolution as a means to secure women’s empowerment cannot hold up, no matter how it may be justified by theoretical ruminations.

I admit that it has always seemed outrageous to me when grown people insisted the only acceptable approach to women’s emancipation was revolution.  Yet this was the received wisdom in academic feminism through most of the past fifty years.  Despite the undeniable impact of the reforms won by the liberal approach during the movement’s first 200 years, radicals at universities would sniff derisively about “conservatives” who did not advocate total destruction of the system.  Suggesting any other plan, taking any lesser action, would draw name-calling (“neo-con,” “neo-liberal”), not reasoned argument or comparative evidence.  Any article that did not nod to the wisdom of the radical view could not be published. Criticizing this ludicrous position could cost you tenure. So we all muddled along, biting our tongues, as if some romanticized version of revolution really could be the answer for women.

The notion of revolution still lurks quietly behind current protests over “neo-liberal” attempts to empower women through the economy. Besides the sheer irresponsible lunacy of the suggestion, there are three major problems with advocating revolution as the means through which to empower women:  (1) the tactic does not fit the conditions of this particular form of oppression, (2) the evidence suggests revolution is a risky business and thus often a very bad thing, especially for women, and (3) the protest tactics of the 1960s, which were formative for the Second Wave, no longer impress anybody.

To the first issue. In most situations involving mass inequity–the class struggle, racial division, religious hatred–there is a clear “us” and “them” division that is reflected in spatial and social separations.  That is, the groups in conflict–say, whites and blacks–usually live apart, attend different churches, frequent different districts, and so on.  Some distant “other” can be demonized.  Violent action (throwing a bomb or whatever) is never contemplated against the near and dear.  To be sure, the retaliation that inevitably follows may hurt the revolutionary’s loved ones, but intimates are not the targets of insurrection.

Women played a big role in the French Revolution. That doesn't mean it did anything for them.

In the situation of women, there is no similar geographical or social distance.  A woman’s most dangerous enemy is often the man in her bed.  The most effective ideology delivered against her may be coming from her own priest.  Indeed, the doubts in her own soul may hold her back more than anything else.  The intimacy of the struggle augurs against the feasibility of a violent revolution on behalf of women, never mind its effectiveness.  The revolution idea works only if you accept a Marxist argument that women and working class men have a common, isolable enemy–that is, the institutions of capitalism. But here, as I have argued in the previous posts, we run up against an insupportable conflation.  Patriarchy and capitalism are not the same creature.

George Washington crossing the Potomac, a classic image of the American Revolution. Women don't figure into this picture and they weren't part of the vision of the new government, either. Glorious.

I have also always suspected that the would-be revolutionaries of my era had an unaccountably bloodless and risk-free notion of utopian upheaval. I imagined that they looked at the stiffly decorous paintings of the American Revolution or the romantic allegories of the French Revolution and figured theirs would be an equally painterly moment.  And they assumed this gracious coup would result in an enlightened program of equality, agreeable to all.

That brings us to the second major problem:  this is not how real revolutions go. After the global record of the past 100 years, we now realize that the American Revolution was an outlier, in that it did, in fact, result in a relatively peaceful and orderly shift of power, as well as institute a determined program of democracy.  The far more frequent outcome is a descent into terror as the social fabric unravels, followed by a power grab from a well-organized faction (often the military or the church) which may result in the restoration of order, but usually also in a dramatic retraction of rights and freedoms.  In the worst case, there is a spiraling of disorder, with various interests bringing one tyrant after another to power, leaving the populace terrified, disease-ridden, poverty-struck, and prone to violence among themselves. One thing that can also be generalized is that revolution is almost never good for women.  They tend to be the victims of violent rampages that accompany the terror; the retraction of rights often falls most heavily on them (think: Iran).

The second half of the twentieth century provided many object lessons in the dangers of revolution.  All the countries of sub-Saharan Africa broke the hold of colonial power, like a sequence of dominos falling.  The treatment of Africans by the imperialists of Europe and America is one of the most awful stories of human history.  Few of us would argue that the situation did not demand radical change.  However, it is also true that this region has spent the past fifty years struggling with dictators, violent factions, sudden coups, roving militias–and the poverty, disease, and discontent that follows from the loss of order. As a result, the worst countries in the world for violence against women tend to be in sub-Saharan Africa.

This map shows the governments most out of step with CEDAW as dark and darker green. Compliance with the Convention is indicative of the level of gender violence on the ground.

Every nation-level gender index shows sub-Saharan African countries clustered near the bottom. So all this revolution has done nothing for the women.  Yet only the faintest glimmers of the modern economy are evident–indeed, many of the would-be revolutionaries in this prolonged disaster were Marxists.  We cannot, therefore, conclude that capitalism was the problem or that women joining with their oppressed men in revolt–however justified it may have been–produced a feminist solution.

What aging radicals now say is that they really meant to advocate a gradual, peaceful revolution.  It is hard to understand how that tactic would differ from the “reformist” methods they have lambasted for so long. I suspect much of the imagined “peaceful revolution” is nostalgic reversion to the notion of protest from the 1960s.  (It is always instructive to remember that the radical wing of the Second Wave was born as a reaction to the sexist attitudes of the male student protest movement.)  Civil disobedience and the implicit threat of unrest that came along with long hair and big marches made the authorities sit up and take notice, back in the day.  There were some real moments of confrontation between radicals and “the Establishment” and they did not always end peacefully.

From left, my daughter Caitlin, me, Cait's close friend Max, and Jim, at the march to protest the invasion of Iraq in October 2005. My sister Susan, who took the picture, also designed our Tshirts, which we tore up to look edgier. Can you see my peace sign earrings? I still had them from the 60s. Now I ask you: does this look like a serious political action?

But things are different now. I remember going with Jim, Susan, Caitlin and her friend Max to march on Washington (again) in the fall of 2005. I was all ready for real confrontation with the Bush administration.  What a disappointment.  The police, looking bored, shepherded the crowd along its pre-determined path.  There was a big area at the end with folding chairs so we could hear Steve Earle and Joan Baez. That part was fun, especially because Susan is completely nuts about Steve Earle. But the atmosphere that day was closer to a Sunday School picnic than a political confrontation. (Honestly, I went down there to the 4th of July fireworks and it was scarier than this march.) Still, the crowd was enormous and we were sure it would send a clear message of how angry everyone was about the invasion.  That night, it didn’t even make the news.

I remember lying in bed later, feeling really jarred about how impotent the tools of protest have become. Yes, it was true we had been “handled” by the Establishment.  But we ourselves–the whole crowd–were just evoking the symbols of the past–protest music, peace signs, posters on sticks.  As we would pass each other, marchers would laugh at the pithy slogans and admire each other’s T-shirts.  All we were missing to turn this protest into an actual picnic was the hot dogs.

Everyone has moments of fury and frustration when we just want to blow it all up.  But the difference between an angsty teenager and a grownup who wants lasting change is the ability to think through consequences and to quell the appetite for immediate gratification.  The women’s movement is unavoidably a long game.  We made more progress during the Second Wave than at any other time in history.  I truly believe we are poised to take women’s freedoms forward by a quantum leap. But we need new tools. And we need to stop entertaining a fiction where we can overthrow “the system” and it will save everybody, especially women, in one grand gesture.

Market Feminism would proceed very differently.  It would be an evidence-based, experimental approach to emancipation–only it would focus on the economy and use practical interventions of all sorts, not just legal remedies, to effect change.  It would be inclusive–seeking partners among institutions of all kinds–not aimlessly destructive. In the upcoming posts, I will give some examples of the interventions would fit under this rubric.


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