Feminism and capitalism are both in crisis. Not a crisis in the sense that the constellation of norms, ideas, and practices that undergird capitalism or feminism is in danger of collapse, but rather a crisis in the sense that we have reached an inflection point.
The variant of capitalism dubbed neoliberalism has, in the eyes of many, lost legitimacy. There is widespread disgust with the institutions and flag bearers of the status quo. The centrist voices that have shaped common sense for the past few decades — and today insist, in the face of yawning inequality and catastrophic climate change, that the only way forward is to preserve the core elements of neoliberalism — are being forced to share the airwaves with populists on both the Left and the Right who think otherwise.
Feminism for its part is being decried as simultaneously ineffective and blinkered. What for decades women in wealthy countries have been told are the core goals of feminism — wage parity, equal representation in political and economic life, the right to a legal, safe abortion — have either not been achieved or are under threat.
Moreover, for a growing number of women, particularly poor and working-class women and women living in the Global South, these goals feel insufficient or not attuned to the realities of everyday life. For many, mainstream feminism seems like a project shaped around the needs and desires of privileged women.
Crisis means opportunity, however. Right now, in this moment of political uncertainty, there is an opening — a remapping of the possible. People are looking for new ideas and asking hard questions about the nature and direction of the horizon we seek.
What is the horizon of feminism? Can capitalism and feminism coexist?
To address these questions productively we must remember that that feminism is not a cut-and-dry political program. It is a political struggle. We often forget or elide this fact, which results in confusion all around. Characterizing feminism as a political struggle highlights the obvious but essential point, that women often have radically divergent political worldviews.
If we think that capitalism is, with some tweaks here and there, the most just and appealing system, the best way to organize the planet, our feminism will reflect this worldview. This feminist struggle will orbit around goals to give women opportunities and rewards within capitalism equal to those accorded men. This feminism will strive to realize conditions that allow each woman to compete in the marketplace and to maximize their human capital.
But there are also those of us whose feminism is shaped by an anticapitalist politics. If we think that capitalism is destroying the livability of our planet and preventing the vast majority of people from living a decent life, let alone reaching their full potential, our feminism will demand something beyond tweaks to the status quo that in practice benefit mostly white women of a professional-managerial bent. This feminism will offer a vision of liberation beyond the narrow pathways of paid work and political representation.
Is women’s liberation getting the corner office, or at least a genuine chance to get the corner office? Or do we believe that women’s liberation is the ability for all people to have justice, dignity, and security?
Most visions of women’s liberation share some key assumptions. We broadly agree that all women should have access to food, and depending on your politics, some standard of health care and education. We also agree that all women should have equal protection under the law from abuse and violence.
But we quickly reach a point of divergence. Beyond that our answers to the question of “What does women’s liberation mean to me?” suggest distinct political projects. There is not one feminist horizon. Our various definitions of women’s liberation, formed through tears and triumphs across space and time, rooted in decades of theory and praxis, point the way toward different horizons.
The dominant feminist project of the past few decades has encouraged us to forget this fact. Proponents of mainstream feminism have worked hard to collapse the myriad feminisms of the world, each rooted in a different political worldview and a different vision of women’s liberation, into one version of feminism that aligns neatly with the preoccupations and proclivities of our for-profit system.
This version of feminism defines women’s liberation as equality with men in the hierarchy of power. It makes few moves to challenge, let alone dismantle, this hierarchy, however. Instead, mainstream feminism is mostly concerned with distribution, focused on making room for women in the upper tiers, rather than pushing for gains that would help all women such as single-payer health care, guaranteed housing, free public higher education, universal pre-K, and a living wage.
This doesn’t mean that pro-capitalist versions of feminism are somehow inauthentic or without value. Markets can empower women, and real feminist gains have been made within capitalism. These gains weren’t a result of capitalism obviously, but they were won following struggles within capitalism.
Ultimately though, by failing to challenge the divisive drives of capitalism, dominant versions of feminism offer a stifled vision of women’s liberation. In this moment we should seize this political opening and fight for a feminism that doesn’t prop up our destructive for-profit system.
The feminism I fight for does not snuggle comfortably in the lap of capitalism. It is rooted in the understanding that capitalism is the problem, and that a feminism rooted in democratic, egalitarian, anticapitalist principles is the solution — the answer to the oppression of women and children and men, the answer to the destruction of our air and oceans and wild spaces, and to the muzzling of our solidarity and creativity.
Make no mistake, my feminism wants women to earn equal wages and sit in the halls of power. But it also wants much more than this — it demands liberation from the economic and political structures that prevent the vast majority of women and men from living a good life.
My feminism believes this goal can only be achieved through anticapitalist struggle. It is a feminism that encompasses and embraces union drives and living-wage campaigns, efforts to recognize and reward unpaid reproductive labor, movements building a just transition to green energy, fights against racism and for LGBT rights, and efforts to decommodify the necessities of life.
Maybe you don’t like my version of feminism. Perhaps you have your own vision of women’s liberation that looks very different. You may not have a crystallized political worldview at all. That’s okay.
Developing robust, powerful feminisms requires us to listen to other women (and young people and maybe a few men) about their hopes and dreams, their values and fears, their priorities and struggles. Listening without jumping to judgment or offense.
Feminism is not a map to a utopia that someday we’ll all get to, and live happily ever after in. It’s a centuries-old struggle for liberation. I’ll be fighting and so should you.