Most readers will remember the impassioned armies of Hillary Clinton fans in 2016, many of them prominent media commentators, who furiously demonized Bernie Sanders and his supporters as sexist, dismissing with irritation any discussion of Medicare for All and other working-class goals that Sanders and his movement championed. All that mattered to these feminists was that Hillary Clinton was a woman and that it was “her turn” to be president; the working-class women who needed a politics that might improve their material well-being were apparently irrelevant.
The “Bernie Bro” moment — remember that epithet? — came right on the heels of Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In, a novel work of capitalist self-help that encouraged women to succeed in the workplace by working harder and asserting themselves.
This elitist vision of feminism has been around for more than one hundred years. In the early twentieth century Alexandra Kollontai, a Russian socialist organizer and writer who would later become the only woman in the Bolshevik government, denounced “bourgeois feminists” who wanted access to the same class privileges as their husbands but were never, she argued, going to support the working-class revolution that most women needed if they were to be liberated, either at work or at home.
Today we are more likely to use terms like “liberal feminism” or “girl boss feminism,” but the meaning is the same: a vision of women’s liberation available only to the one percent. It hasn’t gone away, but its once-toxic intensity seems to have lifted. And its worst manifestations have apparently faded, including the worship of rich, powerful female politicians and CEOs, and the political habit of deploying feminism against the working class or the Left.
Maybe — if we’re feeling optimistic — a more democratic, working-class vision of women’s liberation is even gathering strength.
Wither the Girl Boss?
For a simple indication of the diminished stature of the “girl boss,” just look at the news cycle in recent weeks.
When beloved Gen X actress Drew Barrymore, for example, announced on September 10 that she was bringing back her TV show despite the writers’ strike, the reaction was fast and furious. Not only was she excoriated by labor and the Left, but the National Book Awards rescinded her invitation to host its annual ceremony. In the past, Barrymore’s status as a famous actress and a female boss would almost certainly have been weaponized against the strikers, as Hillary’s femaleness was against the Left. But Barrymore had few defenders, even among her longtime fans. In the Barrymore dustup, there was no backlash to the backlash, and after a few more public missteps she ultimately made the correct decision: to honor the picket line and keep her show off the air.
Another recent example of how far the girl boss mythos has fallen was the public criticism of General Motors CEO Mary Barra, whose $28.98 million compensation package was widely criticized in the lead-up to the UAW’s historic strike against the Big Three car manufacturers. The UAW has been highlighting the pay gap between CEOs and workers as part of its argument that members deserve better. Of the Big Three CEOs, Barra is the highest paid, and when asked on CNN why, given her exorbitant salary, workers shouldn’t make more, she doubled down, insisting that her pay was tied to the performance of the company. “When the company does well,” she said, “everyone does well.”
Whatever she meant by that statement, it was foolish and widely criticized. As Edith Olmsted pointed out in the New Republic, Barra’s remarks could be seen as a justification of exploitation: her outrageously high salary is, after all, a function of keeping worker pay low. Politico and many other media outlets noted that Barra’s salary is 362 times that of the median worker at her company, and the Politico story on the issue was headlined “‘No defensible argument’: Anger boils over at CEO pay.” While coverage and criticism of Barra has been denounced as sexist in the past — sometimes rightly so: in 2014 Matt Lauer asked her if she was a “good mom”(cringe) — no one had a problem with the fury and tough questions she faced this week.
And what about the KHive, the famously intense fans of Vice President Kamala Harris who swarm to denounce anyone who dares criticize the queen? Consider how widely Harris’s leadership and political savvy have been questioned over the past couple years, to relatively little mainstream backlash. Harris is less popular than the last four vice presidents, even Mike Pence. The mainstream media sometimes defends her, but the defenses have been muted and low key.
In 2020, the peak of the KHive, one would have predicted that such a state of affairs would have pitched the KHive into overdrive, pushing sober grown-ups to act like K-pop fans and madly attack the offending enemies of the vice president. But that isn’t what has happened. As early as last year, the Daily Beast was writing an obituary for the KHive, proclaiming the phenomenon “in retreat.”
A Better (and Worse) Feminism
If bourgeois feminism is in fact receding, what accounts for its relative decline?
During Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, leftist women supporters vigorously critiqued not only Hillary Clinton, but the type of feminism she represented, arguing that most women would benefit more from Sanders’s democratic socialist agenda than from Clinton’s enthusiastically pro-capitalist feminism. Much has happened since 2016: attacks on abortion rights, the rise of democratic socialism, increased labor militancy, the deepening of the climate crisis, the 2020 George Floyd protests, the pandemic crisis of care, and the emergence of a truly insane far right. Liberal feminism has not met the moment, and its failure to do so has curbed its appeal. It’s pretty obvious that adding a few more women CEOs and presidents to the world won’t help; Starbucks workers are fighting for a union, not a female boss.
In our century, bourgeois feminism has been hopelessly linked to an oppressive workaholic culture, in which people are expected to sacrifice family life, social activities, interests, and their physical and mental health. One of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic is that even many relatively well-off workers have been rejecting that culture. Once you’ve decided that there is more to life than work, Lean In feminism doesn’t have much appeal.
Still, it would be premature for the followers of Alexandra Kollontai (or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) to do a victory dance. While the liberal girl boss may be on the wane, we are also seeing — in the United States and globally — the rise of the right-wing, even fascist, female icon, in figures like Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni. As Hillary Clinton herself has observed, right-wing women often get more support than liberal women because their followers know they won’t challenge the patriarchy. Liberal feminism may be dying, but it could be replaced by something much worse.
We can’t just cheer the demise of KHive, girl boss politics. We’ll have to fight for a socialist feminism that can liberate all women.