Liberalism’s Limitations: On Feminism and Class

In recent years, despite (and arguably, in some cases, because of) the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the alt-right, feminism has seen something of an upsurge in support.   For example, the women’s march, which first occurred in 2017 in response to Trump’s election, brought out crowds of about three million people worldwide.  Although the march has been seen as a flex of feminist power, many have accused supporters of the movement of “white feminism” (in short, a kind of feminism that only prioritizes the needs of white, upper-middle class women, and lacks intersectionality, especially evidenced by trans-exclusivity).  Moreover, movements such as #MeToo have helped women to share stories of sexual harassment openly like never before.

A lot has happened in the women’s rights realm recently, but it can be hard to pin down exactly what individuals mean when they say that they identify as feminists. This is Merriam Webster’s definition:

“The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities; the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”

Feminism, however, is a complicated movement that cannot effectively be wrapped up by the above definition. After all, what does it mean to actually achieve “equality,” as the definition suggests? This has proven itself to be a difficult question to answer: for this reason, there are many kinds of feminism, all of which have varying answers to the question. One of the more common forms of feminism in North America, liberal feminism, has called on reform in government and public policy to bring about women’s equality under the law, especially in situations such as the pay gap and access to reproductive healthcare.

One of liberal feminism’s major goals has been equal representation in places such as government and business. The concept of having more women in positions of power often comes from a place of good intention. But when put into practice, the idea has had imperfect, and at times, damaging results that need to be discussed critically.

Many critics of liberal feminism emphasize the concept of intersectionality.  The term intersectionality, coined by legal scholar Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, is defined by Crenshaw as the following:

“The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.”

It is true that many liberal feminists either are unaware of or intentionally blow off intersectionality, leading to the (quite rightfully) hurt feelings of many persons facing multiple forms of societal marginalization, such as women and LGBTQ+ Persons of Color. The issues that many multiple marginalized persons face are simply not brought up or focused upon because many liberal feminists ignore the underlying concepts of intersectionality.

Unfortunately, this is partially because intersectionality does not provide a self-sufficient, complete answer as to how oppression operates. While intersectionality explains how oppression is experienced by many persons based on their identities (and is therefore a useful teaching tool, depending on the context), it does not fully explain why oppression exists in society.  Here is where, of the “-isms” that intersectionality focuses upon, such as racism, sexism, ableism, etc., classism must also be discussed, not only as an “-ism” in itself, but also in its relationship to exacerbating the problems of the other “-isms.” In other words, class society and the divisions of social classes are what provide the material basis for other kinds of inequality to not only continue, but also thrive.

Therefore, put bluntly, a significant problem of liberal feminism’s approach lies its lack of class analysis.  While it is nice sentiment to believe that all women are on the “same side” politically, the material conditions of our current world demonstrate that this belief, while often well-intentioned, is misguided. It is time to admit that elite women in high level, corporate positions, just like elite men in high level, corporate positions, do not have the same interests as a social class as their working class counter-parts do.  Feminists must acknowledge this reality and act accordingly.

The extent of the problem can be demonstrated in the considerations of choice feminism, an offspring of liberal feminism that argues that any choice a woman makes is inherently feminist. Under this form of thinking, a woman deciding to become a CEO is a fine, feminist choice, as is a woman deciding to remain in the home.

The argument of choice feminism follows the line of rationale that argues that, in a world where women are often not considered equals, women may have little left other than their own ability to make choices for themselves, and to their own life path.  This framework of choice, however, begs the question: are many of the decisions women make rooted in free will?

The simple, and decidedly ugly, answer to this question is no.  Certainly, women (and particularly, women of color and LGBT+ persons), who want to become CEOs face a glass ceiling in terms of reaching higher up leadership positions.  Discrimination (casual and otherwise), is an unfortunate, serious, and pervasive reality that is prohibitive in the workplace.  While discrimination in the workplace is a problem of its own, it should not be forgotten that most women are in no place to even consider becoming a CEO, and this is because of their precarious economic situations relative to men.  In the United States, for example, the majority of minimum wage workers are women; in fact, women of all races made less than their male counterparts in 2017, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Certainly, fewer women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community have the ability to become C.E.O.s than white, upper-class, heterosexual men do.

This observation that liberal feminists make and frequently point out is not necessarily wrong.  After all, only 24 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women.  This observation, however, is where class differences between working-class persons and the elite of society (and yes, that includes elite women), need to be taken seriously. According so to a 2018 CNN business report, the income gap between employers and their workers has grown exponentially in more recent years, and that it is not uncommon for a CEO to earn hundreds, or even thousands, of times the wage their average workers are paid.

Unfortunately, according to a study done in 2011, the average American is relatively unaware of the crisis of income inequality in the United States.  In the study, the average American asked believed that the richest quintile of the population owned 59 percent of the wealth, while the bottom two quintiles owned nine percent.  The reality, however, in 2011 was much worse: rather, the top quintile of the population owned more than 84 percent of the wealth, while the bottom two quintiles only owned 0.3 percent!  Meanwhile, the ultra-rich are inconceivably well off: the Walton family (the family that started Walmart), for example, has more wealth than 42% of American families combined. Meanwhile, almost four out of five Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and about 55 million Americans have no emergency savings.

Considering that many Americans are in no less than dire economic straights (and are, in many cases, the employees of these very rich persons), this kind of inequality is parasitic. Is it really a great solution in terms of reaching gender equality, therefore, to prioritize and actively work towards having more women and members of other minority groups in positions of leadership problem, when many leaders under the capitalist system are abusive and exploitative?

Ultimately, many liberal feminists still say yes: it is common to see them applaud women obtaining leadership positions in questionable places.  Recently, for example, Politico published an article on how women were overcoming barriers in the military industrial complex, now that the CEOs of four of the nation’s biggest defense contractors — Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and the defense arm of Boeing —  are women. Perhaps to someone that has no issue with the Military Industrial Complex and its need to profit off wars to survive financially, the increased amount of women in leadership could be seen as a win for a movement like feminism. But this can only be seen as a win for a feminism that lacks an understanding of social class and inequality.

Still, liberal feminist’s concerns in terms of representation are not limited to the business world; rather, many also take issue with the lack of women in conventional politics.

Their concern is understandable: even in recent years, the representation of women, People of Color, and LGBT+ persons in the United States, has been scant. While the new congress resulting from the 2018 elections has more women than ever, only 20.6 percent of Congress seats last year were taken up by women. Even fewer representatives (39 of the 110 women in Congress last year) are women of color.

Because of such dreadful statistics, it is of little surprise that the 2018 mid-term elections were inspiring to so many Americans. These elections saw the victories of congresswomen breaking historical boundaries, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York (the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, at 29), Rashida Tlaib (the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress), Deb Halaand of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas (the first Native American women to be elected to Congress), Lauren Underwood of Illinois (the youngest black woman to serve in Congress) and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota (the first Somali-American woman elected to Congress).

Ilhan Omar, newly elected U.S. Representative from Minnesota

In an imperfect system, it is understandable that many women see increased representation as an improvement above the status quo. While these kinds of victories can and should be celebrated within context, if women are truly to receive “equality,” it is time to question whether the power structures in place can truly provide such a thing.

In fact, the limitations of the system become clear with the process of elections in the United States. In the first place, elections are extremely expensive: in the 2016 election, over two billion dollars were spent in the Clinton and Trump campaigns alone, and hundreds of millions more were even spent on candidates who ultimately lost in the electoral primaries. In 2018, more than five billion was spent, with some Senate races exceeding 100 million dollars spent.  If any person with an average amount of wealth wants to run for office, these kinds of costs can be prohibitive, and they may have to tailor their views to fit a party that may be able to help arrange the finances of their campaign.

Such a problem is amplified further by the limitations of the two party system in the United States, as it is extremely difficult for third parties to form and gain electoral legitimacy.  Many third parties, such as the Green Party, have significant upkeep to even maintain a place on the ballot.   If a third party can get on the ballot to offer something of a different agenda, constant questions of “splitting the vote” often arise.

While many see the Democratic Party of the two parties as a more “progressive” way forward within the current system, much of the party’s track record suggests the contrary.  Despite having a reputation for being less supportive of wars than their Republican counterparts, for example, the Democrats voted more heavily in favour of the 696.5 billion dollar Department of Defense spending bill  (an increase in spending of over 100 billion dollars in a year’s time) in both the House and the Senate in 2018, with 60 percent of House Democrats and 89 percent of Senate Democrats voting for the measure.

Many democrats running for election in 2018 also took significant funding from corporations, even though such a practice has historically made campaign promises difficult to fulfill: it’s hard to challenge large corporations when they fund your campaigns.  Such limitations of taking corporate funding show: despite the work unions put in to elect Democrats to full control of the federal government three times in the last four decades, the Democratic Party was unable to “pass labor law reforms that [act] would to bolster the union cause.” Even though some of the new members of Congress claim to be more radical, they still have chosen the difficult path of working within such a mainstream party.

Such difficulties in the realm of politics in the United States, however, are symptoms of a system that is rotten to its core.  After all, the average person has little power in today’s United States of America in the first place. In 2014, two university professors released a study that argued while many Americans see their country as a democracy, the reality is that only a select few have influence in political affairs. They concluded the following:

“Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” In other words, they argued the United States cannot reasonably be seen as a representative democracy; instead, it is the economic elite who have and control power.

Such findings become less surprising with a quick glance into history, which serves as a reminder that things in America have never been fair: colonization, slavery, and white supremacy all are what made the United States powerful in the first place. One U.N. Official, Maina Kiai, U.N. Special Rapporteur, said of the United States: “The country was founded on land stolen from its indigenous Native Americans; its early economic strength was built on race-based slavery against people of African descent; and successive waves of immigrants have faced discrimination, harassment or worse.”

White supremacy is still institutionalized in the United States today, and manifests itself in police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and state violence that came with the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (in which hundreds of protestors were injured).  Such phenomena demonstrate that the United States is not afraid to commit violence against the same groups of people it has marginalized for hundreds of years in order to get its way, economically and otherwise.

While it is clear that the United States functions under an illusion of a democracy, and that elections are lightyears away from effectively representing the needs and desires of working-class American people (although many issues, such as climate change, are becoming alarmingly urgent) many feminist organizations in the United States – such as Feminist Majority and A.A.U.W. – still center their work around elections. Ultimately, this is because liberal feminism is a feminism that, regardless of how poor the material conditions of working people become, chooses to seek solutions based on reform and representation. If feminism is to make true progress, it’s time for the movement to align itself with class struggle, and quickly.

Edited by Catharina O’Donnell