On Reading “Notes for a Feminist Manifesto” While in My Rust Belt Hometown

Though the Occupy movement continues to fade from public memory, references to our signature chant of “We are the 99%!” still abound. They are of interest either because we feel ripped off when mainstream political candidates claim to be and/or represent 99-percenters or because we are glad to be reminded of the cooperation and solidarity we experienced as part of that not-so-long-ago movement. (1) In the past few years women’s strikes have taken place around the world, eliciting excitement about the role women can play in bringing unity to a divided movement. “Notes for a Feminist Manifesto” (2) is a synopsis of the work of three women, Cinzia Abruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, who believe that the women’s movement can, among other things, help build solidarity among disparate groups.

While recent experiences during the January 2019 Women’s Marches in New York City; Tucson, AZ; and elsewhere leave some doubt about this (3), it’s also true that those marches were events rather than fully formed movements. Inspired by the huge Women’s Marches in 2017 shortly after Donald Trump became president, the 2019 Women’s Marches represented attempts to bring diverse groups together under one banner without engaging in enough of the hard work of coalition building. In their manifesto Abruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser put forth some serious ideas about how real solidarity can be built among divergent groups in the women’s movement and beyond. Here’s a short description of what they have to say, combined with my own reactions as I read these manifesto notes in the former steel center of Youngstown, Ohio:

“Notes for a Feminist Manifesto” begins by comparing a feminist strike that took place in Spain on March 8, 2018, with the advice that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (4) gave to women at around that same time. Sandberg is described as a “leading exponent of corporate feminism” who urges women managers to “lean in” when they are participating in company meetings (she is the founder of Leanin.org). In 2018 she was ranked sixth out of the 50 “Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune Magazine (5). According to Sandberg, gender equality can be attained if “half of all countries and companies were run by women, and half of all homes were run by men.” But Sandberg is also a billionaire and clearly represents what in Occupy parlance is called the 1%. The Spanish Strikers, on the other hand, clearly represent the 99%. As five million women filled the streets of Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona, these participants in la huelga feminsta announced that they would “interrupt all productive and reproductive activity” and that they would not accept worse working conditions than men or unequal pay for equal work.

These two divergent approaches — Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate feminism and the strike action of Spanish women — represent what the manifesto’s creators call “opposing paths for the feminist movement.” Women like Sandberg see feminism as “a handmaiden of capitalism.” The strikers, on the other hand, “are calling for an end to capitalist — and patriarchal — domination.” This, say Abruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser, leaves the women’s movement at a fork in the road, (6) and women must choose the path that benefits the largest number, not the privileged few. The manifesto-writers then enumerate Eleven Theses that point toward the path that they believe would lead to a new and decidedly anti-capitalist feminist movement.

To begin with, Abruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser clearly understand the concept of “intersectionality” (7), and that understanding is reflected in Thesis 8, “Capitalism was born amid racist and colonial violence. Feminism for the 99 per cent is anti-racist and anti-imperialist.” They call upon women to pay close attention to the resurgence of white supremacy, the mistreatment of migrants and refugees, policies of family separation, murders of African-Americans by police, and other manifestations of racism in our society. They also cite the fact that feminists have sometimes taken very problematic positions when racism has been at issue, noting that white US suffragists spoke out in racist terms when black men were given the right to vote after the Civil War and women were not. In the 20th century, British feminists defended colonialism in India on “civilizational” grounds. And white feminists continue to define sexism in ways that focus on the needs and interests of white middle-class women. Abruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser proclaim that “We understand that nothing deserving the name of ‘women’s liberation’ can be achieved in a racist, imperialist society. But we also understand that the root of the problem is capitalism: racism and imperialism are not incidental but integral to it.” Criticisms that were made of some white women who helped to organize the Women’s March in 2019 and who, it was felt, did not know how to work with women of color clearly show that any women’s movement that doesn’t take seriously the role of race and the special oppression it brings to women cannot succeed as a feminism for the 99 per cent.

Other theses in this manifesto deal with issues that have historically been feminist concerns. Thesis 6 calls for a fight against all forms of gender violence and contains a helpful critique of so-called ‘carceral feminism,’ which sees the solution to this violence to be more laws, more police, more courts, and more punishment, without taking into consideration the class- and race-based ways those punishments are doled out. This thesis also criticizes so-called market-based solutions which promote women’s independence by offering loans, and consequently makes women dependent on their creditors. The authors of the manifesto see the fight against gender violence as a “fight against all forms of violence in capitalist society.” Thesis 7 calls for an end to the regulation of sexuality, and the manifesto’s authors see some of the new sexual liberationist currents as a way “to normalize once-taboo sexual practices within an expanded zone of state regulation, in capital-friendly forms that encourage individualism, domesticity and commodity consumption.” In order for sexuality to be truly liberated, they say, capitalism must be eliminated.

The manifesto-writers also examine ways that the women’s movement can ally itself with other movements. They call for feminists to take on environmental issues (Thesis 9) by embracing an eco-socialist approach, and they argue that an anti-capitalist feminism must be internationalist and anti-imperialist in scope (Thesis 10). “[F]or us,” they say, “there is nothing feminist about women who facilitate the work of bombing other countries and backing neo-colonial interventions in the name of humanitarianism, while remaining silent about the genocides perpetrated by their own governments. Women are the first victims of war and imperial occupation throughout the world.” This contrasts jarringly with memories of Hilary Clinton joking about Muammar Qaddafi’s death with a glib and cold-hearted, “We came, we saw, he died.” (8) Of course, the manifesto’s authors dismiss Clinton at the beginning of the piece as follows: “[She] personified the disconnect between elite women’s ascension to high office and improvements in the lives of the vast majority. / Clinton’s defeat is our wake-up call.”

Overall, the strongest and most compelling trend in this manifesto is its opposition to capitalism. Thesis 3 reads: “We need an anti-capitalist feminism—a feminism for the 99 per cent,” and most of the other theses specifically refer to the need to end our current economic system and replace it with a system that attends to the needs of the many. Thesis 5, in particular, gives a coherent explanation of why feminism and anti-capitalism must be linked: “Gender oppression in capitalist societies is rooted in the subordination of social reproduction to production for profit.” The manifesto-writers acknowledge that the oppression of women existed in previous class societies, but they give capitalism credit for the “key innovation” of separating “the making of people from the making of profit” and assigning the first job to women while subordinating it to the second. They go on to note that, “Not only does this activity create and sustain human life in the biological sense; it also creates and sustains our capacity to work—what Marx called our ‘labour power’. And that means fashioning people with the ‘right’ attitudes, dispositions and values; abilities, competences and skills.” The fact that women are needed to produce workers who grow up to serve the needs of capital means that they play a vital role which, until now, has been given too little consideration.

Recent women’s strikes, according to the manifesto-writers, democratize the notion of the strike and redefine what counts as labor because in addition to waged work, the strikes withdraw domestic work, “sex and ‘smiles’” and thereby make visible the role played “by gendered, unpaid work in capitalist society.” The strikes also redefine what counts as a labor issue, focusing on sexual harassment, sexual assault, and issues of reproductive rights, in addition to traditional labor concerns. This, say the manifesto-writers, could help overcome the opposition between “identity politics” and “class politics.” Abruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser add that women’s strike activism redefines what we consider to be work and who we consider to be a worker, and because it has come about at a time when trade unions in the manufacturing sector have been seriously weakened, the resistance to neoliberal capitalism has moved to other areas like healthcare and education.

The manifesto-writers, in other words, see social reproduction as a class issue and class issues as being directly related to social reproduction. Here’s how they put it: “Capital accumulation depends as much on the social relations that produce and replenish labour as on those that directly exploit it… Likewise, class struggle is not just about economic gains in the workplace; it includes struggles over social reproduction. While these have always been central, social reproduction struggles are especially explosive today, as neoliberalism demands more hours of waged work per household while withdrawing state support for social welfare, squeezing families, communities and, above all, women to breaking-point. Under these conditions, struggles over social reproduction have moved to centre stage, with the potential to alter society root and branch.” This intriguing premise deserves further examination. While an in-depth analysis is beyond the scope of these comments, a look at the former role and current status of the working class can give some perspective.

I’ve been reading “Notes for a Feminist Manifesto” while visiting friends in Youngstown, Ohio, where I’ve also been reading The Half-Life of Deindustrialization by Sherry Lee Linkon (9). Linkon’s book uses literature as a lens to examine the ways that deindustrialization has affected the lives of the majority of people who live in places like Youngstown (where the steel mills shut down decades ago and recently even the Lordstown GM plant has been idled). Linkon frequently looks at the problem from an intersectional point of view, acknowledging that gender, race, sexual preference, and ethnicity combine with class to determine the effects “economic restructuring” and neoliberal capitalism have on people’s lives. But one thing is for certain, everyone in these deindustrializing communities is experiencing distress and dismay except for the 1% who are protected from – or may benefit from – economic restructuring.

For me, the most interesting point Linkon makes is to show that economic distress has undermined solidarity in communities and among social groups. The trade union movement, which did so much to improve the lot of working-class people here, relied very much on the solidarity of those working people as they banded together to demand better wages, better working conditions, and a share in political decision-making. As has the feminist movement, the trade union movement has made its share of mistakes – in particular, both movements have failed to root out racism and sexism from their own ranks, and the turn toward corporate feminism mirrors the class collaborationist tendencies of some parts of the trade union movement. Quoting from another book which she co-authored, Linkon encourages Youngstown not to leave its history behind but to deal critically with past mistakes and “…embrace pride in what was produced here—not just steel but also a strong working-class community—and accept the failure to deal with conflicts involving race and class… It must never forget the harm inflicted by corporate irresponsibility, yet it must also accept responsibility for tolerating corruption and division.” (10) Abruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser give similar advice to the feminist movement, even as they suggest ways that a strong women’s movement can help take up some of the burden dropped by the beleaguered trade union movement.

Thesis 11, “Feminism for the 99 per cent calls on all radical movements to join together in a common anti-capitalist insurgency,” does not make it sound as though the manifesto-writers believe feminism can replace the trade union movement as the core of the struggle against capitalism, however. Abruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser acknowledge that, “We are not in competition with class struggle—on the contrary, we are right in the thick of it, even as we are helping to redefine it in a new, more capacious way.” And like the working class, women have been using the strike as a way to bring about social change. As the manifesto-writers note in Thesis 1, “A new feminist wave is reinventing the strike,” dynamic and capable of creating solidarity among women from many diverse walks of life.

Do these strikes really play the same role as a strike against the steel industry or the auto industry, let alone a general strike called by the trade unions? I don’t think it’s possible to know for certain, and some might even object that the manifesto’s emphasis on class and ending capitalism is just another variation of the traditional left’s merging of the women’s struggle with the revolutionary struggle. It is true, however, as Sherry Linkon describes so effectively in The Half-Life of Deindustrialization, that the auto plants and steel mills here in the formerly industrialized world are increasingly being shuttered, leaving working people floundering as they look for ways to keep their lives from falling to pieces and ways to find solidarity and community once again. And at this point in history, as the manifesto-writers note, “A crisis is not ‘only’ a time of suffering. It is also a moment of awakening and an opportunity for social transformation, when critical masses of people withdraw their support from the powers-that-be and search for new ideas and alliances.” Regardless of whether or not women can play a role as pivotal as the one the working class played in the 19th and 20th centuries, the idea of a “common anti-capitalist insurgency” sounds like what we truly need in the broken and desperate world of the 21st century.

Notes

[1] Of course, a look at the recent college admissions scandal (see “Felicity Huffman pleads guilty in college admissions scandal“) might lead us to a different breakdown of the percentage points of privilege. In an article in The Atlantic in June of 2018, Matthew Stewart argues that U.S. society consists of a super-wealthy 0.1%, a 9.9% that represents the aristocracy of the meritocracy (hence the battle for Ivy League placements), and a declining 90%. (See “The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy.”) The admissions cheaters were working hard to enter or remain in the 9.9%. “We are the 90%!,” however, wouldn’t have made such a compelling signature chant for the Occupy movement.

[2] An edited extract of Feminism for the 99 Percent: A Manifesto, co-authored by Cinzia Abruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, was published as “Notes for a Feminist Manifesto” in the November-December 2018 issue (N. 114) of The New Left Review. You can read the full extract at https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/events/nancy_fraser_tithi_bhattacharya_cinzia_arruzza_et_al._notes_for_a_feminist_manifesto_nlr_114_november-december_2018.pdf The complete text of Feminism for the 99 Percent: A Manifesto was published by Verso in March of 2019.

[3] See for example “Women’s March 2019: Here’s What to Know if You Can’t Keep Up” by Maya Salam, in the January 18, 2019, New York Times. The article describes, among other things, the charges of anti-Semitism that resulted in two competing marches taking place in New York; in addition, there were serious concerns that the needs of women of color were not addressed by march organizers.  In Tucson, the Women’s March was seen by some women of color as primarily a “white women’s march.” See “Why We Refuse to Be Tokens in the Tucson White Women’s March.”

[4] See “NYT Investigation: How Facebook Used a Republican Firm to Attack Critics & Spread Disinformation” on the Democracy Now site for a discussion about the New York Times revelations that Facebook executives, including Sandberg, knew about a Russian misinformation campaign being conducted on Facebook and launched a lobbying effort to preserve the reputation of the tech giant. They went so far as to hire a Republican opposition research firm to discredit Facebook’s critics.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheryl_Sandberg

[6] This fork in the read is still clearly visible in 2019. Compare “Gap, Lyft, Barbie and Bud: Here’s what brands are doing for International Women’s Day” at CNBC to “Spanish Women Strike as International Women’s Day Marked Worldwide” at Democracy Now.

[7] Intersectionality is a term that was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 to explain how African-American women experience sexism. Since then the term has been widely used by feminists who want to be sensitive to the ways in which race, class, sexual orientation, disability, and other factors overlap with gender to determine the oppression and discrimination an individual experiences. The work of bell hooks has been particularly important in propagating this concept. See “How bell hooks Paved the Way for Intersectional Feminism” by Elyssa Goodman.

[8] See “Clinton on Qaddafi: ‘We came, we saw, he died” by Corbett Daly at the CBS News site.

[9] Linkon, Sherry Lee, The Half-Life of Deindustrialization: Working-Class Writing about Economic Restructuring, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018. Linkon is the former co-director of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University and currently is Professor of English and American Studies at Georgetown University.

[10] Linkon, Sherry Lee, and John Russo, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002, page 247.

Image of Feminist Strike Spain Zaragoza 2018 taken from Wikimedia; credit to Gaudiramone; Creative Commons license.

 

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