A Feminism Where ‘Lean In’ Means Leaning On Others


Gary Gutting interviews Nancy Fraser in The NYT's The Stone:

Gary Gutting: You’ve recently written: “As a feminist, I’ve always assumed that by fighting to emancipate women I was building a better world — more egalitarian — just and free. But lately I’ve begun to worry that . . . our critique of sexism is now supplying the justification for new forms of inequality and exploitation.” Could you explain what you have in mind?

Nancy Fraser: My feminism emerged from the New Left and is still colored by the thought of that time. For me, feminism is not simply a matter of getting a smattering of individual women into positions of power and privilege within existing social hierarchies. It is rather about overcoming those hierarchies. This requires challenging the structural sources of gender domination in capitalist society — above all, the institutionalized separation of two supposedly distinct kinds of activity: on the one hand, so-called “productive” labor, historically associated with men and remunerated by wages; on the other hand, “caring” activities, often historically unpaid and still performed mainly by women. In my view, this gendered, hierarchical division between “production” and “reproduction” is a defining structure of capitalist society and a deep source of the gender asymmetries hard-wired in it. There can be no “emancipation of women” so long as this structure remains intact.

G.G.: Why can’t responding to feminist concerns be seen as just one major step in correcting the social and economic flaws of our capitalist society, not a fundamental transformation of the system?

N.F.: It certainly can be seen that way. But I am questioning whether today’s feminism is really advancing that process. As I see it, the mainstream feminism of our time has adopted an approach that cannot achieve justice even for women, let alone for anyone else. The trouble is, this feminism is focused on encouraging educated middle-class women to “lean in” and “crack the glass ceiling” – in other words, to climb the corporate ladder. By definition, then, its beneficiaries can only be women of the professional-managerial class. And absent structural changes in capitalist society, those women can only benefit by leaning on others — by offloading their own care work and housework onto low-waged, precarious workers, typically racialized and/or immigrant women.

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