Feminists in Power: Rethinking Gender Equality After the Second Wave

The New Gender Order and Its Critics

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The New Gender Order and Its Critics

The play of advantage and disadvantage across gender and other forms of power, difference and inequality is clearly different than in the era of stable gendered hierarchies. Long-standing feminist support for women's claims to personhood, and most importantly to the recognition of women as individual social beings has undoubtedly found some success. While great strides have been made in eliminating formal discrimination, we’re far from a “50/50” world, whether we look at politics, wages, care work, sexual pleasure, or almost anything else. There are also stark inequalities among women (and men) by class, race, ethnicity, citizenship status, and household structure in access to good employment and to quality care services.

Since World War II in the global North, manufacturing has declined as service sector employment has risen, driven importantly by outsourcing of the work formerly done by housewives to paid service workers, many of whom migrate to take up this work, and contributing both to women’s increasing employment levels, and to increasing income inequality.3 The gendered division of labor of the “male breadwinner family,” with married women doing full-time care or part-time work plus care, and men providing most of the income and working full-time, has been modified, not ended, as – on average -- women’s time in unpaid caregiving and domestic work has declined while men’s take-up of care work within and across households is far less than women’s take up of paid work.

These “complex inequalities” among women and men have been a significant focus of work on the “intersectional” nature of inequality and power, by scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991), Leslie McCall (2001), and others (see Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013 for an overview). According to these scholars, mainstream feminism is at fault for concentrating on gender to the exclusion of its co-constitution with other forms of inequality. Pointing to the specificities of contemporary inequalities, in which some women have achieved economic success by taking advantage of the supply of less well-paid women service workers (see, e.g., Boris & Parreñas, 2010; Parreñas, 2001; Roberts, 1995), they argue that sexual domination and masculine violence are crossed by class, racial and educational inequalities. They call on feminists committed to social justice to engage with the struggles of the most marginalized people, as a true commitment to social justice would require feminists to refrain from seeing the world solely in terms of female injury and male subordination. Rather, feminists must acknowledge that there are multiple forms of inequality and domination and that we face widening gaps between the situations of the advantaged and the disenfranchised.

These premises are indisputable. But they do not address specifically political questions about feminist projects, in which particular groups make specific claims, anticipating the agreement of others. In politics, exclusion is inevitable. The only cure is not a demand that “all” – especially the most marginalized – be included in every political campaign, but rather an openness to contestation. This raises a new set of questions regarding the specific opportunities and risks when feminists are in power. What, for example, are the implications of the fact that more women are playing on the field of “men’s politics,” accompanied by claims that women leaders offer both descriptive and substantive representation for other women? And what do the complex alliances forming between feminists, state institutions and the law imply for traditional understandings of gender equality and emancipation?

We contend that widening inequalities among women form a critical part of the backdrop against which a new generation of feminist analysts consider the implications for feminism of the incorporation of feminists into elite positions of authority in the corporate sector, civil society, and politics, and the incorporation of feminist ideas into legal, political and economic discourses. According to these contemporary analysts – we’ll call them “the critics of feminism in power” – feminism’s appropriation by, and complicity with, socially conservative movements and neoliberal political elites, threaten to stand in the way of achieving gender equality. This set of critiques is the focus of the next section.

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