The stories and success of Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Meyer, and the like are targeted directly towards me. Upper middle class, leftist, feminist, well educated, determined, white teenage girl. I am told to Lean In, to not let anyone call me bossy, to not let any upper middle class, well educated, powerful white man stop me from doing anything that I want. I’m told that with enough determination and wit and drive, I, a girl, a girl already possessing an extraordinary amount of privilege, can reach the top of the corporate ladder or political party of my choice, although there are truly only two choices. I can have children and be a working woman. Have my cake and eat it too.
But what does it matter if I’m a girl succeeding in a system that is intrinsically corrupt? Even if a few women are able to break through the glass ceiling and be sitting at the board meetings, it will still be inherently sexist. I will be succeeding in a system entirely controlled by the ruling class, the wealthy, the privileged. A system that still values profit and wealth before all else.
Feminism for only those with existing privilege is not feminism.
Corporate feminism is targeted towards wealthy, educated, white women, while working against the interests of women of color, the LGBT community, the lower and middle class, those living in poverty, those living with disabilities, and so forth. Feminism for only those with existing privilege is not feminism. Unless there is intersectionality, involving issues of race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, socioeconomic standing, in feminism, it is absolutely useless.
Societal norms are only ever really deconstructed, progress is only ever really made, when nuance is brought to prominent social movements. While first and second wave feminism arguably made major strides, through women’s suffrage in the early 20th century and reevaluating the role of women within families and the workplace in the 1960s and 1970s, we are nowhere close to an egalitarian society. Third wave feminism, the movement seen in the past few decades, is focused on achieving true equality. It focuses on the experiences and concerns of minorities, something that second wave feminism failed to effectively do.
In order for third wave feminism to truly be an effective and powerful social movement, people need to start having nuanced and meaningful conversations about what the underlying problems are in society and how they should be addressed. Petty arguments about whether feminism is really needed, whether or not all feminists hate men, are simply a waste of time and energy. A few years ago, I would have gotten into very long and heated debates on the subject. “Yes, this is why feminism is needed, and here a list of reasons why.” Society has established why feminism is needed. It has been made abundantly clear, many times through many mediums. Those who still dispute its legitimacy are purely ignorant, and there are larger battles to be fought. Nuance is the battle that needs to be fought. Explaining what feminism really means, who needs it, how we should approach feminism, the importance of intersectionality. Those are the conversations that are absolutely vital.
The primary issue with corporate feminism, is that it completely ignores the systematic flaws that exist within present day society. Feminist writer Bell Hooks describes this phenomenon in relation to Sheryl Sandberg, author and the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook:1
Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.
This is a pattern seen repeatedly in the promotion of corporate feminism. The underlying inequalities of an oppressive system are ignored, and people are lead to believe that the problem is that women are not trying hard enough, allowing themselves to be held back by stereotypes and societal norms. If only women were empowered and had the inspiration to break out of those stereotypes, then they could achieve the same success as men in accumulating wealth and power within a neoliberal and oppressive society.
Can true equality exist within neoliberalism? This question is truly the crux of the discussion on feminism and intersectionality. Karl Marx, one of the most prominent economists and political thinkers of the last few centuries, wrote extensively in his critique of neoliberalism and private property. His critique is described as, “The inevitable result of generalised commodity production is therefore the polarisation of wealth and poverty, the reproduction of inequality and the exploitation of the mass of the population on an increasing scale”.2 I would argue that Marxist theory and skepticism of our neoliberal, capitalist economy is absolutely essential within the discussion of feminism. Neoliberalism will ultimately always result in greater inequality, and a vast divide between those with power and wealth, and those who are working for them.
This is why corporate feminism is not feminism. Corporate feminism presents a narrative in which women are empowered by achieving wealth and power. A narrative in which the success of one woman is the oppression of millions. Hillary Clinton being elected president in 2016 may seem like it would be an achievement for women and a feminist milestone. But truth be told, Clinton being elected president would eradicate sexism in the same way Obama being elected eradicated racism.
Liberal feminists’ support of Clinton is not just due to credulousness, though. It also reflects a narrowness of analysis, vision, and values. In the US, feminism is often understood as the right of women — and wealthy white women most of all — to share in the spoils of capitalism and US imperial power. By not confronting the exclusion of non-whites, foreigners, working-class people, and other groups from this vision, liberal feminists are missing a crucial opportunity to create a more inclusive, more powerful movement.3
Feminism will not succeed or grow until there is wide spread acknowledgment that feminism cannot exist without intersectionality and cannot exist while promoting the values of capitalism and neoliberalism.
My perception of feminism has not always been what it is right now, I admit that. As is the case with any ideology, it has changed and evolved over time. In my younger years, feminism meant being unapologetically a girl, not letting stereotypes or other people’s judgment stop me from doing anything. To my twelve-year-old self, you weren’t wrong. That is very much what feminism means. It also means giving everyone a chance to speak and be heard, regardless of what they look like or where they are from. It means fighting for equality and justice, no matter how difficult it may be. Feminism is educating others and doing whatever is within one’s capacity to alleviate prejudice and oppression. Feminism is the awareness that we live within a system designed to create a divide between those allocated power and those without. Feminism is knowing that things can change and will change, but it will take hard work and time and meaningful changes starting on a small-scale.
And thus I ask myself, where do I fit in within this movement? I am white, educated, and privileged. Capitalism and imperialism have benefitted my family greatly, they have given me the opportunities and social standing that I possess. I believe it begins with acknowledging that. Acknowledging the privilege you have and the things you are capable of because of it. Using the platform you are given to speak intelligently and thoughtfully, in a way that will benefit those who are not given a voice or are silenced by oppression. Promoting the ideals of intersectionality and egalitarianism.
Corporate feminism is commercial feminism. It is advertised under the facade of promoting social justice and equality, but is still based on the premise that wealth and profit should be prioritized above all else. The acquisition of wealth and power will always correlate to the oppression of minorities.
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”4 – Audre Lorde
The feminism that we need is not the feminism that will be presented to us, the kind that is nicely packaged into a TED Talk or New York Times Best Seller. Embracing intersectional feminism means acknowledging that not all women are equally oppressed, and not all men are equal oppressors. It means dismantling systems of power that have been in place for centuries, having difficult conversations that require nuance and thoughtfulness. The systematic inequality of our society will not be destroyed without a fight, but I can’t think of anything else more important to fight for.
1. Hooks, Bell. 2013. ”Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In.”