Socialist Alternative

Review: Feminism for the 99%

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Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto
By Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, & Nancy Fraser
Verso Books, $12.95

Published in a time of rising women’s movements around the globe, the recently released book Feminism for the 99% will draw the attention of many who are eager to fight back against increased attacks on women’s rights and seek to win genuine liberation. In this brief manifesto, the three authors Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser present eleven theses for a class-based feminism for the 99%, focused on the needs of working-class women and not the wealthy few.

Just a few years ago, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In rose to the top ranks of the New York Times Bestseller List for over a year, selling millions of copies. Lean In urged women to overcome all obstacles to climb their way up the corporate ladder with hopes of achieving more equitable rosters of CEOs and corporate boards. However, for the vast majority of women, this so-called corporate ladder isn’t even reachable from the basement of economic precarity, low-wage jobs, and lack of public social supports including healthcare, housing, and childcare.

In Feminism for the 99%, Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser set out to present a working-class women’s alternative to Sandberg’s corporate feminism and “equal opportunity domination” for a select few women in power. The authors write, “We aim to explain why feminists should choose the road of feminist strikes, why we must unite with other anticapitalist and antisystemic movements, and why our movement must become a feminism for the 99%.” Woven throughout the book, the authors outline their vision for a movement based on the understanding that true equality for women cannot be achieved under our current exploitative capitalist system.

Gender Oppression and the Crisis of Capitalism

The authors especially focus on the fundamental role of capitalism in maintaining gender oppression. They argue that capitalism is “the real source of crisis and misery” which constantly pursues unlimited profit while free-riding on nature, public goods, and the unwaged work primary shouldered by women that is necessary to tend to children and communities. To fight back against capitalism, the authors argue we must build an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, internationalist feminist movement.

In discussing the central role of capitalism, the book draws out the persistent connection between violence against women and the growing capitalist crisis with its imposed austerity and cuts to public services. Since the 2008 economic crisis, the extreme magnitude of cuts to public programs, prevalence of low-wage jobs, and dismantling of the welfare state have disproportionately impacted women and, in some countries, led to a genuine throwing back of gender equality. An ever-increasing number of women workers in low-paid and part-time positions find themselves even more susceptible to harassment on the job, and a lack of labor protections further exacerbates the workplace violence experienced by women.

In response to this growing precarity for workers and increased right-wing attacks on women’s rights, women across the globe in a number of countries have started to rise up against these attacks. This International Women’s Day, over six million women in the Spanish State once again went on strike to demand an end to sexual violence and inclusive sex education, among other demands. We have also witnessed the immense international response to #MeToo, massive green bandana protests in Argentina to fight for abortion rights, and the historic victory of the Repeal referendum in Ireland to legalize abortion.

It seems an unfortunate oversight that the book only brings up the #MeToo movement once in passing, given that the phenomenon has the potential to be channeled into larger actions, including in the workplace. So far, the #MeToo movement has led to significantly more women speaking out against harassment on the job, including a 13.6% rise in sexual harassment filings with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission this past year. We have also seen important examples of collective action in the workplace against sexual violence, including Google and McDonald’s workers who organized one-day strikes for harassment protections and 7,700 UNITE HERE union hospitality workers across seven cities who successfully fought for and won harassment protections.

The book also brings up important questions related to the use of the justice system in the fight against sexual violence. In their thesis on fighting gender violence, they point toward a need to move away from what they name “carceral feminism” which seeks to fight back against gender-based violence through the state justice system. It is true that we cannot depend on the capitalist justice system which has severe limitations in its ability to address the epidemic of violence against women. Few cases of sexual violence are ever brought to justice, and we commonly witness “innocent” verdicts in high-profile rape cases, including the Steubenville rape trial, the La Manada rape trial in the Spanish state, and the recent Belfast rape trial. As the authors point out, there is also a racial disparity in prosecution in which wealthy white men often are let go but working-class black men face convictions and harsher sentences. Similarly, many young women in universities have few protections against sexual violence and campus perpetrators rarely receive sanctions.

“Fixing” the sexist justice system will not put an end to violence against women, but it is still positive for working-class women to fight for stop-gap measures, including protection orders, that can provide a measure of safety for women who have experienced sexual and domestic violence. Along with these measures, many women also seek to fight for justice to be served in the many horrific high profile rape cases in recent years, like those mentioned above. These fights for justice through the legal system are completely understandable and justifiable, but many women unfortunately quickly come up against the insufficiency of the capitalist justice system.

This starkly reveals the need to connect the fight against gender violence to the need for a break from the sexist capitalist system. Ultimately, justice for women will not be won in courtrooms; it will be won by launching an all out fight that goes beyond reforming the legal system to fight for the “economic” measures that will need to be implemented to fight back against gender-based violence. Winning affordable housing, decent paying jobs, universal healthcare, and tuition-free higher education would of course be victories for working people generally, but they would also provide women with the economic freedom to be able to decide what they do with their bodies and their lives.

Social-Reproduction Theory

The book puts special attention on social-reproduction theory, which they describe as the “people-making” needs of capitalism in contrast to the “profit-making” needs.

Social-reproduction encompasses those unpaid activities which fall disproportionately to women and help sustain life outside of the workplace, including raising children, caring for the family, and maintaining the community. Capitalism overwhelmingly relies on outsourcing the burden of social-reproduction primarily onto women through millions of unpaid hours of domestic labor. This has led to a double or triple shift for many working-class women who have to take care of their families while also working one or two jobs. In contrast, as the authors point out, many wealthier women can cast the burden onto low-paid domestic workers.

While emphasizing the pivotal role that strikes should play in the movement, the book argues that strikes from this kind of unpaid labor can “make visible the indispensable role played by gendered, unpaid work in capitalist society.” Capitalism consistently undervalues and takes for granted the enormous amounts of social-reproductive domestic work often primarily done by women. However, withdrawing unpaid work, including care work within families, can only have a limited impact on those in power who offload this burden of care work onto women. Often, it is not even possible for women to halt the unpaid work they do within the family.

Strikes and the Role of Labor

These kinds of strikes where women withdraw housework would undoubtedly bring much-needed attention on a personal level to the work women do in families and communities, but the capitalist powers that benefit from women’s unpaid labor wouldn’t bat an eyelid. A struggle for demands like healthcare, universal childcare, and a living wage – all demands that would have a meaningful impact on the social-reproductive work women do – will require tactics that can have substantial consequences for the bottom lines of the billionaire class.

We must mobilize the largest possible mass marches, demonstrations, and boycotts, but strikes from paid work can much more powerfully halt capitalism’s ability to function and concretely demonstrate the tremendous force of a united working class. While women-dominated fields like education, health care, retail, and hospitality should play a powerful role in building for strikes, the movement will also need to mobilize strikes among broader working class forces, including among working class men who would benefit tremendously from paid parental leave and universal childcare. The widest possible strike action as well as the full-participation of unpaid caretakers, mothers, and retirees, would apply the force needed to win impactful changes for working-class women and their families.

Just one example of the power of strike action to win the things that working class women need took place just a few years ago in Poland. In 2016, the Polish government attempted to push through a reactionary complete abortion ban, but the proposal was rejected after 140,000 women took to the streets in just a one-day strike action.

Strikes are clearly featured prominently in the book, but interestingly there is little discussion of the vital importance that labor unions can and should play in the fight for women’s and workers’ rights, including the fight for abortion rights. For years, a conservative labor leadership has focused on trying to minimize losses rather than being prepared to mobilize workers’ social power including through strikes to fight for bold demands. The development of the recent strike movements in the U.S., centered on the teachers’ revolt, has once again highlighted the central role these organizations should play in our struggles. Hundreds of thousands of teachers around the country have used walkouts and strike action to fight not only for higher wages but also for better teaching and learning conditions for students. Women council workers in Glasgow, Scotland also recently went on strike to win pay equality and were supported by male sanitation workers.

This strike wave has also extended to unions of health-care workers, hospitality workers, and retail workers and has the potential to draw unorganized sectors of the economy into fighting labor unions. Workers who took part in the recent Google sit-in at the New York office reported talks of getting organized into a union.

Strategies for the Movement

Armed with an understanding of the fundamental role of capitalism in perpetuating gender oppression and violence, the central question is how to best fight back against this sexist system. The answer the authors give to this question is a call to unite all radical movements to build a “common anti-capitalist insurgency.” Our struggle must undeniably link struggles for the environment, for labor rights, against war and imperialism, and against all forms of oppression into a united working class movement to take on the menace of capitalism.

The book, unfortunately, fails to adequately explain what kind of world this movement should fight for and who will fight for this world. While correctly rejecting corporate feminism and capitalism, there is no clear appeal to fight for a socialist society where the economy is taken into democratic public ownership by the working class. The authors ask, “Who will guide the process of societal transformation, in whose interest and to what end?” In response to this question, the authors seem to point toward “feminism of the 99%,” while united alongside other forces, being the central guiding force in fighting capitalism. The women’s movement should and will undoubtedly play a significant role in the wider working class struggles to come, but it is the entire force of the united working class of all genders which must join together to fight against the system that oppresses us. To win a socialist world, we must harness the full weight of the working class as the most powerful force to change society through its enormous ability to bring the wheels of the economy to a complete halt.

The broader working class movement, which absolutely needs to encompass the demands of oppressed sections of the working class, needs to form democratic organizations of working people independent of the big business interests of establishment political parties. The manifesto unfortunately doesn’t point out the fundamental need to build an independent working-class party based on the support of the trade unions and other organizations of the working class. We need to be absolutely clear that the Democratic Party cannot be an effective vehicle to fight for our demands because it is tied by a million threads to big business and the corporate establishment.

Despite its limitations, Feminism for the 99% is a welcome alternative to the corporate feminism espoused by Sandberg’s Lean In. While it does not draw out the kind of socialist alternative needed to defeat sexism and capitalism, its call to build a united working class struggle against capitalism will help introduce a class-based socialist feminism to many of its readers.

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