SOMETHING HAS GONE WRONG WITH FEMINISM
AN INTERVIEW WITH BJØRK GRUE LIDIN AND NANCY FRASER
Bjørk Grue Lidin: Your article “How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden” led Brenna Bhandar and Denise Ferreira da Silva to write a response, in which they argue that by overlooking the work of Black and Third World feminists and universalizing “a feminism” you participate in the same liberal discourse that you are criticizing.
What is your response to this critique?
Nancy Fraser: I don’t agree with it. I’m distinguishing between actual feminist movements and feminist theorists and thinkers, of whom there are many and who don’t all agree with one another and so on, and a kind of hegemonic feminism – a hegemonic discourse which frankly is not controlled, I don’t think, by any actual flesh-and-blood feminists. I think it has a life of its own. I wasn’t trying to give an accurate account of the different currents of feminism. If I were, I would have given an important place to black feminism. You can also say that I didn’t give much of a place to socialist feminism, which is the current that I most identify with. For me, these currents are important in so far as they evoke the radical possibilities of feminism. But I think that we all have to start realizing that the hegemony of equal opportunity feminism – this corporate crack the glass ceiling feminism – has hijacked our movement.
I’m encouraging feminists who identify with currents of feminism other than liberal feminism to step back from the immediate struggle and reflect historically on what has happened to our movement and why and what we might do now.
Bjørk Grue Lidin: Where does queer feminism fit into the analysis that feminism and liberalism have become entangled?
Nancy Fraser: I’m not sure I have anything to say about queer feminism specifically. But I think that the story that I have told about feminism in general: how a movement with various radical currents became hegemonized for purposes of legitimating neoliberalism, I think you can tell a very similar story about LGBT movements. So I would say that there are currents of queer feminism that are quite compatible with this liberal turn and there are probably other currents that are more left.
I would guess that every progressive equality-oriented social movement has a liberal wing that is the hegemonic wing and I would be very surprised if that was not the case for queer feminism. It’s a symptom of our time, that all progressive movements have somehow given up structural critique in terms of identitarian and cultural critique, at least the mainstreams of these movements and it may seem odd to talk about a mainstream of queer feminism because it claims not to be but I think you can find these elective affinities.
Bjørk Grue Lidin: How can we, feminists, make sure not to become infiltrated with hegemonic liberal discourses?
Nancy Fraser: Read Marx, study critiques of liberalism and try to look at what liberalism conceals. How it gives us a narrowed idea of what equality is, what emancipation is and what freedom is. Identifying these important ideals with a kind of social imagery of the market. Like cracking the glass ceiling, in other words, the idea that you want to be where the male CEO or corporate president is. But there is no critique of social hierarchy.
You, students at SOAS, are at a great institution with a great history. You can use this time to really learn about more complicated ways of thinking structurally about society.
Bjørk Grue Lidin: So we should adopt a structural approach?
Nancy Fraser: Yes definitely. One has to try to understand domination, not simply as a master-slave, husband-wife, father-daughter relation. It is not like a dyad where there are two persons and one is higher than the other. That is too simple. When you talk about a modern capitalist society, domination works through all kinds of impersonal processes – it’s not imbedded in the figure of a master. There are all these market mediated processes, by which gender inequality, domination and subordination and racial domination and subordination and so on are generated, reproduced, transformed – and do not take this master-subject form. I think that liberalism gets us stuck in that master-subject imaginary and therefore it imagines emancipation in terms of a market process of rising, e.g. career open to talents. You are not kept under by the master. But this is a very limited way of imagining emancipation.
Bjørk Grue Lidin: Is it really possible to ‘reclaim feminism’?
Nancy Fraser: Well, in theory yes. I don’t know what the chances are right now I mean that’s a matter of what the forces on the ground are like. Let’s put it this way, although you mentioned this critique of my Guardian piece, the overall response to that piece has been incredibly positive. I had a similar response to my New Left Review article “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History” where I first developed that argument. I thought that I would get a lot of criticism from other feminists. To me that is not proof by any means that what I said is right but it is symptomatic of something about our time. I think that feminists are now interested in capitalism and I think people sense that something has gone wrong and that they want to think about these questions. And that’s the first step. How it will unfold, what success would mean, whether there could be success, I can’t predict any of that. But I think that the fact that people are now open to these arguments and want to think about these questions is the first step. People know that something has gone wrong with feminism.