Liberal feminism’s blind spot: material & structural oppression

“How would training women to ask for higher pay help her, as someone who earns a set award wage and has very little power to negotiate anything? How would professional mentoring empower her? How would her life be improved by quotas for women on boards?”

– Eleanor Robertson in her Meanjin essay ‘Get mad and get even’, talking about her sister, a part-time childcare worker.

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The week before last I read Eleanor Robertson’s critique of hyper-individualistic liberal feminism – and pop feminism – in the current edition Meanjin Quarterly. It is a thoughtful essay; you can read it HERE. Robertson challenges the popular discourse around empowering women in the workplace and society at large; “solutions” that focus on individual actions (of a particular class of women) that, she argues, only benefit the individuals themselves. Robertson asks: “Shouldn’t our demands be for universal changes to the structure of society that will help all women?”

For example, Robertson argues that Sheryl Sandberg’s self-help philosophy, ‘Lean In’, is the manifestation of liberal feminism’s Enlightenment values of individual choice, meritocracy, and “acceptance of the basic structures of capitalist social organisation.” She points out that Sandberg’s idea – and by extension, liberal feminism – completely fails to acknowledge or address an array of structural barriers that prevent many women from realising the liberal feminist dream. [This is a point I emphasised in section 3 of my post ‘Diversity Feminism’].

Robertson writes:

“This mythology is only available to women who share most of Sandberg’s own social positions: middle- or upper-class, white, educated, heterosexual, able, employed. It doesn’t really attempt to engage in analysis of material or structural factors that circumscribe women’s freedom. Few modern liberal feminists are pro-Sandberg, but her views are the logical distillation of liberalism applied to women. The concepts it excludes from its analysis—solidarity, collective action, bottom-up democracy—are the ones most essential to the project of emancipating women as a class.[emphasis mine]

A valid and sharply made point. Robertson’s critique of the pursuit of entertainment diversity, however, is less so. Whilst I do agree that equating diversity in marketing and entertainment products with broadscale empowerment is misguided and naive, the cultural products that surround us do shape (not merely mirror or distract) our consciousness; only someone who is accustomed to being in the historically oppressive ethnic majority (and educated, heterosexual, able bodied, employed, cisgender – as the author appears to be), or simply detached from society, would dimiss the idea that diversity in culture (including visual culture and storytelling) has value at all.

That being said, Robertson highlights the inefficacy of the so-called “offense model of feminism” in regards to protecting women’s human and civil rights, which in places like The United States are under persistant and increasing attack from reactionaries. Moreover, all this focus on individual action and choice, she argues, is funnelling time and resources away from “sites of real struggle” – and preventing us from seeing the need for collective action organised around a vision for a world that is fairer and healthier than the one we currently have.

A world where “being poor, being black, and being a woman didn’t mean being ground into the dirt by arbitrary power”.

You can have a read of the essay in full HERE. Though I am not 100% on board with all of Robertson’s assertions, there is a load of food for thought in this piece.

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Another recent essay that captured my attention (and a great many others) was Richard Cooke’s piece for the Monthly, ‘The Boomer Supremacy’; about the demographic hoarding political power, securing their own economic advantage, imposing their cultural dominance, and crapping on younger generations at every opportunity.

Highly recommend reading it HERE