Thursday 30 May 2013

Louise Mensch and Conservative Feminism

When I was an undergraduate I probably spent more time dosing up on heavy duty social theory than drinking until blindness set in. One module I took was on feminist social theory because, at that time, I was deeply concerned with questions around revolutionary subjectivity and the place socialism had in a fragmenting and media saturated society. Now, I wasn't a complete stranger when it came to feminism. At A-Level I learned about your liberal, Marxist and radical feminism (thanks Haralambos!), and read a bit around The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism/Dual Systems Theory. So I thought I knew a thing or two. No. It turned out that good old Haralambos hadn't told half the story. He, in fact, had completely skipped over the emergence of postmodern feminisms and feminist standpoint.

This approach, forcefully argued by bell hooks in her coruscating Aint I a Woman, for example, put it that feminism, as much as any other social theory, is socially situated. It followed that the feminism of the 1970s, she argued, was primarily the feminism of relatively privileged middle class white women. Their idea of the feminist subject that unconsciously undergirded their work was foregrounded on their situated and specific experience of gendered oppression. As this was universalised as the subject on which feminism rested, little mind was paid to the experience, struggles, and views of working class women and women of colour, for example. hook seminal and important intervention was one of many that (alongside the tidal wave of postmodernism and poststructuralism in the wider social sciences) worked to undo any notion of a politics or philosophy founded a priori upon coherent subjectivity. Now, while many a paper was published unpicking the metaphysical residues of dear Descartes, feminism was left in something of a quandary. If the subject of feminism, 'woman', is contested, disaggregated; then what is 'woman'? And without 'woman', what was distinctly feminist about feminism?

Well, Iris Young argued that feminism should begin with the commitment to social justice. However, others were - as Elvis might say - "caught in a trap". There was a tendency among some (by no means all) feminists to treat the dispersal of the subject as a theoretical, not a political problem. They attempted to rescue feminism by trying to ground a new feminist subject on experiences common to all women, or on facets of womanhood all women could relate to. Of course, immediately, you try to make claims universal to all women you will get yourself shot down. But some tried. One attempt was so-called 'mothering theory'. It suggested that all women are socialised into actual and potential motherhood from the moment of birth, and that women have a deep, personality-forming relationship with caring and nurturing, as well as an orientation toward children that is qualitatively different from men and their experience/expectations of fatherhood. From this one can extrapolate a set of ethics and positions from which to critique society and agitate for social change. But also a number of values that are suppressed and denigrated by society - hence child birth, care, understanding, mothering should all be valorised.

Naturally, such a position makes a great many assumptions about the nature of motherhood across cultures and the socialisation of women generally. However, most problematic of all was the fact that this form of feminism pretty much mirrored the position women had traditionally occupied in Western societies. In fact, you could go as far to say it's not dissimilar from the 'different but equal' spin evangelical Christians put on their commitment to patriarchal gender relations. So truly, if 'conservative feminism' could be said to exist, mothering theory with its rendering of gender as an impermeable barrier is probably it.

This lengthy diversion brings me to Louise Mensch's stab at "reality based-feminism", or rather conservative feminism. Now, I don't want to particularly address the first part of her piece, which makes very cheap and unoriginal points about intersectionality and "privilege checking" (especially as a post should be appearing about that over the weekend). I'm more interested in the content of her feminism itself. She writes:
American feminism gets organised. It sees where power lies, and it mobilises to achieve it. It gets its candidates elected. Feminism here is about running for office, founding a company, becoming COO of Facebook or Yahoo. It is power feminism that realises that actual empowerment for women means getting more money, since money and liberty often equate, and being able to legislate or influence. Hillary Clinton shifted from First Lady to Senator. Before that she was a powerful lawyer. Before that she went to Yale. Today’s keyboard valkyries would be sneering at the graduates of Yale and asking them to take a long hard look at their privilege before offering an opinion to somebody not as high-achieving as they are.
Far be it for me to give Louise a lesson in the feminism of her adopted home, but where does she think "privilege-checking" originated in the first place?

The second point is, come on, really? Feminism is about climbing the greasy pole?

This is basically liberal feminism on Red Bull, but with a key difference. While the liberal feminism I imbibed during my A-Levels suggested the barriers facing women were attitudinal and legislative as opposed to how capitalist societies are structured and stratified, Louise's conservative feminism bigs up the women who make it despite the relative lack of opportunities. To make it in a man's world like Mensch, Hillary Clinton, Stella Creasy and Margaret Thatcher have/did, they must have something about them, a tenaciousness and commitment to hard work. At the top of their game they in turn inspire other driven women to get involved, work, and succeed. Hmmm, by that logic should Paris Hilton be feted as a feminist icon?

That's all fine and dandy. But what's 'feminist' about it? Like all the permutations of the conservative ideology of individual success, problems arising from deprivation, disadvantage and, yes, privilege, don't exist. It's a matter of will and determination to overcome. Masters of the Universe-types have been saying this about themselves to justify their power, position and prestige since year dot. All Louise has managed to do is half-inch this view and stick a feminist label on it, while not-so-subtly suggesting that women who don't make it like her are rubbish feminists. And so feminism passes from a political commitment to equality to an ideology that whitewashes and justifies the status quo.

As far as I'm concerned, this is far more regressive than mothering theory. While adopting positions out of sorts with feminism generally, mothering theory at least offers an explanation of why women are held back and leaves open the possibility of collective action based on its diagnosis of the situation. Its understanding of gender mirrors conservative views, but it is part of the feminist family for all that. Louise's conservative feminism apologia, however, is a contradiction in terms. It is oxymoronic, if not plain moronic.


Carin Robert said...

Can any1 explain the 3 waves of feminism?

Ken said...

I've never had much time for Louise Mensch, but I have to admire this:

'I had and have no intention of checking my privilege for anyone. I earned it.'

Speedy said...

As someone from a working class background I always noted a stark contrast say between my mum and the mums of my new middle class friends from Poly (ah, poly), even as I too was reading Haralambos. Back then I thought it was my mum's fault, in general (I may have even bought her the second sex, to my shame) but came to realise, as I too stumbled up the greasy pole, what a stranglehold the "middle class" (as I had to learn to call them, to me they had always been a "posh" few) had on society.

From there I developed a very keen class consciousness I never shrugged off as easily as I did my sub-Cockney accent.

To me, as an "evolutionary socialist" if you like, it was plain feminism had served not women per se but the bourgeois class, to revitalise it at a time when workers were beginning to compete with them for opportunity. Rather than raising workers up, why not raise up their own women and keep the family silver under their control?

This is why feminists are largely silent on Islam (sorry to bring that up again) when they were burning bras in the 70s/80s - they don't give a toss about the second class status of Muslim or working class women, it's all about them basically, and by them I mean the bourgeois class.

I've never heard of that book btw, but that's been my view for years - and very unpopular it makes me at "middle class" dinner parties too.

asquith said...

I recall a tweet by Helen Lewis, whom I know is hated by the people Mensch is talking about, saying that passivity privilige is the privilige of never being criticised because you never actually do anything.

And at a time when the lot of women and girls in the third world is such a tragedy, it is the worst kind of self-indulgence to go round "calling out" those who have done more than you ever have or will.

I have done what little I can to aid the likes of Malala Yousafani and her sisters who are still threatened by the Taliban, probably more than some people I could name who'd rather occupy themselves in pointless slanging matches on Twitter.

Of course I have great advantages in life over a battered Afghan wife or a South African rape victim, but history is filled with people who have used their advantages in life to help others get to the stage they themselves are already at. No one ever told Clement Attlee or George Orwell they should check their privilige or that their views were invalid because they had no "lived experience" (another half-witted and ultimately totalitarian phrase) of being manual labourers or Indians, they just thanked them for their efforts.

Anonymous said...

I go some way with Speedy on self-interested feminism. Louise is just a typical product of our universities and the desire to be 'professional'. The ideology as I remember was to 'better oneself', the farce being money was the route to this.

Anonymous said...

The best way to help sisters threatened by the Taliban or women under threat from Islamic extremism is to to challenge the utter decadence of the West. The psychotic urge to consume consume consume and sod the rest. While ever production is based on exchange value and not on delivering use values based on priorities, i.e. while ever the West have 50 different varieties of Shampoo but parts of the world don't have enough to eat or work in terrible conditions, then these so called backward notions will not go away. WE ARE THE FUCKING PROBLEM AND NOT THEM!

Now I was reading that Rihanna was a real Diva and treated everyone around her like they were her personal slaves. Now I don't know if this is true but if it is, punch her in the fucking face and fuck feminism.