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Sharon Smith

Whatever happened to feminism?

(Fall 1998)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 5, Fall 1998.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

BY ANY meaningful measure, women in the U.S. – and around the world – have not won equality with men.

The fact that women’s wages are on average about 75 percent of men’s today – compared with a measly 59 percent in the late 1970s – is often cited as “proof” that women have made great strides. But a closer look shows that the closing wage gap is not due to higher wages for women, but rather to the fall in men’s wages over the last 20 years. This is hardly a reason to celebrate for workers – of either sex.

In fact, in many respects, women have actually lost ground since the 1970s. One of the biggest victories of the women’s movement was the legalization of abortion in 1973. Today, however, abortions are less accessible than 20 years ago. This fact was most graphically illustrated in May, when every single abortion clinic in the state of Wisconsin stopped performing abortions for two days after a bill was passed there that made it a crime punishable by mandatory life imprisonment for a doctor to perform the type of abortion procedure known as Intact D&E (which anti-abortion zealots have deceptively labeled “partial birth” abortion) at any time after the moment of conception. [1]

The Wisconsin bill was worded so loosely that it could have covered just about any type of abortion. And 28 other states have passed bans on Intact D&E. In July, the House of Representatives passed a law making it a crime for any adult to accompany a minor across state lines to have an abortion. Given these sorts of examples, there can be no question that Clinton’s presence in the White House has done little to stave off the attacks on abortion. Even though he had promised pro-choice voters in his 1992 presidential campaign that he would pass a “freedom of choice amendment” to guarantee women’s right to choose, he never mentioned it again after taking office.

The most recent reminder of how far women are from winning equality is the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against President Clinton. This has been played up in the media as just another “he said-she said” supermarket tabloid gossip item, but this case – and the Arkansas judge’s dismissal of it – has actually been an enormous setback for women’s rights at the workplace.

The importance of the case has nothing to do with whether or not Paula Jones’ claim that Clinton sexually harassed her is true. Her version of the story is that, back in the early 1990s, when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a low-level clerk working for the state, he tried to force himself on her sexually, then dropped his pants and exposed himself to her; when she got away from him, he grabbed her and warned that she had better be quiet about what happened between them.

The importance of the case has to with the judge’s complete dismissal of it. The judge argued that, even if Paula Jones is telling the truth, her case has no merit, that Clinton’s behavior may have been “boorish and offensive,” but these were just “brief and isolated episodes” which are acceptable between an employer and employee. In other words, it is perfectly legal for an employer to expose himself to a female underling, tell her to keep her mouth shut in a veiled threat, and attempt to solicit her through a third party (in Clinton’s case, a state police officer who he sent as his messenger on more than one occasion) – all this is okay, as long as eventually he accepts rejection. [2]

One would have expected voices of outrage from feminists over the Paula Jones decision. But for the most part what has come from the feminist camp has been silence – so much silence that Time magazine’s front cover asked in June, Is Feminism Dead? The article argued that feminists are out of touch with the real issues of inequality facing women. It describes an opinion poll of women across the U.S. which shows that the top complaints for women today are 1)inequality in the workplace, 2) difficulties balancing work and family responsibilities, and 3) lack of quality child care. [3]

Feminists not only tend to ignore these issues, but when they do break their silence these days, they often appear to be on the other side on issues that were crystal clear in the earlier days of the modern women’s movement. Some of the very same feminists – most notably, Gloria Steinem, one of the founders of the 1960s women’s movement – seem to have turned their backs on some of the main principles of the women’s liberation movement. Slogans that defined the movement have been turned on their heads in the 1990s. The slogan “yes means yes, no means no” raised mass consciousness about rape and sexual harassment in the 1970s, asserting that women should not be subjected to unwanted sexual advances. The idea that women alone deserve the right to control their own bodies, without interference from the church, the state, or parents or boyfriends was the underpinning of the pro-choice movement.

But these once sacred principles are fast disappearing, replaced by new slogans and new principles championed by feminists today.

The spokespeople for feminism in the late 1990s could easily be mistaken for the anti-feminists they once denounced. There is no better example than the many well-known feminists whose comments filled editorial pages this spring denouncing Paula Jones. The National Organization for Women (NOW) actually took a formal poll of its chapters and amidst great pomp and circumstance announced that it would NOT submit a brief supporting Paula Jones’ legal appeal. Gloria Steinem wrote a New York Times editorial in which she defended Clinton, arguing that, although “Clinton may be a candidate for sex addiction therapy,” feminists must continue to stand behind him because Clinton is “vital” to preserving reproductive freedom and because he eventually took no for an answer from Jones. Moreover, she pondered, shifting the blame to society’s prudish attitudes, “Perhaps we have a responsibility to make it okay for politicians to tell the truth.” [4]

Even Anita Hill – whose very name brings forth images of a courageous woman who was skewered in a televised 1991 Senate hearing after charging Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment – has joined the smear campaign against Paula Jones. She wrote an editorial in the New York Times which argued that Clinton could not be guilty of sexually harassing Paula Jones because “there is little evidence that Ms. Jones suffered employment-related repercussions as a result of the incident.” [5] One could venture to point out that there was also little evidence that Anita Hill suffered employment-related repercussions as a result of Clarence Thomas’s suggestively pointing out pubic hairs on his Coca-Cola can – one of Anita Hill’s complaints – yet feminists as a group correctly supported Anita Hill in 1991.

Susan Faludi, one of the most celebrated feminist writers of the 1990s, wrote the book Backlash in 1991, which told the truth about the conditions of everyday women’s lives and the right-wing efforts to turn back the clock against women’s rights. But nowadays, Susan Faludi is singing a very different tune. Her comment on the Paula Jones case, featured prominently in the liberal publication The Nation, ridiculed Jones: “I think we can safely conclude that Paula Jones will not expire from whatever a brief brush with Clinton might have entailed all those years ago; so far, she seems in the pink of health,” Faludi huffed. [6]

Faludi then went on to argue that women must change their attitudes if they want to have power in the workplace, because

one hallmark of having true power is not having to be reflexive in your responses. Because, along with the other powers comes the power to forgive men – to see one’s grievance in proportion and not in the garish caricatures of Gothic romance.” [7]

It is true that Paula Jones has the support of every right-wing Clinton-hater, including the anti-abortion-rights zealot Randall Terry of Operation Rescue fame. Jones herself is, generally speaking, a conservative. But these factors have nothing to do with whether she was a victim of sexual harassment. Anita Hill herself was hardly a supporter of left-wing causes when feminists supported her claim of sexual harassment in 1991. Paula Jones’ conservative base of support is the excuse used by feminists for abandoning her case, but hers is not an isolated incident. In reality there is a much broader and more significant shift taking place among feminists.

Leading feminists today, as a group, are campaigning to downplay virtually every aspect of women’s oppression. Susan Faludi touches on this new theme in her comments in The Nation – if women want rights they have to learn how to stop seeing themselves as victims and begin taking responsibility for their actions.

This new approach to feminism is best summarized by feminist author Naomi Wolf, in her 1994 book Fire With Fire. In it, she coins the term “power feminism” as an alternative to what she calls “victim feminism” – “old habits left over from the revolutionary left of the 1960s – such as reflexive anti-capitalism, an insider-outsider mentality, and an aversion to ‘the system’.” [8]

Wolf does admit that capitalism “does oppress the many for the few” [9], but she argues that “enough money buys a woman out of a lot of sex oppression.” That, in a nutshell, is Wolf’s message. Women should embrace capitalism and get as much money and power for themselves as they can. She argues, bastardizing Marxism, “pending the ‘revolution,’ women are better off with the means of production in their own hands ... Women’s businesses can be the power cells of the 21st century.” [10]

But, according to Wolf, women can only accomplish this goal if they stop seeing themselves as victims. After all, she writes, “If we stay hunkered down, defensive and angry, we waste our energies.” [11] And, quoting First Lady Hillary Clinton, she adds, “Who wants to walk around with clenched fists all the time?” [12] Thus she concludes, power feminism means “practicing tolerance rather than self righteousness.” [13]

Wolf maintains that if women would stop focusing on all the things that are wrong with their lives and start thinking of themselves as powerful human beings, they could end oppression. All it takes, it seems, is change on a mass psychological level in order for women to embrace the many opportunities to raise themselves up as entrepreneurs and high-ranking politicians. As an example, she offers:

An advertisement that shows the swearing in of a woman president can have as much or more power to advance women’s historical progress as can the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment on the political level.” [14]

Women are held back today, Wolf argues, not primarily because of discrimination within society, but by themselves. She says that women hold themselves back because of the “fear of having too much.” In the late twentieth century, women are not hampered by economic or political obstacles in the way of equality, but quite simply by their own psychological negativity. “The question to ask,” she writes, “ is not whether society is ready to yield to women their rightful places, but whether women themselves are ready to take possession of them.” [15] If only women would stop seeing themselves as victims, her logic goes, they would stop being victimized. If only women would embrace capitalism, they would stop being oppressed by it. If only women would stop being angry, they would be happy.

This individualistic approach to feminist change has been embraced by Gloria Steinem as well. She wrote a book in the early 1990s with a title which summarizes its content: Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. The book ends with this guide to daily meditation, to help the reader achieve her life goals:

There are many ways of meeting your future self. Imagining a figure ahead of you on life’s path is one way. You might also think about a desired future event and imagine your future self within it. Or imagine a protecting future self who advises you in hard times, celebrates in good ones and is always there for you to ask: What would my guide say? .. As your current self, say “I will become you.” As your future self, say “I’ll always be inside you.” ... Make a new section for this future self. You will be visiting each other often. [16]

This new, seemingly psychological approach to feminism – be it Naomi Wolf’s mass psychic phenomena or Gloria Steinem’s daily meditation with present and future selves – is actually based upon complete acceptance of even the most barbaric aspects of capitalist society, including war and class conflict. Naomi Wolf, for example, offers as a concrete example of power feminism American women combat soldiers during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “[I]mages of women wielding real firepower shook loose the blinkers that keep women from imagining themselves as beings who can elicit not just love and desire, but respect and even fear,” she gushes. [17] The 200,000 Iraqis, many of them women and children civilians, who were killed by the U.S. and its allies in the carpet bombing of Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, don’t even merit a mention by Wolf.

Wolf embraces not only the pursuit of profits, but the class antagonism that goes with it. Although she does not dwell on the subject, she admits that for every woman who succeeds in business, there are many other women who cannot. After all, this is the nature of capitalism – someone actually has to produce profits, or there would be no managers. But class differences between women are not a cause for concern: “There are going to be times when woman to woman aggression is a healthy, even energizing corollary of our having reached full participation in societyÖWomen are managing, criticizing and firing other women, and their employees sometimes, understandably, hate their guts.” [18] Moreover, she argues, power feminists should welcome any and all antagonisms that might be produced by the scapegoating and discrimination which takes place in class society:

We are maturing into the understanding that women of different classes, races and sexualities have different, and often competing, agendas. Those conflicts should not be a source of guilt to us. They do not represent a breakdown of sisterhood. In the fullness of diversity, they represent its triumph. [19]

What is abundantly clear from the remarks quoted above is that Naomi Wolf is concerned only with that minority of women who are climbing the corporate ladder – power feminists in business suits, who return home to a house which gets cleaned by a domestic servant and children whose needs are cared for by someone else, usually other women. Working-class women – who do have plenty of reason to complain about low wages or lack of adequate child care or decent health care – are mentioned only in passing. They are the women getting fired by or cleaning the homes of power feminists.

Power feminism allows women managers to convince themselves that they are bettering humanity simply by taking powerful positions in business or government – when the only women they are enriching is themselves. Naomi Wolf recalls that the first sizable check she wrote to a women’s organization

made me feel powerful in a way that felt right ... I began to tithe my income. Paradoxically, the more steadily I did this, the greater the sense of possession and entitlement I then felt ... learning about money, trying to make money yield money, and even trying to negotiate for more. Money was not just a selfish, dirty indulgence that made me part of an oppressive system. It was an agent of change ... Not only was it permissible to learn to ask for more, always more, but it was a political act. It was imperative.” [20]

Once the class vantage point of power feminism becomes clear, all its other aspects fall neatly into place. Power feminism speaks only for upper-middle-class women whose main concern is climbing the corporate ladder. In their own self-interest, this group of women seeks to minimize aspects of gender that have in the past been used to deny women access to corporate promotions – notions that women who become mothers take time off for maternity leave, or otherwise take off too much work time to care for their children, or the idea that women might file lawsuits against sexist male colleagues. Women in the corporate world tend to play down these aspects of women’s oppression that separate them from their male colleagues, precisely because they want to get ahead.

This framework – the idea that if women want rights they need to take responsibility, which Susan Faludi spelled out in regard to the Paula Jones case – is what guides the attitudes of leading feminists today on issues as diverse as sexual harassment, maternity leave and abortion rights. And while Naomi Wolf can be credited with giving power feminism its name, it has actually been around ever since women began entering management and the professions in larger numbers. NOW, the largest feminist organization, was formed with this group of women in mind in the 1960s. NOW has never fought to win reforms such as maternity leave which benefit working-class women exclusively – even though the U.S. is one of only six countries in the world which does not offer paid maternity leave to its women workers.

Moreover, NOW formally took a stand against the right to maternity leave in 1986 in the case of a woman bank worker who was fired from her job after she took six weeks off – without pay – after having a baby. In the case California Savings and Loan v. Guerra, NOW filed a friend of the court brief agreeing with the bank that allowing a woman to take maternity leave discriminates against men with “similar disabilities.” NOW took the side of the bank management over that of the woman worker. [21]

This framework also guides the approach of feminists such as Naomi Wolf on the issue of abortion rights. Wolf has espoused her views on the issue of choice numerous times, and each time she sounds as if she actually opposes the right to choose more than the time before. In Fire with Fire she writes, “the other side of having reproductive rights is taking reproductive responsibility.” [22] Furthermore, she argued, “some of the most thoughtful feminists are beginning to describe abortion as violence against women.” [23] Last year, in an editorial in the New York Times, Wolf stated, “What if we called policies that sustain, tolerate and even guarantee the highest abortion rate of any industrialized nation what they should be called: crimes against women?” [24] In the editorial, she called for supporters of choice to join forces with those who are against abortion to “reject extremism” and to lower the “shamefully high rate of abortion” in the U.S.

Naomi Wolf’s words have been echoed in practice by Kate Michelman, leader of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL). NARAL has not called on the pro-choice movement to demonstrate against the ban on the so-called partial birth abortions which is sweeping the U.S., but she vowed last year that NARAL would join with abortion opponents to lower the abortion rate – partly through programs encouraging teenage girls to abstain from sex. As she put it, “People would like to see fewer abortions.” [25]

Has feminism changed – or are feminists of the 1990s betraying modern feminism’s founding principles? While it is true that the Gloria Steinem of today is quite different than the Gloria Steinem of 1970 – the change in feminism has not been qualitative. Occasional lip service aside, mainstream feminism has never sought to represent any other class of women than the upper-middle class. Feminism has merely evolved to reflect the changing circumstances of this class of women. The Feminine Mystique, the book by Betty Friedan that opened the door to modern feminism in 1963, gave voice to the plight of suburban, college educated middle-class women who felt trapped in their suburban homes. These women were well-educated but had no opportunity to pursue careers because sexist attitudes kept the doors of the corporate world closed to them.

To be sure, the 1950s and 1960s – when women told they should spend every waking moment devoting themselves to husband and family – were horribly oppressive. Friedan describes in her book, for example, a typical report from a marketing firm with its patronizing view of the average suburban housewife: she

“finds in housework a medium of expression for femininity and individuality” ... she still feels “lazy, neglectful, haunted by guilt feelings” because she doesn’t have enough work to do. The advertiser must manipulate her need for “a feeling of creativeness” into the buying of his product ... “Creativeness is the modern woman’s dialectical answer to the problem of her changed position in the household. Thesis: I’m a housewife. Antithesis: I hate drudgery. Synthesis: I’m creative!” This means essentially that even though the housewife may buy canned food ... she doesn’t let it go at that. She has a great need for “doctoring up” the can and thus prove her personal participation and her concern with giving satisfaction to her family. [26]

But one can have sympathy with the need for middle-class housewives to rebel against this sort of sexist rubbish without forgetting how much better off they were than working-class women, who have never had the luxury of concerning themselves with career fulfillment. Unfortunately, Friedan does not. She acknowledges class differences between women, but makes clear from the beginning that the book limits its discussion to the problems of suburban housewives. In the chapter called “The problem that has no name,” she writes, “It is not caused by lack of material advantages; it may not even be felt by women preoccupied with desperate problems of hunger, poverty or illness.” [27] She makes no further comment on the plight of those women who are preoccupied by problems of poverty, hunger or illness.

The entire purpose of the Feminine Mystique is to convince middle-class, educated suburban housewives to find fulfillment through a career in business or the professions.

Friedan praises women who had shown the courage to seek well-paying careers, writing sympathetically that these women “had problems of course, tough ones – juggling their pregnancies, finding nurses and housekeepers, having to give up good assignments when their husbands were transferred.” [28] She doesn’t even deem it worthy to comment on the lives of the nursemaids and the housekeepers these career women hire, who also work all day but then return home to face housework and childcare responsibilities of their own.

The new feminism of the Naomi Wolfs and Susan Faludis is concerned with this very same class of women – only these are the next generation, who have broken out of the suburban housewife trap and have climbed into management. Feminism, now as then, speaks only for this class of women – who are a minority – who can achieve relative equality within the confines of capitalism. These women do not need special reforms like maternity leave or child care because they have the wealth to hire others – usually other women – to carry out these tasks. Feminists, be they of this generation or the last, hold identical class interests. It is not surprising therefore that Betty Friedan now says that she resents “women being used in an attempt to bring down a president whose policies have been very good for women and families.” [29]

But none of this speaks to the needs, much less the aspirations, of the vast majority of women – who can’t buy their way out of any aspect of their oppression, and who can’t gain access to the kinds of opportunities for education and career that would allow them to earn vast sums of money. For working-class women, there are no individual solutions to being overworked and underpaid. And, Naomi Wolf’s claims to the contrary, it matters little to most working-class women whether their manager is a man or a woman.

For this reason, socialists have traditionally argued that, as a solution to women’s oppression, feminism offers nothing to working-class women. Capitalism places virtually the entire responsibility for raising children on the shoulders of individual working-class families – from providing medical care and transportation to food, clothing and other necessities of life. Low-income families must struggle to make ends meet, or go without necessities. And within the working-class family, the responsibility for housework and childrearing falls overwhelmingly upon working-class women, whether or not they hold a job outside the home. Capitalism has continued to depend upon this subjugation of working-class women, even as it has extended the corporate ladder to middle- and upper-class women.

Society already has the resources to provide universal medical care and child care, not to mention assistance with the heavier aspects of housework and laundry. But capitalism is organized around the quest for profits, rather than the fulfilment of people’s needs. The oppression suffered by the vast majority of women can only be eradicated by targeting the capitalist system that breeds it. Working-class women – and men, for that matter – have everything to gain from fighting for a socialist society. There is no blueprint for what a socialist society will look like. That will be determined by the workers who struggle for it and win it. But the principles of revolutionary socialism are long-standing – production for need and an end to all forms of oppression and exploitation. For women, this will offer the opportunity, for the first time since the rise of class society, for equality with men.

It is ironic, however, that after decades of feminists’ accusations that socialists do not take women’s liberation seriously, and that socialists subordinate the fight against women’s oppression to the class struggle, socialists have held to the principles of women’s liberation that long ago fell by the wayside for feminists, precisely because socialists fight for the interests of the working class.

The following passage, written in 1908 by the Russian Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, is as relevant today as the day it was written:

The women’s world is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps: the interests and aspirations of one group bring it close to the bourgeois class, while the other group has close connections to the proletariat, and its claims for liberation encompass a full solution to the woman question. Thus, although both camps follow the general slogan of the “liberation of women,” their aims and interests are different. Each of the groups unconsciously takes its starting point from the interests and aspirations of its own class, which gives a specific class coloring to the targets and tasks it sets for itself. However apparently radical the demands of the feminists, one must not lose sight of the fact that the feminists cannot, on account of their class position, fight for that fundamental transformation of society without which the liberation of women cannot be complete. [30]

* * *


1. Wisconsin Abortion Clinics Shut Down, Citing New Law, New York Times, May 15, 1998.

2. Alleged Action “Boorish but Not Harassing”, The Washington Post, April 2, 1998, contains the bulk of the transcript of the judge’s ruling.

3. Time, June 29, 1998.

4. Feminists and the Clinton Question, by Gloria Steinem, New York Times, March 22, 1998.

5. A Matter of Definition, by Anita Hill, New York Times, March 19, 1998.

6. Sex and the Times, by Susan Faludi, The Nation, April 20, 1988.

7. Ibid.

8. Naomi Wolf, Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How it Will Change the 21st Century (Chatto & Windus, London, 1993), p. xvi.

9. Ibid., p. 263.

10. Ibid., p. 318.

11. Ibid., p. 57.

12. Ibid., p. 318.

13. Ibid., p. 58.

14. Ibid., p. 42.

15. Ibid., p. 57.

16. Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (Little, Brown & Co., Boston 1992), p. 332.

17. Wolf, p. 51.

18. Ibid., p. 221.

19. Ibid., p. 222.

20. Ibid., pp. 256–7.

21. Time, August 18, 1986.

22. Wolf, p. 141.

23. Ibid., p. 142.

24. Naomi Wolf, Pro-Choice and Pro-Life, New York Times, April 3, 1997.

25. NARAL’s retreat on Abortion, Socialist Worker, January 31, 1997.

26. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (Dell Publishing Company, New York 1963), p. 204.

27. Ibid., p. 22.

28. Ibid., p. 362.

29. Quoted in Marvin Mandell, Clinton: Two Mysteries, New Politics, Summer 1998, p. 7.

30. Alix Holt (ed.), Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (London 1977), p. 59.

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