‘Empowerment’ feminism is not working – we need a far more radical approach to gender equality

An International Women’s Day protest march in Sydney. AAP

International Women’s Day has come and gone, leaving the annual short burst attention to “women’s issues” in its wake. So now is a good time to look at what emerged from it, and whether gender equity has stalled.

Simone de Beauvoir famously said that women are the second sex, made and not born. Society is what makes us. The use of the term “women’s issues” indicates we are still seen as such, as our presumed concerns are not universal. Feminism should be about ensuring we have the same power as men, so the question is whether women can equally set agendas and determine what matters.

The activities around International Women’s Day did not suggest we were even on the way there. There were breakfasts to raise money, events to celebrate individual successes, and some interesting talkfests, but no political plans to implement the ideas.

We gathered at fundraising runs and marched with diverse women’s groups waving a wide range of protest banners of protests. Solidarity was symbolised by many wearing newly knitted pink “pussy hats” to raise funds.

In short, there was much to like. But it seemed to be more social and celebratory than a political event, at a time when major changes and retro populism are threatening both what we have gained and an equitable future. Feminism seems to have lost its political way.

Yet, in extra flow of media attention, and limited protests at what is, there were some who expressed this wider concern. One of those was Jessa Crispin, a US author making waves with her polemic Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto.

Crispin’s case against feminism claims it has become tamed and “universal”, seeking acceptance and a share of the status quo – and so has lost its radical commitment to changing society.

This resonated with my questioning of whether what were real feminist changes were obvious to younger women who grew up after the 1980s, in the more individuated and less socially connected modes of neoliberalism.

When I talked publicly of a 70s badge that stated “women who want equality with men lack ambition”, most were confused. Most of those over 30 failed to understand that being allowed to share some aspects of male equality was not nearly enough, nor would it lead to wider change. The younger ones, however, often responded with excitement, wanting to know more about serious changes that do not seem to be happening within feminism anymore.

Crispin offered some interesting analysis that suggested that feminist desires for change had been replaced by a universal feminism. In its attempts to become widely accepted, she writes, feminism had become “as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible”. She goes on to say:

The feminism I support is a full on revolution. Where women are not simply allowed to participate in the world as it already exists … but are actively able to reshape it.

Tough words that are obviously designed to stir, but she raises interesting questions about whether a once-dynamic, radical movement has dissipated into fragmented, identity-based subgroups. These often tend to promote self feel-good and bodily self expression as forms of much more personal politics.

Crispin wasn’t the only feminist asking such questions. Germaine Greer, my age peer, launched her own critique, saying aiming for equality is a “profoundly conservative goal” for women. She continued:

What everybody has accepted is the idea of equality feminism. It will change nothing … women are drawing level with men in this profoundly destructive world that we live in and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the wrong way. We’re getting nowhere.

If we’re going to change things I think we’re going to have to start creating a women’s polity that is strong, that has its own way of operating, that makes contact with women in places like Syria, and that challenges the right of destructive nations. Women needed to aim higher and achieve more than simply drawing level with men and entering into traditionally male-dominated fields.

As a sociologist, I think it is important to look at the political environments that created the changes that have occurred since the 1970s. Feminism, like other social movements, was infected by the neoliberal virus that altered politics and policy from the 80s on.

And here’s a mea culpa: I argued, in the 80s, for more childcare funding to boost women’s paid work. So now we have a market model, creating A$1 billion profit for corporations but excluding children whose parents don’t have paid jobs.

This change is an example of the lack of clear feminist opposition to moving from our right to paid work to being obliged to do it.

Feminism did achieve much, but by the 1990s, having removed legal barriers and formal sex discrimination, collective changing of what mattered stopped. There was no interest in funding and developing the social (feminised) areas of societies, so there is little change and some backward slides.

The so-called DIY third wave arose in the 1990s as a much more fragmented movement, raising critiques of Western feminisms as undervaluing diversities. But these became entrenched and often divisive.

Crispin tends to label many of these types of changes as “empowerment feminism”, a shallow version of political action on personal issues. While this ignores the many community groups that raise funds and run feminist services – for example, for victims of domestic violence – they do not tackle issues of how we can stop the violence.

Identifying the problems of feminism and talking about it publicly is not enough. Crispin and Greer are right to say that we badly need some substantial feminist input to broaden the options for serious reform of our current politics, which is both seriously macho and damaging.

The over-emphasis on GDP and individual material wellbeing is creating the trust deficit, in which Australians believe governments no longer care about their futures and social wellbeing.

Whether there are those with the political and policy energy out there who can offer broad feminist leadership to get us out of the mess remains to be seen. It requires not just participating in decisions on current terms, but offering serious policy options that allow people to feel good about their social wellbeing and comfortable with the society we live in.