The month of March has been Women’s History Month in the United States since 1981. It was officialized in the context of second-wave feminism, particularly after the growing importance of Women’s History Week over the previous decade. Much like the so-called Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month, in February and September/October respectively, the United States government, in conjunction with civic organizations, tends to use Women’s History Month not as part of the repertoire of an emancipatory project, but rather as a tool for reinforcing dominant ideologies and mores.
Womanhood is not a homogenous social caste, nor should it be treated as such, and the rise of third-wave feminism partially developed as a realization of this. Yet, the prevailing order, acquiescent to the fractional “victories” of first and second-wave feminism, seems to be sufficiently happy with the status of women today. And why wouldn’t the elite feel as such? There are myriad examples of women in positions of not only influence, but of power as well. We need only look as far as Hillary Rodham Clinton, former United States Secretary of State, Senator, and likely Democratic presidential candidate, Melissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox, or the media mogul Oprah Winfrey. Are these women feminists? No doubt they are, with the exception of Mayer who has denounced feminism, stating that she doesn’t “have sort of the militant drive” that the term engenders. But on the surface, she along with the others mentioned above are feminists in the sense that they are in favor of equal rights between men and women. This is of course the most superficial definition of feminism – the believed social parity between the sexes (gender parity is a different problem) – one which on the surface, most people, at least those who aren’t out and out patriarchal chauvinists, can endorse.
It is this definition of feminism that allows for the persistence of structural sexism and misogyny in society. Very much like the question of race and class, the question of sex (in addition to the larger problem of gender) is far from a satisfactory solution in the United States. Are the aforementioned elite women oppressed under capitalism in this country? They most certainly are, Burns and Winfrey doubly so as they are of African descent, but they are also part of the problem in the struggle for women’s liberation. Feminism, as a core discursive and analytic category, is also an obstacle to the liberation of women, particularly if womanhood is presented as a monolithic social category with little to no differentiation. Of course certain individuals who describe themselves as feminists push against this notion, yet their work is a drop in the proverbial bucket. The fact remains that for the most popular swaths of the population in the United States, feminism simply means equality between man and woman. Equality, either de facto or de jure, is not sufficient for women’s liberation, it is merely a reformist measure enacted to bring (certain) women into the fold, into the corridors of power and prestige. On the other hand, women’s liberation endeavors to emancipate women from their decidedly subservient and subsidiary position to the man.
The terminology of Women’s liberation was undoubtedly more popular during the 1960s and 1970s, even if amongst a minority of people involved in the wider feminist movement. Today it is nearly nonexistent within popular parlance, and is also the case to a degree in academic as well as activist communities. Women’s liberation in sum is the destruction of all social fetters which restrain women in such a manner that benefit men. Furthermore, the ideology of women’s liberation does not assume that all women are, or should be equal. In fact they aren’t and they shouldn’t be. Similar to the idea that the best method of remedying racial disparities is to institute some sort of “Black capitalism,” the current manifestations of feminism do not seek to unshackle women, rather the proponents of such ideas seek to ingratiate themselves and women in general within the predetermined and predefined structures of the capitalist socio-political structure in which we all live. This is more than a semantic or lexical variance, it is a question of program, strategy, and tactics. Women’s liberation, therefore, is a distinct and divergent social project from that of feminism. If feminism is for (what is now only superficial) equality, women’s liberation is for the drastic reorganization of sexual and gender relations with attendant concern to intersecting problems around race and class. The White working-class man is of more value to the project of emancipating women than any of the previously mentioned women. This isn’t to say that women “need” men for their emancipation through any sort of inferiority, but rather that certain women alongside certain men, those from the most oppressed sectors of our society (blue-collar workers, the working poor, migrant laborers, sections of the middle-class), are the only ones who through joint struggle can smash patriarchy rather than inserting a few token individuals into the existent matrix of power. The wholesale destruction of patriarchy, as opposed to mitigating its social ramifications, entails coming up against those that consider themselves as feminists. This is a battle of ideas that cannot solely be waged in the academy. It must be contested in the public sphere if there is to ever be hope of liberating not just women, but men and gender nonconforming people from the encumbrances, oppression, and ostracization inherent of social relation in the United States.
The failure of feminism in popular culture is evinced in numerous ways. The 2012 documentary Invisible War is a prime example. The film is about the incredibly high rates of sexual abuse and rape in the military and the culture that disavows its existence or tries to cover it up. While well researched, shot, and certainly worth watching, the film does nothing to interrogate the essential issues at the center of an imperialist military apparatus. Rather, it presents the instances of rape, sexual abuse, and sexism more generally as something that must be rectified if the United States military is to function. It does in fact function quite well and giving women “equality” in the US armed forces does nothing to advance the cause for liberation. Women cannot currently serve in the Special Forces (Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Delta Force, Green Beret’s, Marine Force Recon, Joint Special Operations Command, and etcetera), feminists would, and have called for them to be able to do so. Certainly it is historically proven that women are as equally effective in combat as men (Spetsnaz, Israeli Defense Forces, and Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces being some of many examples), and certain feminists support such measures in the interest of “equality.” Yet, such support is predicated on the notion that criticizing the wider implementation of the military complex should not go beyond sexual equality at home or in the barracks. The 2014 CNN documentary film, Lady of Valor (a companion of sorts to the 2013 book Warrior Princess), which chronicles the sexual/gender transition of Kristen Beck, a former Navy SEAL (previously known as Christopher). The overall theme of this film is an exploration of Beck’s transition and how certain segments of the population denigrated her after transitioning. When Beck coldly discusses killing Afghanis and Iraqis it isn’t so much of a concern, though when she experiences virtual and real-life hate, it is presented as a problem that needs redress immediately. Of course transphobia and transphobic violence need to be addressed, but to do so in a way that glorifies and cements the place of imperialist ventures is all that popular feminism in the United States seems to be able to muster.
The problem of feminism is not restricted to the confines of the United States either. Emma Watson’s 20 September speech in 2014 is case in point. The United Nations’ “HeForShe” campaign is the ultimate manifestation of this sort of liberal feminism that is increasingly being popularized to the detriment of most women, all in the quest for some opaquely defined conception of equality. Not only does the very title of the initiative obliquely position women as lesser than men, she likens previous forms of struggle for women’s rights as tantamount to “man-hating.” Militant variations of feminism from the 1960’s through today are the social movements that have come the closest (they are still very far from success) to toppling the patriarchal system that is seemingly natural throughout the United States and the world at large. It is only through such “man-hating,” and by that Watson (and Mayer for that matter) means militancy, that misogyny as culture, as politics, and as social reality will be sacrificed upon the altar of liberatory “progress.”
The UN’s co-optation of International Women’s Day since 1975 is another example of the failure of the feminist drive for equality at the expense of liberation. Originally celebrated by New York socialists in 1909, the holiday became an official day for working women on the heels of the triumphant Bolshevik Revolution some ten years after. At the insistence of Alexandra Kollontai and Vladimir Lenin, International Women’s Day became a holiday across successive communist and workers’ states in the twentieth century. Originally called International Working Women’s Day, the original militancy of the celebration in the quest for women’s liberation has been stripped of its class and political content in the contemporary era. Like the advocates of feminism at the UN, many of those in the United States simply posit that women should be equal. Equal to what or to whom? Equal to what end? Women’s liberation, while not a panacea in and of itself to patriarchal cultures or thinking, is a sounder basis from which to continue the project of emancipation. Indeed, if the old maxim that the “last shall be first, and the first last” is to come to pass, something greater than feminist “equality” needs to motivate our struggles.