Language policing and Twitter wars: why modern feminism is failing us (again)


Even at the height of this new feminism’s cultural ascendancy, its victories have been few and far between.’ Photograph: Fabio Teixeira/Pacific Press/Alamy

LATE last year I went to a conference session on sexism in the workplace. About 25 of us, mostly young professional women, swapped demoralising anecdotes about how the pay gap, motherhood, sexual harassment and oppressive gender expectations had impacted our careers.

We were all on pretty much the same page. There was furious agreement that women are subjected to sexism in the public sphere, and that this is harmful to individuals and to society as a whole. Fantastic, I thought. We’re switched on, we know what’s what, and we’re here together to talk about what we can do to fix things.

But as the focus shifted from describing the problem to proposing solutions, it was like watching a train derail in slow motion. What about mentoring, somebody said. What if we teach women to negotiate for higher pay? What if companies are encouraged to set targets for women in executive roles? What if we build a culture of open negotiation in our own workplaces, where women are empowered to ask for more flexible hours?

I shifted in my seat, waiting for someone to bring up public daycare, or government-funded parental leave, or the proliferation of underpaid pink-collar jobs, or the economic devaluation of women’s reproductive labour, or any of the issues that have historically been sites of feminist struggle.

Nobody did, so I raised my hand to mention my sister, who is a part-time childcare worker. 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?

A mildly uncomfortable pause followed. I ploughed on, motivated half by an immediate anxiety about filling the conversational gap and half by raw indignation. Shouldn’t our demands be for universal changes to the structure of society that will help all women, I asked. There was a subdued murmur of assent, and a couple of women voiced agreement. But the matter was soon forgotten, and I spent the rest of the session in a state of tense disappointment.

Liberal feminism is broadly characterised by its naturalisation of Enlightenment values: individual choice, meritocracy, autonomy, progress, the emancipatory power of technology and an acceptance of the basic structures of capitalist social organisation.

This manifests as a self-help philosophy typified by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In, which attributes women’s difficulty achieving career advancement to their docile, people-pleasing socialisation.

Sandberg’s utopia is one in which women inspire themselves out of the effects of sexism by becoming more assertive in the corporate sphere. On this account women’s belief in their own competence takes on a quasi-magical power, and their individual striving in the current order is the key to ending oppression.

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. 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.

Liberal feminism’s theoretical poverty and ignorance of structural factors explain the gap between its omnipresence in public discourse and seeming lack of ability to achieve material gains for women. Even at the height of this new feminism’s cultural ascendancy, its victories have been few and far between.

In December, prominent American women’s website Jezebel published an essay by one of its editors, Jia Tolentino, titled No Offense. She writes:

The offense model has failed, and dramatically. Women have a prominent voice in online media; feminism is a broad and verbally defended platform, and what has it all amounted to except a nightmarish discursive juxtaposition between what feminism says and what it is able to do? Pop stars preach female solidarity while reproductive rights roll back all over the country; we have politicized and vindicated every possible manifestation of female narcissism without getting any legislative movement towards mandatory paid parental leave. Feminism is proliferating essentially as merchandise; we can buy anything that suits us and nothing that we really need.

The avowal of something does not instantiate it. Is that as obvious as I think? Fervent support for a political position does not automatically translate into any meaningful gains. The failure of the feminist offense factory to result in much else other than better TV and extremely woke 12-year-olds should be sufficient proof of that.

Tolentino and I are both in our mid-20s, and the sense of fatigue that permeates her essay is familiar to me; the edifice of popular feminism is a carnival of hot takes and gifs and Twitter wars and celebrities and language policing, so much language policing. It’s entertaining and enraging but leaves very little trace of itself the next day, like a dropped ice-cream washed away by the rain.
At the pay gap panel session I mentioned earlier, the women present seemed unperturbed by the idea that swapping corporate career tips was feminism. When I brought up collective possibilities, it was an act of rudeness: I was literally changing the subject, moving the conversation away from its agreed-on parameters for apparently unclear reasons. Yet almost all of them had earlier offered a story of workplace sexism from their own experience, and some even spoke of being subjected to near-daily harassment.

Clearly their occupation of positions in the upper socioeconomic echelons of society had not protected them against manifestations of structural sexism. Yet this was still the accepted approach, as it is in modern feminism.

What to do, then? How to fill the gap created by the irrelevance of second-wave organising principles, the neoliberal destruction of institutions such as unions, mass political parties, churches, community groups, movements that might once have been sources of collective practice?

We can’t eliminate all conflict, and the rejection of naive liberalism will not resolve itself automatically into a political movement. But we do have some things going for us: contrary to what a lot of older commentators believe, young women care just as much about change as every other generation. Given that we have skin in the game, especially in terms of our diminishing access to the “goods of life” (housing, stable employment, a non-fucked climate, avenues for exercising civic power and so on), we’re in a prime position to organise.

In the US, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has tapped into this vein of enthusiasm to produce a burgeoning movement based heavily on volunteer organising among youth populations. It remains to be seen how successful this effort will be, but it does prove that such action is indeed possible. The Black Lives Matter movement continues to operate, protesting against the extrajudicial killing and mass incarceration of America’s black population. #BlackLivesMatter has already been courted extensively by Sanders and his rival, Hillary Clinton; it has put racial justice squarely back on the public agenda and drawn a mass of attention to the ongoing harm caused by US racism.

Closer to my home, an increasing awareness of Australia’s harrowing domestic violence epidemic has led to the formation of new coalitions based on the rejection of male domination in the private sphere.

What these initiatives have in common is a new focus on building something better, envisaging what the world might look like if being poor, being black, and being a woman didn’t mean being ground into the dirt by arbitrary power.

In this scenario, instead of leaning in, we would dig up. By Eleanor Robertson

The full version of this essay was first published in the autumn 2016 issue of Meanjin