Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Book review

Review: The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, by Catherine Rottenberg

Lucy Delap


Dane Deaner

| 9 mins read

Catherine Rottenberg’s The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism engages intensively and critically with a group of high profile, heavily marketed North American texts that demand women ‘do better and work harder’ to realise their aspirations. These are the best‐selling books by Sheryl Sandberg, Ivanka Trump and their ilk, books that invite women to ‘lean in’ to professional success, to balance work with intensive mothering, and to make the ‘right choices’ to achieve happiness.

Rottenberg makes short work of the limitations of this literature, with a searing critique of the ‘governmentality of neoliberalism’ that imbues its world view. She unpacks with precision the ways in which ‘choice feminism’ relies on the outsourcing of care work and the refusal of a feminist collective mobilisation. These authors have embraced a mode of ‘market rationality’ that renders all decision making part of a cost‐benefit calculus. Their politics seems likely only to benefit well educated, white, professional, heterosexual women.

At the heart of the book is an argument about the slippage of liberal values into the neoliberal, understood as a shift of the past three decades. Rottenberg characterises liberalism, in an account indebted to Carole Pateman, as premised on emancipation figured as successful participation in the ‘public sphere’. Liberalism refuses to acknowledge the care work of the private that enables public actions, and which largely devolves onto poor, immigrant women, often members of ethnic minorities.

Neoliberal feminism, by contrast, refuses the public/private altogether. It infuses all realms with a calculative rationality that requires the self to be understood as an enterprise, and human goals to be recast as self‐investment for future returns. Rottenberg discusses the affective project of happiness as a central neoliberal goal, and points to its normative bias towards heterosexual, reproductive, conventionally gendered lifestyles. Feminism, she argues, has proved conciliatory towards an agenda of ‘balance’ that refuses to acknowledge the blight of precarious employment that makes a mockery of any promise of reconciling work and family for most women.

Rottenberg is not the first to note the potential for alliances between feminism and neoliberalism, and her work builds usefully on the contributions of Nancy Fraser, Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed and Angela McRobbie. What's absent from this account, however, is a sense of the longer history of feminist commitments to free markets, individualism, labour market flexibility and career success. Similarly, precarious work and structural inequality also has a long presence in labour markets. The late nineteenth to mid‐twentieth century women's movement in Europe and the United States was deeply divided over the extent to which feminism should campaign on behalf of women workers, with some, such as Edwardian suffrage leader Millicent Fawcett, calling for the ‘fair field and no favour’ of a free labour market, set against the voices of those within the trade union movement who preferred regulation of hours and conditions. The splits engendered by these conflicting views were profoundly shaping of twentieth century feminism.

Other features of Rottenberg's analysis are also visible in earlier periods. Ideas of balance were evoked by mid‐twentieth century feminists such as Betty Friedan, Viola Klein and Alva Myrdal. Their voices were far from hegemonic, being consistently opposed by social justice and radical feminist‐inspired critiques of the status quo. In place of Rottenberg's depiction of a linear shift in recent decades from the liberal to the neoliberal, it is helpful to recognise that the disputes over the market and individualism are an ongoing constitutive tension within feminism.

Rottenberg's unpacking of choice and the market offers a hard‐hitting critique of the injustice and precariousness of today's labour markets in the United States. She's right that the low‐wage gig economy hardly offers much feminist potential. However, her account of capitalism is broad‐brush, and tends to homogenise its operations. A vibrant feminist realm of experiments with ethical enterprise is made invisible. For Rottenberg, the massive weight of corporate power means that only state or supranational institutions can recast the playing field in order to gain quality childcare, worker rights, and reproductive rights.

But the efforts by feminists in post‐1968 years of experimentation and activism to engage markets are worth further investigation. Feminist credit unions boomed in the United States in the 1970s, with assets of $1.7 million by 1975. By 1980, there were at least eight women's banks in the US, and organisations such as the Feminist Economic Network and the Feminist Business Alliance represented hundreds of businesses, spanning ‘profit with purpose’ and not‐for‐profit, cooperatives, collectives and corporations. Services and products included women's bookstores, publishing, fashion and jewellery, domestic cleaning, legal practice, restaurants and healthcare. (See Joshua Clark Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs). Many such enterprises were rooted in communities, and offered resources such as meeting spaces and periodicals alongside efforts to provide fair wages and material resources for women. While the pursuit of profit was always contentious and often hard to realise, the marketplace should not be simply dismissed; experiments with ‘fair trade’ and ‘profit with purpose’ offer a means of modifying and reworking the marketplace to achieve feminist goals. There is no necessary disintegration of commitments to democracy, collective solidarity and radical critique within environments of enterprise. Critics of precarious employment and vulture capitalism should not only look to the state as the sole source of push‐back.

The existence of a neoliberal strand of feminism should not surprise us, given the extraordinarily varied nature of feminism commitments across the past two centuries. It has proved possible to conjoin varieties of feminism to anarchism, liberalism, imperialism, fascism, anti‐Semitism, environmentalism, all major world religions, socialism and communism. The diversity of feminist politics makes the specific alliance with the interests of an upper middle class, white American elite that Rottenberg pins to the twenty‐first century an interesting case study—but not a sign of terminal illness of the movement. There are moments where Rottenberg's claims are inflated—she argues that not only has neoliberal feminism usurped the hegemony of liberal feminism, but that it ‘forgets’ its own genesis, and thus makes ‘alternative futures difficult to envision’. This runs the risk of dignifying the likes of Sandberg, Ivanka Trump, Anne‐Marie Slaughter and the other bloggers and writers of the ‘lean in’ genre with too much attention; their writings tend to be superficial and anecdotal, and while very visible, they have far from dominated the landscape of contemporary feminism. Far from neoliberalism becoming hegemonic, the intersectional, critical feminism of the past three decades offers feminists a powerful and widely deployed set of analytic tools that elucidates the workings of class and race privilege.

Rottenberg has convincingly identified and critiqued a feminist genre, and her anger and clarity are welcome. But we should remain mindful of the many alternative sources of feminist inspiration, both historically and today. We might look to the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, or beyond the United States, to the grassroots mobilisation of millions of Indian women in Kerala campaigning for spiritual equality, of men and women in Poland and Ireland mobilising for women's reproductive rights, of Icelanders bringing feminism to bear on their country's experience of the 2008 financial crash. ‘Lean in’ versus state action doesn't capture the full spectrum of feminist interventions.

The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, by Catherine Rottenberg, is published by Oxford University Press. 239 pp. £19.99

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    Lucy Delap

    Lucy Delap is a Reader in Modern British and Gender History at Cambridge University.

    Articles by Lucy Delap