Liberal feminism: a path for emancipation or perpetuation of inequality?

Eisenstein Hester in her article “The Sweatshop Feminists” reflects on how feminism ideologies have been manipulated to support the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, a subject feminism was meant to challenge. Eisenstein articulates several issues on the general trends of feminist movements with an inclination towards institutionalization and its preconception of identity, culture, and difference. The author supports other feminist concerns about the fall of the original collective emancipatory fight for women rights to employment and independence.

Liberal feminism has played a critical role in legitimizing corporate capitalist ideas and practices which undermine feminist efforts to defend and safeguard the women’s distinct labor needs and interests. Advocacy for women’s professional development, struggle for full integration into capitalist economies, and the push for gender equity in the workplace was in a way meant to justify the elimination of welfare programs and reduction of worker wages by the neoliberal elites. Neoliberalism penetrated the Global South and influenced government policies that allowed Export-Processing Zones (EPZs) to operate as non-governmental organizations where worker welfare movements are prohibited. This development worked to destabilize the radical feminist reforms and struggles as women workers suffered beatings, unpaid overtime, abductions, arbitrary dismissals, intimidation with firearms, verbal abuse, and interrogations. Further, there is the contention that individualization of women has been ingrained in extremely sexualized and consumerist ways.

Eisenstein’s approach is centered on the social-economic sphere that is immensely characterized by gender oppression and the role of wage labor in women’s lives in the 21st century. In this view, I find the author insensitive to the economic causal dynamics, instead, the author bases her argument on culture and identity as the source of distraction to progressive feminism. Well, she has a credible argument that should be addressed in efforts to reinventing feminism and forging an optimistic future laudable move

While I appreciate and support the author’s concerns on how neoliberals have capitalized on women empowerment to achieve their capitalist interests and undermine feminist politics, I think her work should also be critically interrogated on the basis that Eisenstein’s interpretation of co-optation drives some sense that waters down the particular feminist efforts. In my view, the author’s approach sounds more of an anti-globalization activism that draws generalization and unwarranted pessimism. In addition to derailing and driving feminist efforts towards the negative direction, it cuts the hope for a future rejuvenation of feminism.

In my opinion, the progressive feminist politics propagated by Eisenstein are embedded with some flaws. Her argument relies on socialist feminism in reviving and advancing feminism politics. She neglects the internal conflicts and centers her focus on revaluing of care work as a solution to attaining actual feminism goals. Also, she seems to be disciplining feminism from a position of authority that sanctifies past socialist feminists and belittles other liberal feminists. Adopting her position may threaten to cause further fractures among feminists and undermine the hard-won feminist alliances. Moreover, Eisenstein provides the trajectory that progressive political practice should take such as mass awareness and mobilization campaigns, popular education, unionization, cooperatives and coalition building. However, in a neoliberal era, she makes an assumption that such practices will automatically occur following the revival of social feminism as an agent for progressive politics. Therefore, her approach appears biased towards Marxist practices over feminist practices.

Overall, Eisenstein’s assertion on cultural practices that promotes identity and recognition through institutionalized practices on gender mainstreaming and service provision is admissible as feminism progressive strategy. She highlights the need for radicalized efforts and activities such as mass mobilization, education, advocacy, and service provision for purposes of keeping governments checked and accountable for individual acts of empowerment. However, my argument emphasizes on the inclusivity and reflexivity of such efforts. I support more concrete and robust feminist activities that resist neoliberalism and create a world where both men and women are fairly and equitably treated with dignity.

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