Nancy Fraser: ‘A Feminism Aimed at Liberating All Women Must Be Anti-Capitalist’

Nancy Fraser

In the fight for equality, not all feminisms are the same. Writer and academic Nancy Fraser on the power of popular feminism – and why its counterpart, managerial feminism, is a dead end.

Women's Day in Madrid. Credit: Pablo Blazquez Domingez / Getty Images

Interview by
Olimpia Malatesta

In the fight for equality, not all feminisms are the same. Few writers have been as clear on this point as Nancy Fraser, a critic of those feminisms that seek only to put more women in boardrooms and parliaments. Her recent book Feminism for the 99%, written with Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya, instead argues for a feminism focused on the needs of the social majority.

This isn’t a matter of limiting feminism to narrow workplace issues—far from it. Instead, feminism for the 99 percent is about how to rally the majority behind a common agenda, uniting the material interests of working people with liberation struggles.

In this abridged interview, Nancy Fraser speaks to Olimpia Malatesta about how feminism can help us see beyond the traditional demands of labour, why managerial feminism is a dead end, and how a popular feminism can contribute to stronger socialist movement.


OM

Feminism for the 99% highlights the importance of ‘reproductive labour’, still today overwhelmingly lumped on women. This differs from many anti-capitalist analyses that only consider battles over ‘productive labour’, like wages and hours.

If welfare is normally guaranteed by the state, but the state is now dismantling it, how should feminism relate to the state itself? And should feminist movements engage with the development of progressive parties (or the radicalisation of existing ones)?

NF

One thing feminists must do is defend public services against the austerity that states are imposing at the behest of the financial sector. We need to oppose the retrenchment and commodification of public services. But that isn’t enough.

Finance is a global force that pits different countries against one other—it can’t be defeated one country at a time. Many people don’t have a functioning state—they live in failed states or refugee camps or kleptocracies. And even those who do have one are caught in a race to the bottom, orchestrated by investors and banks.

So exclusively state-based approaches cannot be the answer—rather, we need a global counterpower. The fight against austerity can only succeed if we link state-level struggles to broader transnational struggles aimed at transforming the international financial order. We need to build cross-border alliances committed to fighting for social rights, not just nationally, but globally.

In terms of how feminists should relate to anti-capitalist parties and left-wing political currents, such decisions should be guided by two general considerations. Firstly, any feminism aimed at liberating all women must itself be anti-capitalist—liberal, pro-capitalist feminisms can at best empower a small, privileged stratum of professional-managerial women, while leaving the vast majority vulnerable to abuses of every stripe.

Secondly, feminists, however numerous and radical we become, cannot transform society all by ourselves. The deep structural change we need can only be achieved through a broad-based anti-capitalist alliance, which must also include radical movements and political parties that have not so far prioritised gender. We’ll have to push them to do that, as we join with radical environmentalists, anti-racists, immigrant-rights movements, trade unions, and others. That’s the only path to large-scale social transformation.

It’s also the only path to a genuinely liberatory feminism. Our chief concerns are gender and sexuality, but these matters do not exist in a vacuum and cannot be abstracted from the larger social matrix in which they are embedded, which also includes other major fault lines of social injustice. We rightly insist that labour movements broaden their agenda to include reproductive work, as you said. But feminists must also broaden our agenda beyond conventional understandings of ‘women’s issues’, to include the whole spectrum of issues that affect women—and everyone else.

OM

Your book talks about ‘global care chains’ and the ‘crisis of care work’, which allows wealthier women to hire poorer (often migrant or racialised) women to take care of their houses, children, and parents, while they can concentrate on their careers. These underpaid women are left with no time for their own domestic and familial responsibilities and have to transfer them to other even poorer women across national borders, and so on.

Could you explain this concept of ‘global care chains’? Given that the interests of the women at the top of this chain are radically different from those at the bottom, how can they reunite in one same feminist battle?

NF

It’s unclear who exactly coined the phrase ‘global care chains’, but many people give the credit to an American sociologist named Arlie Hochschild. She wrote a much-cited article, ‘Love and Gold’, which suggests that love is the new gold, the new ‘natural resource’ that the Global North is extracting from the Global South.

For privileged northern women to assume demanding jobs, they need to offload their domestic responsibilities onto others. Male partners don’t step in, and public services are being cut—so they turn to immigrant women, often racialised, who come from halfway around the world, and who leave their own families in the care of other, poorer women, who must rely in turn on others who are poorer still. Ergo, a network of global care chains by analogy with global commodity chains.

Instead of overcoming the care deficit, this simply displaces it onto less privileged women further down the chain. In effect, the liberation of privileged metropolitan women is built on the extraction of ‘gold’ from the periphery.

Where does this leave the idea of global sisterhood? Well, we have a number of different, competing feminisms, with different, competing views of gender equality, of the sources of sexism, and of what must be changed and how. These views differ sharply in their class and racial/ethnic/national orientation. Feminism is not a global sisterhood, then, but a political-ideological battleground. And that’s a good thing—we do need to struggle over these matters.

All women do not share the same interests, if we assume that people define their interests relative to current structures and institutions. The interests of migrant care workers conflict directly with those of the privileged women who hire them to work long hours at low pay and without labour rights. But we needn’t take current understandings of interests as sacrosanct. In crisis periods, many people radicalise and begin to understand their interests differently. Possibly, some women in the professional-managerial class currently attracted to neoliberal forms of feminism will ‘convert’, so to speak, to the feminism of the 99 percent. But that will only happen if our movement becomes large, strong, and convincing in its claim to offer a better life for everyone.

Feminists for the 99 percent aim to transform the entire relation between ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’. Everyone should have a shorter working week and a lot more time for family life, political participation, and other enjoyments. Everyone should have access to ample, generous support for care work—states, friends, neighbours, and civil society associations. Men should be every bit as responsible and engaged as women in these activities. Only this approach can truly solve the present crisis of care and make life better for everyone.

OM

The manifesto endorses a feminism capable of involving the large majority of women but also aimed at radical social transformation. This unveils the hypocrisy of progressive-neoliberal or managerial feminism, with its ideology of ‘breaking the glass ceiling’—something that leaves other women (with less possibilities and less human capital) ‘in the basement’.

The individualistic idea of ‘leaning in’ is still very powerful for a lot of women. Do we have to reject this type of feminism entirely, or is there some way to use it for progressive ends?

NF

You may be right that the unreflective common sense of many middle- and upper-class people remains liberal or neoliberal. But common sense has lost a lot of its credibility for other strata. Now that neoliberalisation has hit a wall, the poor and working classes insist that it’s not working for them, as does the bottom half of the middle class. That’s what makes the idea of a feminism of the 99 percent more than a pipe dream: social reality is meeting us halfway.

As more people lose faith in the established parties and politicians, they are willing to think outside the box. That’s certainly the case for those who turned to the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, and Salvini here in Italy, but it also holds for those attracted to ambiguous formations like the Five Star Movement and to left-populist figures like Bernie Sanders, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Jeremy Corbyn.

In this situation of uncertainty, it’s crucial that left-wing feminists (like leftists of every kind) jump into the fray and offer an alternative not only to right-wing populism but also to ‘progressive neoliberalism’. People’s ideas are changing very quickly, and we need to put our best ideas into the mix.

We wrote the manifesto for a range of different readers. We wrote it in part for those who are already attracted to a left-wing form of feminism, a group that includes large numbers of very young women (and for that matter, young men) who have been radicalised. Many of them don’t yet know much about what capitalism is, nor about feminism or socialism. They’re newly politicised and hungry for a guiding perspective.

OM

How can the Left create a hegemonic bloc allying working-class people associated with manufacturing, mining, and construction with others in service work, domestic labour, and the public sector—a group notably including women, immigrants, and people of colour?

NF

We should try to show both groups that, however different their problems appear on the surface, they are rooted in one and the same social system, which is financialised capitalism. That means offering them a map on which each group can locate itself in relation to the other, identify their common enemy, and envision the possibility of joining forces against that enemy.

The manifesto is one example of this sort of strategy. It doesn’t speak directly to Rust Belt layers who voted for Trump in the United States, let alone to their analogues elsewhere. But it does speak to large feminist and left-wing readerships with whom we have credibility—and sketches the sort of map that others can adapt for constituencies with whom they have credibility.

This interview is an excerpt from an original which appeared in Jacobin.

About the Author

Nancy Fraser is a professor of philosophy and politics at the New School for Social Research, New York.

About the Interviewer

Olimpia Malatesta studies political thought at the University of Bologna and Friedrich Schiller University in Jena.