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A Feminism That Takes to the Streets

Today's Women's Strike is a rebuke to corporate feminism.

A protester at the 2012 Chicago Women's March for Equality. Alejandro Quinones / Flickr

“A Day Without A Woman is a strike for privileged protesters.” “The ‘Day Without a Woman’ strike is going to be mostly a day without privileged women.” “Women: Go Ahead and Strike, But Know That Many of Your Sisters Can’t.”

The cascade of derisive headlines leading up to today’s Women’s Strike has been something to behold. What should we make of such scorn?

For one, it’s exposed many liberals’ congenital desire to tear down anything that appears to their left. But it’s also revealed the fraught ground on which mainstream debates about feminism take place, and how the movement itself is transforming.

It’s become axiomatic in left feminist spaces that there’s a “neoliberal” feminism against which all new forms of feminism must develop. What’s less often articulated is the political character and origins of this corporate feminism.

The key catalyst for neoliberal feminism’s rise was the slow asphyxiation of left political alternatives from the 1980s onwards. But behind these macro forces lay crucial, day-to-day strategic decisions that slowly narrowed feminist organizations’ political vision.

The fight for abortion rights is a case in point.

Mainstream feminism’s greatest political misstep has been to lionize Roe v. Wade a case that, rather than establish a positive right to abortion, folded reproductive rights into existing privacy rights. Over time, feminist groups began organizing exclusively around defending Roe, seeing the case as a bedrock of reproductive rights.

In practice this has meant adopting a legalistic, technocratic approach to women’s rights. The movement spends its energy and resources battling challenges in hundreds of small courts across the country. Its interventions into the broader political environment are limited to electing Democrats and lobbying Democrats.

This strategy has not only failed to protect abortion access in large parts of the country — it’s also professionalized the feminist movement, limiting membership to the staff of a constellation of nonprofits. Lawyers, PR consultants, and lobbyists have come to dominate official feminist leadership, and the political character of the movement has shifted accordingly.

Just look at the recent conflict between rank-and-file activists and Planned Parenthood’s political staff. When anti-abortion protesters decided to park outside a New York Planned Parenthood last month, feminists began organizing a counter-protest to show that they weren’t welcome. Planned Parenthood took it upon themselves to demobilize the counter-protest, demonstrating how deep the logic of cautious legalism runs in national reproductive rights organizations.

Today’s Women’s Strike offers a different model.

It rejects defensive, technocratic tactics. It champions mobilized, collective action that calls on everyone to show up, not just the pundits and law students. It forces those who participate to ask questions about how their labor, at home and at work, is exploited for alien ends.

The rhetoric of neoliberal feminists is often personalized and cynically deployed. But if we recognize that we have the power to determine the political content of our movements, we’ll be able to make strategic decisions that sustain, not limit, our radical vision.