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Feminism Needs Capitalism Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle

The inclusion of more women at the top of oppressive power structures shouldn’t be confused with women’s liberation. We need a radical, socialist feminism, not a repackaged version of Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate-friendly "lean-in" brand.

Multiple employees at the Wing — a self-proclaimed “women’s utopia,” cofounded by Audrey Gelman (left) — have complained of discriminatory and exploitative practices. (Bryan Bedder / Getty Images)

There’s a common way for liberals to depoliticize politics and render it technocratic, by suggesting to radicals that “we all want the same things, we just advocate different means of getting there.” This move transforms the goal (“there”) into something vague and ill-defined: “equality,” “justice,” “fairness,” and so on.

Radicals are made to look like they’re kicking up a fuss — if we want the same thing, why not just go for the less troublesome means? And the political differences are obscured — particularly those that might call into question the liberal’s claim to actually support equality or justice or fairness. Real political antagonisms fade into the background, covered over by technocratic fixes.

This is especially common in the equivocation of liberal feminists between two forms of success: that of individual women, and that of feminism as a political movement. Finding a liberal who reveals their goals explicitly, then, is perversely thrilling.

Vicky Pryce’s Women vs Capitalism is a book that offers exactly this kind of cheap thrill. We get to see what liberals really want, how they want to get it, and how both differ from radical or socialist proposals and goals. The book’s title holds out the promise of a radicalism that is sorely lacking in the text itself.

Market Failure

In Women vs Capitalism, we learn that the problem with capitalism is that it doesn’t make good, efficient use of all possible resources, because it irrationally blocks the full participation of women in the labor force. This is, of course, a sticky puzzle: Why is it that capitalism preserves, to a greater or lesser extent, traditional gender relations, despite its tendency to sweep away hierarchies of rank, to profane all that is holy, and melt all that is solid?

For Pryce, this conundrum is best understood as a market failure, one requiring intervention at the level of the company and by governments to make the best use of women. It’s not clear why this market failure should happen — though “conscious and unconscious bias” does have some part to play, it appears — but we learn that it can be solved through policies to get more women into senior management roles.

The promotion of more women to these roles, Pryce explains, is good for the economy, replacing an irrational waste of female potential with a more efficient meritocracy. It is also good for the women who attain these new positions. She does not expand on the latter point in detail, but we can assume that this should be the case because Pryce considers participation in the workforce to be an important expression of oneself, and takes equality to mean equal access to and equal representation within the existing institutions of liberal democracy.

It is also, Pryce alleges, good for women as a group. Having more women in big, decision-making roles means they will make decisions that benefit women. Solving the “malfunctioning labor markets” will improve “global economic gender inequality.”

Leaning Further In

This is a book that strains at its own edges. The kind of Sandbergian “lean-in” feminism that it can’t quite disavow is unpopular and outmoded. The book promises to do something different, to offer something more structural, but it never lives up to its promise. Instead, we get passing mention of the women — poor souls! — who don’t work at Goldman Sachs, for whom the bank’s new lactation room might offer very little.

Pryce reminds us that boards don’t involve themselves in the day-to-day running of corporations very much, and so we really ought to be asking for more women in senior management roles, instead of more female board members. A decade after the invention of the Lean-In Girl Boss, an interest in feminism has trickled all the way down to the senior management team.

Despite the claims that its cover makes to offer an unconventional, radical critique, the book’s analysis is typical of the corporate feminism playbook: having more women in senior roles is good because women make better decisions that benefit not only women at that organization, but women as a whole — not to mention the economy. It is worth considering these arguments in greater detail, to see exactly why they are not only false, but decidedly anti-feminist.

In Women vs Capitalism, we find a suggestion that Greece was treated badly because there were no women in the Eurogroup of European finance ministers; perhaps the presence of a Merkel rather than a Schäuble would have made all the difference. We are also informed that the IMF has “championed gender equality.” The latter claim makes sense if you take — as Pryce does — the limits of feminist ambition to be something like corporate responsibility to individual women employees. More banally, she suggests that “more women in government and politics could make a difference to domestic policies such as childcare provision.”

Magical Thinking

Arguments of this kind — whether they come in their strong or weak variants — usually rest on magical thinking. Women, in this story, always represent the interests of women when they occupy decision-making roles. Women have shared interests rather than conflicting ones, and women are so virtuous that they swim above the tide of other power relations.

What might these shared interests be? In Pryce’s case, better access to better-paid jobs and better conditions for women’s specific issues in the workplace. Of course, women’s participation in particular employment sectors has been unfairly constrained. Women face harassment in the workplace, and there is much more that companies could do to support them. Restrictive and gendered ideas about work and discriminatory hiring practices are symptomatic of wider sexism and ought to be opposed.

But not everyone can have the kind of professional-managerial job to which Pryce wants women to have fairer access. Capitalism obliges the great mass of people to work in order to live, under conditions they have not chosen, and over which they have very limited control. The addition of more women managers cannot overturn this fundamental reality.

Women of different classes have divergent as well as overlapping interests. Both might want to avoid sexual harassment at work and have access to decent maternity leave, but what if one employs the other? Or what if one of Pryce’s economically empowered highfliers works in a sector that depends on access to a reserve army of cheap female labor?

Pryce attributes profound, cleansing powers of virtue to women in such roles:

If we managed to sort out gender equality, I would be astonished if our economic and workplace culture didn’t change so drastically in the process that we also ended up dealing with the other manifestations of conscious and unconscious bias.

There’s no reason to think that adding women managers would address racism or other forms of discrimination; discrimination is an equal opportunity employer. It might be the case that having more women in such roles would improve an organization’s policies on supporting its female employees. Of course, for this to happen, those women managers would have to make such suggestions and see them taken up by the company. But even in this ideal scenario, what would it do to support women at large?

Individual “economic empowerment” under capitalism is not a feminist goal. Winning better representation in the managerial echelons of a system based on the extraction of profit through domination, violence, and misery is not a victory for women.

Women in Charge

Pryce suggests that the rule of women is untested: “We haven’t had the chance of controlled experiments about what would happen if women were in charge . . . if more women were decision-makers.” New experiments in female rule would supposedly usher in a new age of feminine, patient virtue, against the masculine vice of short-termism.

Apparently, evidence of female rule is scant. Indeed, it is so scant that Pryce must cite an article, by philosopher Lorna Finlayson, that, in fact, makes precisely the opposite argument. There have been experiments in women’s rule. As Finlayson writes:

The recent period, in which the representation of women has increased in many fields — including in Parliament — has also been dominated by the politics of austerity and neoliberalism. And in Britain at least, the proposition that female political leaders will look out for their sisters has now faced two rather spectacular counter-examples in Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.

Things aren’t so different in business either: many female-run — and even purportedly feminist — companies have been accused of treating their women workers poorly. The clothing brand Nasty Gal faced several lawsuits under its former CEO and Girlboss author Sophie Amoruso, including one for termination of contract because of pregnancy.

At Thinx, a company selling period-proof underwear, former CEO Miki Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment, and the company itself of not providing adequate parental leave. Multiple employees at the Wing — a self-proclaimed “women’s utopia,” millennial pink coworking space — have complained of discriminatory and exploitative practices by its “feminist” owners. In spite of what Pryce says, the presence of women in senior roles might not even help their fellow women employees, let alone women at large.

Inclusion

It is one thing to say that Pryce’s account does not include the experiences of working-class women. Even Rachel Reeves, the British Labour MP who once suggested that her party would be tougher than the Tories in responding to the imaginary threat of welfare dependency, has picked up on this. In her review of Women vs Capitalism, Reeves suggested that it was missing  “an analysis of the experience of women at the bottom of the labor market.” Reeves deemed this a “shame,” in a book that she otherwise found “illuminating.”

But what would this “inclusion” really mean? Unfortunately for Reeves, there is no chapter to be added, no light to be shed, no lockstep improvements that in the long run can promote the welfare of women in every tier of the labor market. To seriously include the experiences of working-class women would mean overturning the troubling ideas at the heart of Pryce’s argument. It would counter the suggestion that women’s interests are united in some straightforward way, and that full participation of women in the capitalist economy should be the measure of feminist success — of liberation.

It is not enough to add a mention of working-class women to analyses like Pryce’s: the question of women’s liberation must not be reduced to the inclusion of all women into something rotten, partial, exploitative, or false. Women vs Capitalism reduces feminism to equal participation in a status quo that actively harms working-class women.

Nudge Theory

Pryce doesn’t manage to co-opt or address the critique of corporate feminism, but she and her publisher pitch the book as one that is taking on capitalism — directly tackling the ways in which the system harms women as a group. It does nothing of the sort. In the fight between capitalism and women, Pryce is content to side with capitalism — even, she says, with a free-market variant.

Indeed, the book’s title turns out to be a misnomer: for Pryce, there isn’t really a fight between women and capitalism after all. A particular failure of capitalist markets lets women down, but there is no problem with capitalism per se. It just needs the right kind of nudge to get things back in order.

Communism, we are warned, would mean that “women had to struggle every day for food and basic necessities” — a situation obviously very different from that of capitalism, where women famously have to struggle neither for food nor necessities.

Pryce’s book breaks with the lean-in tradition insofar as it disavows an entirely individual approach, addressing, to some extent, companies as employers, rather than individual women. But it continues that tradition — now almost a decade old — by confusing the advance of women as a group with a small number of women having attained a particular kind of job.

It’s not surprising that in a society dominated by work, under capitalism, it is easy to conflate emancipation with full economic participation. However, feminists can — and must — think bigger.