Feminism's Global Contradictions

— Angela Hubler

Feminism Seduced:
How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor
and Ideas to Exploit the World
By Hester Eisenstein
Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009,
293 pages, $26.95 paperback.

IT IS CLEAR that the most significant factor now shaping women’s lives and status worldwide is globalization. What isn’t clear, however, is whether globalization is affecting women positively or negatively.

One recent book, Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (reviewed by Jane Slaughter in ATC 144), applauds the dramatic rise in the employment of young women in Chinese factories which has resulted from the shift in manufacturing from higher- to lower-wage countries, as does Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Kristof and WuDunn argue that the factories’ 80% female workforce constitutes “the most effective antipoverty program ever recorded.” (xix)

While Kristof and Dunn understand the economic independence often afforded to women as a benefit of globalization, Hester Eisenstein’s Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World offers another perspective: she argues that globalization’s impact on women is devastating, and that feminism is, paradoxically, partially responsible for its success.

In contrast to Kristof and WuDunn’s glowing account of globalization’s incorporation of women into the labor market, Eisenstein stresses the negative consequences of this phenomenon. She notes that in China the massive migration of peasants from the countryside to urban areas has disrupted families and created social problems including suicide: “China has the highest rate of female suicide in the world, and its rural rate is three times that of the cities.” (37)

Is the high rate of female suicide, however, attributable to the conditions of factory labor? The fact that urban suicide rates are actually lower than rural ones could be taken as evidence of the opposite.

Eisenstein’s case against globalization is much stronger, however, in her analysis of the impact of two major aspects of neoliberalism, the economic principle guiding globalization: “the penetration of foreign capital into Global South economies; and …the reduction of state-led development efforts.” (133)

Central to both of these are structural adjustment policies (SAPs). SAPs have been imposed on heavily indebted countries in “Latin America, Africa, Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the eastern European countries” by entities like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a condition of lending. (138)

These policies demand privatization of national industries, eliminate tariffs and trade barriers to open markets to foreign competition, and restructure national economies by shifting expenditures away from social services including health care and education, toward export industries that enable service of foreign debt.

Neoliberal Realities

Eisenstein’s analysis of neoliberalism provides context that is critically missing from Half the Sky. Kristof and WuDunn eloquently make a case for better health care and education for women. They profile women rescued from horrible suffering by surgery to repair fistula — virtually unknown in Western countries but affecting 30,000 to 130,000 new women in Africa each year.  Countless other girls’ and women’s  lives could be dramatically improved by access to education, denied because of the lack of school fees, or the decision on the part of parents to devote scarce resources to boys.

On a personal level, the foundations and individuals that have devoted lives and money to address these problems are inspiring. However, a significant factor in understanding their origin isn’t discussed in Half the Sky:  “cutbacks in social services and the introduction of user fees” that result from structural adjustment policies. As Eisenstein shows, these cuts have significant impact on women:

“In Zimbabwe, the maternal mortality rate rose from 90 per 100,000 live births to 168 per 100,000 in 1993 following the introduction of user fees. More girls are also dropping out of school for lack of school fees, thus further increasing the educational gap between boys and girls….total public spending on education in sub-Saharan Africa fell in real terms between 1980 and 1988. The withdrawal of state support resulted in a drop in gross enrolment rates at the primary school level, which fell from 77.1 per cent in 1980 to an estimate 66.7 per cent in 1990. In Africa in the 1980s, female school enrolment rates dropped and drop-out rates increased.” [Eisenstein, 147, cited from Amadiume, Ifi, Daughters of the Goddess, Daughters of Imperialism: African Women’s Struggle for Culture, Power, and Democracy. (2000) London: Zed Books]

Social problems like these that result from the imposition of SAPs have generated growth in Non-Governmental Organizations focusing on women’s needs, as exemplified by those discussed by Kristof and WuDunn. Eisenstein points out that these NGOs, while motivated by genuine desire to help women, are poor substitutes for state-led economic development “that directs investment toward the needs of everyone in the society.” (138)

Eisenstein returns to the issue of state-led development in her conclusion, where she discusses Venezuela as offering a path to the future: “the work that the Chavez government has been carrying out in creating state-led development as an alternative to neoliberalism has enormous significance for feminism.”

Eisenstein points out that the “revised constitution of 1999 included a provision that granted social security to housewives” making the Chavez government the first in the world to respond to the wages for housework movement. The Chavez government also created “the Women’s Development Bank, the Banmujer, a public microfinancial system financed by the state…intended as an antipoverty measure, not a profit-making enterprise, as is the case with most microcredit programs” (224, 225)

Eisenstein’s analysis reveals the structural and economic conditions that result in inadequate health care and education for women, and that lead her to call for public rather than private solutions. In her conclusion, Eisenstein urges a socialist feminist critique of capitalism as a guide to feminist practice. Against the band-aid approach offered by Kristof and WuDunn, Eisenstein’s approach addresses not only the symptoms but the origins of women’s oppression. However, Eisenstein notes, private efforts fit in well with the neoliberal insistence on a reduced public sector.

Historic Divisions

This is one instance of the ways in which, Eisenstein argues, “feminist energies, ideologies, and activism have been manipulated in the service of the dangerous forces of globalized corporate capitalism,” enabled, she says, by divisions within the women’s movement that reflect differences of race and class. (vii)

Such divisions have historical roots reaching back to a split between abolitionists and women’s rights activists that resulted when “the Radical Republicans in 1866 proposed the Fourteenth Amendment, covering citizenship, equal protection citizens … added the category ‘male’ in each case. [Susan B.] Anthony and [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton were outraged by this, having submerged their demands on women’s rights in the campaign for the Thirteenth Amendment.” (80)

In the 20th century, the failure of the leadership of the women’s movement to encompass the interests of women of color was manifested not only in the approach taken to reproductive rights and violence against women, but also in the colonialist fixation on “female genital cutting” and the veil, relegating Third World women to the status of victims. “The burqa and the chador came to represent the suppression of women’s rights, and this laid the groundwork for the equation of women’s rights with capitalist democracy, once the global war on terror was launched.” (182)

In advancing her thesis, Eisenstein cites Johanna Brenner’s argument that “mainstream feminist goals are entirely compatible with the economic doctrines of corporate globalization.” (ix) Central to this argument is that feminism’s advocacy of women’s right to work has been co-opted by global elites, and has “aided and abet[ted] the strength and power of neoliberalism, or free market capitalism.” (viii)

For example, in discussing 1996 welfare “reform” legislation, Eisenstein observes that “it is arguable that the idea that women should be working made workfare acceptable to the broad American public.” (127) In tracing the history that led to this moment, Eisenstein notes the fall of the family wage, and a shift from a feminist strategy that advocated protective legislation for women workers in favor of one that demanded the eradication of gender restrictions in the workforce.

Eisenstein suggests that had mainstream feminism been more attentive to the needs of working-class women and women of color, and “concentrated on winning a minimum level of income for all women workers,” this 1996 legislation could have been defeated.

The advocacy of women’s right to work that Eisenstein sees as problematic here is not a peripheral aspect of feminism, or specific to a particular race or class of women.  In fact, while Eisenstein calls this “mainstream” and quotes Brenner in making her argument, Eisenstein doesn’t fully represent Brenner’s position. According to Brenner, the aspects of feminism that are “compatible with neo-liberalism” are not just mainstream but “central feminist aspirations — full political citizenship, equal access to education and occupational opportunity, and an end to the culturally and legally authorized right of men to control women’s bodies, sexuality, and reproductive potential.”(1)

These are goals that many feminists, including many socialist feminists, would be unwilling to relinquish. Acknowledging both the power of these aspirations, as well as their limitations, is critical if one seeks to intervene in contemporary feminist practice.  While Eisenstein persuasively analyzes the limitations, her argument would be more persuasive — and she would be more likely to make allies — if she granted the continuing validity of even those feminist goals that are compatible with neoliberalism. That these goals are compatible with neoliberalism does not make them neoliberal.

Contradictory Impacts

Nevertheless, feminists, including socialist feminists like Eisenstein and me, must acknowledge that even Kristof and WuDunn are partially right about globalization. As Johanna Brenner puts it: “capitalist globalization has had a profound yet contradictory impact on women’s lives and on the possibilities for contesting male domination in both the core and the periphery of the world capitalist system. On the one hand, older forms of male dominance are being undermined; on the other, women’s life conditions are in many respects growing worse.”

Clearly, in titling her book Feminism Seduced, Eisenstein makes a critique of feminism central to her project, arguing that “certain elements of mainstream feminism are thoroughly congruent with neoliberal capitalism and have been used to facilitate its expansion.”

This view, however, overstates feminism’s role in the success of globalization and the global war on terror. Moreover, as a strategy by which to accomplish a necessary reorientation of the aims of feminism, it may raise hackles rather than allies. Inasmuch as aspects of feminism may be compatible with neoliberalism, the factor that has most limited feminism’s success is also neoliberalism.

Thus, what Eisenstein attributes to the failures of feminism can as well be understood as the inability of feminism — even what Eisenstein terms “hegemonic feminism” — to overcome the limitations of neoliberalism. For example, in her conclusion, Eisenstein advocates ”a return to maternalism, but writ large.” (228)

By this she means “a sense of compassion and a responsibility to nurture on the part of all social and political organizations” as evidenced in Nordic welfare states. While Eisenstein offers maternalism as an alternative to the problematic alliance of mainstream feminism with free-market capitalism, it is important to recognize that mainstream feminism indeed has struggled for “maternalist” programs like those in Nordic countries.

In contrast to Finland, however, where the 1973 Child Day Care Act gave local government the job of providing child care for children too young for school, and where clients pay only about 15% of the cost of daycare, efforts on the part of U.S. feminists were stymied in 1971 when Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, because as Eisenstein quotes, he “felt it would lead to the Sovietization of American children.” (57)

While Eisenstein’s inclusion of this detail in her book indicates her awareness of mainstream feminist demands for the kinds of programs she advocates, it doesn’t cause her to question her overall assessment of what she calls hegemonic feminism. Yet this illustrates that while the failures of hegemonic feminism to win concessions from capitalism are indeed, as Eisenstein argues, in part due to the “fault lines of race and class,” they are also attributable to the power of capitalism, and the relatively lesser power of feminism.

Raymond Williams’ assessment of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and their radical political circle two centuries ago seems apt here, “What we can so easily call failure was in fact defeat, and it was defeat by a vicious repression.”(2)


  1. Johanna Brenner. “Transnational Feminism and the Struggle for Global Justice.” New Politics 9:2 (new series), whole number 34 (Winter 2003) http://ww3.wpunj.edu/~newpol/issue34/brenn34.htm.
    back to text
  2. Raymond Williams, “The Bloomsbury Fraction,” Problems in Materialism and Culture. London: New Left Books, 1980, 148-169.
    back to text

ATC 148, September-October 2010

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