By SARAH RAYMUNDO
A young woman of 26 had just finished her postgraduate degree in the Humanities. A very promising academic career awaited her application to the faculty of the humanities in a reputable public university known for its radical tradition. Her knowledge and grasp of feminist theory and literature have earned her a few citations in various academic journals. The same expertise has also resulted in her exposure to the experience of women workers and farmers in Third World countries. She became well aware of their conditions, and would write a compelling comment or two on Facebook posts that touch on the issue. However, recently, she decided she needed a break from all these to get in touch with her “feminine” side. She then allotted at least one year to cultivate her skills in sewing, stitching, and culinary arts. She had to let go of an offer to teach at this prestigious academic unit where some of her feminist mentors have been teaching since the 70s. One of them was shocked and found the whole thing frivolous. The others were too busy to learn about the news.
This example does not aim to capture all aspects of the lives of feminist academics and the decisions they make. It hopes to show some of the contradictions within those lives and decisions, and the gap in sensibilities between generations of feminists. The younger feminist owes one year of feminine exploration to herself. This is not something that she herself invented. Of late, we have been hearing of the term “girly or cupcake feminism.”
Girly feminism is a term that refers to a group of mostly younger women who embrace feminist politics at the same time as traditionally feminine or girlie pastimes. This is by no means the majority of younger feminists but it’s a highly visible group…Part of girly feminism is reclaiming traditional elements of women’s lives that have been devalued, such as cooking, crafting, and knitting. Many young feminists see this as exercising their power – they know they don’t have to do these things but they are making a free choice to take up these hobbies because they enjoy them. For some that in itself is a feminist act. (Hodge, 2013)
This inter-generational gap takes on a more concrete form in a recent critical exchange between feminists Susan Faludi and Courtney Martin. Writing on inter-generational feminist tension, Faludi criticizes how the younger generation has “fallen into the 1920s trap of employing a commercialized ersatz ‘liberation’ to undermine the political mobilization of their mothers…What gets passed on is the predisposition to dispossess, a legacy of no legacy” (cf Martin, 2010). Martin’s (2010) response consists in saying that “To my mind, we are in a sometimes difficult, but often worthwhile dialogue with the past, while forging a new path into the future — one where we can engage on issues that we care most deeply about in methods that fit our contemporary times.” She also laments being quoted out of context when she demands for visibility: “[H]aving said that young feminists need to “be seen,” [w]hat I meant was not that our revolution is one of aesthetics, but that our leadership has to reflect who we are and who we want to become, or we won’t be able to identify with the movement. This is as much a race and class issue, as it is an age one — something that pulses underneath the story, but is never explicitly addressed.”
There are at least two inter-generational problems that the exchange between Faludi and Martin demonstrates: One is the inter-generational gap in the realm of feminist knowledge production, and the other is the intergenerational gap articulated in the conduct of women’s movements. These two are, in actuality, mutually dependent.
Minding the Gap: What does it mean to call it “intergenerational?”
The need to reflect on the lens by which we are discussing feminism is in order. What does it mean to reflect on feminism in terms of the modifier “inter-generational?”
In a different context but not extraneous to the matter at hand, Bruno Bosteels (2011) recognizes the burden of history that weighs upon movements, which, in my view, is to be appreciated as the persistence of movements for transformation. This “is also a question of transmission and contestation between and across generations” (Bosteels 2011: 4). Hence, conflicts and differences across generations can only be usefully analyzed, as Bosteels suggests, when placed “under the rubric of the following questions: What is to be transmitted, how to transmit, why transmit?” And in a more radical vein, the late Daniel Bensaid, a veteran in the discourse of social revolution, once asked: [T]o what extent should we trust the old masters in terms of what they decide to transmit or not to transmit in the first place?” (cf Bosteels 2011: 4)
Yet, Bosteels also cautions that generation as a notion “provides a false window” in terms of analyzing a movement’s history—the burden of its past colliding with some aspects of its present. His discomfort with the notion of generation arises from it being immersed in the “ideology of consumerism based on the parallel development of individuals and eras” (4). The contradictions between or across generations are inadvertently presumed as differences stemming from individual taste and preference, and like all consumers, these tastes and preferences are conditioned by an era. This particular lens follows the model of inquiry, and the interest therein, of market research based on consumer behaviour. Activists are therefore positioned less as subjective forces of change than passive consumers of a particular ideology shaped by concrete conditions at a given time.
That the inter-generational lens is indeed a false window subtly underpinned on consumer ideology is no reason for dismissing actual internal contradictions that may exist in women’s movements. The disposition to see contradictions in this light is to be analyzed not only along the line of questioning offered by Bensaid and Bosteels. These questions need to be raised in terms of how the women’s movement has challenged oppressive and exploitative structures, and how these structures have continued to impact women’s lives.
The Neoliberal Hijack on Political Claims-Making
The older generation of feminists pushed for economic inclusion vis–à–vis economic redistribution; political inclusion vis–à–vis political restructuring of a society; and cultural recognition vis–à–vis cultural overhaul. This focus on social structures is a social mobilization that needs to be analyzed not only in terms of its gains but also in terms of the historical trajectory of these gains.
For example, the pride and joy that the younger generation of women, as active players in the workforce, feel when they are able to earn their own keep and maintain a consumer identity that is reflective of their contribution to the economy, is an offshoot of the historical struggle for the economic inclusion of women. The satisfaction and happiness that women feel about motherhood and family life, and all the sacrifices that these entail, may sound like a false note for an earlier generation of feminists who decry domesticity. Yet, this romance with domestic life is an undeniable sign of recognition of previously devalued women’s household work.
Don’t these examples show continuity rather than rupture? The victories of an earlier generation of feminists have impacted the lives of women of a particular class. This is a kind of impact which allows these women to acquire work and a sensibility that go with the conditions that shape work nowadays. It has to be clarified that the inter-generational difference lies not in altered feminist pursuits; it lies in the way neoliberal capitalism has co-opted the victories of the women’s movement, syncing them with existing capitalist conditions. The atomized or individualized sense of empowerment sustained by consumerist and middle class criteria for judging and directing women empowerment is an attack on the very idea of feminism as a collective struggle of women worldwide. This is individualism selling itself as the new feminism.
Fragmentation as a strategy of capital not only affects ways of imagining women’s lives. It is also a strategy that obscures the order of social contradictions that emplaces women. The contradiction between the dispossessed and the propertied whose relation consists in a continued dynamic of accumulative appropriation (on the part of the propertied) through exploitation (of the dispossessed) is a primary contradiction. Yet, what is highlighted by generational analysis are diverse interventions addressed at particular issues, leaving out the primary contradiction that remains to be a structuring principle of neoliberal capitalism. Fomenting a united struggle of women against a structure that breeds particular oppressions is an imperative to counter social fragmentation under neoliberal capitalism.
In 2008, a Demos forum, comprised of mainstream organizations, was held in New York City. Part of the blurb for the said affair reads: “In 2006, The Economist coined the word ‘womenomics’ when it declared, Forget China, India and the Internet, economic growth is driven by women.” To this triumphalist claim, feminist Hester Eisenstein responds:
As feminists, should we not rejoice? Does it not appear that, at long last, the powers that be have begun to recognize the economic and social contributions of women? Is this not what feminists have been pleading for? Not so fast! What I will argue is that this apparent acceptance of feminist principles in fact an attempt to co-opt the energies of feminism into the project of corporate globalization, an enterprise that has been having disastrous effects on the lives of women. (2009:ix)
Eisenstein proceeds to examine the impact of corporate globalization on women’s labor, the lines of race and class, the situation of women in the Global South, and islamophobia and the global “war on terror.” With the sharpness required of a structural analysis on the situation of women worldwide— majority of whom are service workers, wage workers, and farmers—Eisenstein renders the seduction of feminism by corporate globalization and calls the phenomenon “Feminism Seduced” (2009). The horrors of corporate globalization on the lives of women are recoded in various seductive permutations by both consumerist ideology and mainstream feminism.
The neoliberal hijack of the victories of the feminist struggle is not an isolated matter that confronts the international women’s movement. Feminist Nancy Fraser (2002) identifies a new and disturbing constellation in the grammar of political claims-making since the so-called failure of socialist projects that paved the way for our century to be understood as “post-socialist”. Fraser suggests that this constellation is disturbing on two counts. First, “the move from redistribution [class politics] to recognition [identity politics] is occurring despite or because of the acceleration of economic globalization. [Second], aggressively expanding capitalism is radically exacerbating economic inequality. Thus, the new grammar of political claims-making is displacing economic struggle rather than contributing to it.” (22). Eisenstein (2010) concretizes this disturbing development in the following observation:
I felt that in the process of selling globalisation corporate leaders and other elites have been systematically trying to seduce women into embracing the expansion of capitalism. I’m really talking about a certain kind of hegemonic feminism which is embodied in women like Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. I’m tracking how the ideas of mainstream feminism have been used by policy makers and international financial institutions to push the agenda of corporate globalisation.
A truly feminist inter-generational analysis requires not only a rigorous reflection on the victories of the international women’s movement but also an assessment of the challenges confronting it, which include the following:
1) The challenge of creating empowered communities in economic zones in the Global South;
2) The recognition of injustices that cannot be reduced to issues of economic redistribution, as well as the recognition that these injustices cannot be resolved through a celebratory emphasis on group-specific identity but rather by challenging institutionalized patterns of cultural hierarchies (Fraser, 2003).
In the Philippines, one such movement that confronts such challenges is GABRIELA . As a women’s movement, it anchors women’s liberation on the struggle for national liberation from imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism. It is the same movement that successfully organized locally women from the factories, farms, schools, government offices, and professional institutions to “strike, dance, and rise” against violence (2013) and for justice (2014) through an internationally-coordinated activity called One Billion Rising (OBR) on February 14, 2013 and 2014. While the performatives involved in OBR have been criticized as empty gestures—a way to get busy talking about changing things so that things stay the same—the challenge of turning this cultural resource into a consistent politicized and organized force is valid and necessary.
The international women’s movement derives its identity from the legacy of its struggles and victories, and its current reworking of its practice for immediate relief and a better future. Pitting old and young women activists against each other is by no means productive for the women’s movement. At the core of the problematique of inter-generational feminism must be a desire for building strategies geared toward addressing specific women’s issues through a collective struggle for social transformation. We may struggle and argue about methods of work but we cannot deny the need for sustained collective engagement. The consequences of social fragmentation is an issue that has yet to be fully assessed. Neoliberal capitalism’s strategy of fragmentation aims to implement an intensified disintegration at the local level of movement politics just as it strengthens capitalism. In this context, we must guard against the temptation of framing the women’s movement within the coordinates of neoliberal capitalism, which results in the betrayal of struggles that have been won for women.
Bosteels, Bruno. “The Actuality of Communism”. New York and London:Verso, 2011.
Martin, Courtney. “Electras Respond to Susan Faludi’s Intergenerational Feminism Essay”. October 5, 2010. Accessed through http://www.blogher.com/electras-talk-back-responses-susan-faludi%E2%80%99s-harper%E2%80%99s-piece
Eiesenstein, Hester. Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World. Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers, 2009.
______________. “The Corporate Seduction of Feminism.” Interviewed by Sally Campbell and Judith Orr. January 2010. Accessed through http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=11109
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking Recognition: overcoming displacement and reification in cultural politics” in Struggles and Social Movements. Edited by Barbara Hobson. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2003.
Hodge, Jarrah. “IWD Talk on Intergenerational Feminism”. March 13, 2013. Accessed through http://www.gender-focus.com/2013/03/13/iwd-talk-on-intergenerational-feminism/
Sarah Raymundo is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines-Center for International Studies (UP-CIS Diliman) and a member of the National Executive Board of the All U.P. Academic Employees Union. She is the current National Treasurer of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and the External Vice Chair of the Philppine Anti-Impeiralist Studies (PAIS). She is also a member of the Editorial Board of Interface: A Journal for Social Movements.