Our Lives vs. Liberal Feminism

“What’s that, dear? Can’t hear you over the sound of you needing to do housework!”

We’ve discussed feminism a few times now (see here and here) and in keeping with that theme let’s talk about a particular troublesome branch of feminism. The liberal (or mainstream) forms of feminism. To take a popular version of a liberal feminist argument involving work: we should lean in to work instead of kicking back.

This “kicking” is particularly related to one of my favorite anarchist writers Voltairine de Clerye. She was an anarchist and feminist who was a member of the Ladies Liberal League. A collection of women (some radical, some not) in Philadelphia who got together to discuss the issues of the day.

At one point in her essay, The Past and Future of the Ladies’ Liberal League de Cleyre remarks:

I spoke with levity, but if we had dubbed ourselves the Kicking Society, in all seriousness it would not have been amiss. The first act of our life was to kick against an unjust decree of our parents, and we have unflinchingly stood for the kicking principle ever since.

Now, if the word kicking is in bad repute with you, substitute non-submission, insubordination, rebellion, revolt, revolution, whatever name you please which expresses non-acquiescence to injustice.

We have done this because we love liberty and hate authority, and the sentiment is bound to find vent somehow, “as the sap climbs upward to the flower,” to make use of an illustration from Kropotkine. (pp. 260-1 from The Gates of Freedom by Eugenia C. DeLamotte)

But the liberal feminist has no interest in such “kicking”. They’d rather have us reform ourselves than the institutions that surround us and mold us into the most convenient shapes possible. Not the shapes that’ll maximize agency or help us grow as individuals. Instead, the presence of hierarchy, authority, and subordination makes our lives filled with drudgery and useless toil

For liberals, more generally, the problem isn’t so much the larger system but rather the individuals who make it up. We just need to reshape the individual people within these systems. The way we’re looking at the system is wrong: “Why do you have such a bad attitude about your job? You know you’d just enjoy it if you put a smile on every once in a way!”

The reason why money is in politics (was it ever not?) isn’t because a centralized system attracts imperialistic economic systems like capitalism. No, the problem is instead that we simply have the wrong regulations or there’s simply the wrong person in charge of this or that institution.

So too with the theory of “leaning in”.

The concept of “leaning in” comes from Sheryl Sandberg, who is the author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

I’ve posted before on how we should, actually, make a case for leaning out via Nico Lang’s article but Kate Losse at Dissent has a pretty good take-down of this paradigm as well:

There is no not-work, or pleasure, in Lean In.

Aside from the possibility of having better sex with one’s husband after he has assisted with household chores (work makes everything better, including sex!), Sandberg does not mention pleasure.

For someone with fewer family demands than Sandberg, freedom is depicted not as a pleasure but a problem to be resolved by getting a family….Astonishingly for a book published in 2013, there are no self-identified lesbians, gay men, or even intentionally unmarried or child-free people in Lean Ins vision of the workplace. It’s not clear why Sandberg thinks that everyone should be in the business of getting a family, since the book argues that family gets in the way of work.

But it seems that Sandberg can only imagine the dreaded ‘leaning back’ as a product of family demands. Who would take a vacation voluntarily?

Losse has identified a very important part of the liberal tradition: subjugating our selves to our identity.

I’m not one to decry “identity politics” (which is a horribly vague term) but it’s hard to deny that when you talk to many liberals (or even Marxists) individuals often become subsumed under their capacity to work.

The lack of pleasure here is also a pivotal part of the liberal program for work. We must be vigorous in our subsumption of our individuality to our work. We must be aiming to get to the top of the hierarchy so we can play oh so many social games with everyone else!

To return to the identity politics part, Peter Frase writes in The Politics of Getting a Life (part two and three):

One great difficulty is that by jettisoning the work ethic, anti-work politics simultaneously takes up the cause of wage laborers while undermining their identity as wage laborers. It insists that their liberation must entail the simultaneous abolition of their self-conception as workers.

This is in contrast to the more traditional Marxist vision, in which the working class first realizes itself in the metaphorical “dictatorship of the proletariat” before ultimately dissolving itself into a totally classless society.

Yet even as orthodox a Marxist as Georg Lukacs observed in History and Class Consciousness that “the proletariat only perfects itself by annihilating and transcending itself.” Its ultimate destiny is to be not just a class for itself but “against itself.”

Frase is very much correct that we, as anti-work advocates, we have to somehow appeal to workers as workers but then ask them to discard what makes them them on some point.

I don’t have The Answer for how to do this successfully but some quick notes may be useful:

  1. If you appeal to someone’s identity to get them to remove that identity, you can either do it in the long-term or the short-term. I find the former much more practical. If we appeal to the wage-workers (though I’m not sure that we must limit ourselves to the working class in any case) then starting a conversation about what makes them feel like a worker to begin with may be helpful. Identify what are the good parts of that (feeling good about themselves, feeling productive, having their lives be more meaningful) and the bad parts (the way they get to those end results are drudgery, poor wages, annoying co-workers and terrible bosses).
  2. Removing their identity can be more akin to a delicate surgery than a nuclear strike from above. We don’t have to tell the working class that they’re useless, their jobs sucks and what they’re doing will be extinct in 20 years anyways. Instead, we can tell them that they likely serve some useful purpose but for the wrong people (bosses instead of themselves), their job may not be the best but it still has salvageable parts to it and what they’re doing may be extinct in 20 years, but they can help that be a good thing.
  3. Of course, for members of the working class who aren’t doing something that serves some sort of useful purpose (telemarketers perhaps?) that doesn’t mean it has to define them and their larger purpose for themselves. Maybe their great at selling products to people but they just need a less grimy product to sell. Whatever the case, we should be careful not to subsume the worker as worker instead of as an individual.

As for the bit about Marxism, I’ll try to be a bit more careful here and say that, to its credit, there’ve been internal struggles within Marxism that I may have been previously too dismissive of. It’s true, after all, that Kathi Weeks herself is a Marxist, the Situationists had some of their thought rooted in Marxism, as did LaFargue and Gorz.

So it isn’t as if Marxism can’t aid the anti-work movement in some helpful ways. Hell, if I ever thought that I wouldn’t have done a running commentary on The Right to be Lazy by LaFargue or used Gorz’s definitions of work so much.

Still, I admit to underestimating the influence that Marxism on the anti-work movement.

Though, as an individualist anarchist, I still think there’s plenty of room for individualism to influence the history of refusing work too. And we’ve already seen this in the illegalists, individualist anarchists, egoists and other anarchist outliers.

Madeline Schwartz, also of Dissent, returns us to the liberal feminist position of putting structures and identities over individuals:

Underlying these approaches to feminism is the assumption that white-collar work that pays men and women equally will solve the rest of the world’s inequity.


Since the second wave, liberal feminists have championed the idea that paid work will liberate women from male domination, but their faith doesn’t take into account the reality that most jobs for women, insecure and poorly paid, are oppressive.

The supposed feminist endorsement of harder work, put forth by well-meaning businesswomen, does not hold up to scrutiny: outside the home, women are encouraged to commit to a structure no more equal than the traditional family, one that demands that they cede control of energy, time, and emotion.

In the same book, Sandberg tells women to expect overwork and exhaustion. “The new normal means that there are just not enough hours in the day.” Exacting, unpredictable, and restrictive, work now looks less like emancipation than the same domination that first spurred radical feminists to action.

To reiterate, little tweaks and changes of the structure for the liberal feminist are fine. And so is working ourselves to exhaustion if that means that women are on a more equal footing to men. But this belies the fact that these institutions are themselves reinforcing things like sexism, patriarchal dynamics (through things like hierarchy), and oppression.

These things are particularly institutionally reinforced because of respectability culture.

These tools aren’t the tools towards liberation. They’re tools that we can make ourselves feel better while we’re being oppressed. They put new decorations and glitter on the oppressive dynamics that we suffer.

Now, it’s certainly welcome in some contexts to at least have your background of oppressive dynamics look a little nicer. Maybe that helps us get a better foundation for more radical demands, I wouldn’t pretend to know otherwise in all situations. But nevertheless it seems like these sorts of strategies are easily co-opted.

As Schwartz notes:

This feminization of the work force was positive for women looking for material equality with men, and for many, work did provide autonomy and freedom. Yet, Fraser notes, this drive was easily co-opted into efforts to make the workplace more insecure and to push pay down.

In The Second Shift, her landmark 1989 book on the new responsibilities faced by working women, Arlie Hochschild placed flexible work at the center of a feminist ideal.

“A society which did not suffer from this stall would be a society humanely adapted to the fact that most women work outside the home. The workplace would allow parents to work part time, to share jobs, to work flexible hours, to take parental leaves to give birth, tend sick children, and care for well ones.”

In the version of feminism that seized the mainstream, the changing workplace became the site of great gains for women if only they could achieve some combination of work and family. In the 1980 work comedy 9 to 5, women kidnap their boss in order to instate a flexible workplace featuring part-time work and job-sharing. This vision of autonomy, which might have fulfilled a utopian ideal for control over work, did not anticipate that shifts toward flexibility would become a boon to the employer, not the employee, as the decade unfolded.

Similarly when the Quakers called for what later became solitary confinement, they thought the solace and reflection would help prisoners reform. Or when people advocates for women’s prisons so that the rate of women sexually assaulted by men would be lessened.

In both of these cases the state absorbed these reforms and turned them ugly in a lot of ways. Now solitary confinement is used as a form of torture in some cases and the creation of women’s prisons has led to a massive increase for women in prisons.

With the state, be careful what you wish for.

Of course, this isn’t a huge issue for liberals (or liberal feminists) since the issues aren’t structural or systematic but individual and psychological. Which means women don’t need to become empowered through themselves or through the structures around them. they just need to go with the flow. Accept (even celebrate!) that work is exhausting, debilitating and that it takes your life away from most other things.

Well, except the children.

And the housework.

And shouldn’t they try to become CEOs while they’re at it?

Of course, as a feminist, I think women should be liberated, but not from vacations and leisure, but from work itself.

So let’s advocate for a radical form of feminism that let’s everyone opt in to some free time!

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5 thoughts on “Our Lives vs. Liberal Feminism

  1. Could you give some examples of works and authors that you would consider to be representative of whitestream and/or liberal feminisms?

    Much appreciated!


    • Great question, Lee, thanks.

      I think a lot of Hilary Clinton’s type of “feminism” is a good example, as is Lena Dunham and the “pop feminism” of folks like Taylor Swift or Beyonce, etc.

      Folks who may mean well but whose ideal of gender equality mostly revolves around prevailing power structures staying in place to one level or another.

      Does that help?

      • It does, as this confirms what I had in mind. I wonder if you could give me some scholarly sources that I could read up on? I see Mills and Friedan cited a lot in reference to liberal feminism, but I’m struggling to find more recent references– has liberal feminism fallen so out of fashion (at least -apparently- academically, certainly not in mainstream/pop culture) that people are not describing themselves this way anymore? Liberal feminism is definitely a dirty word in the circles I run in. Even people I would expect to describe themselves as such seem to flinch when I ask them for their thoughts on authors, readings, etc.

        • I can’t think of any scholarly sources off the top of my head. My rubric for liberal feminism tends to be how mainstream it is and not necessarily within the academic field.

          I couldn’t tell you whether people are just giving up the label or it’s more of a label that’s typically used as an insult than a self-descriptor.

  2. Pingback: Anti-Work Liberalism as the Problem, Not the Solution - Abolish Work

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