Today, in a variation on the ongoing, twisty, facepalm-inducing intersectional feminism “debate”, the Guardian reblogged a piece from Louise Mensch’s blog Unfashionista. In it, Mensch accuses those fiendish intersectionalistas of not being sufficiently “reality based”. Intersectional feminists – who are, believe it or not, all British – are too busy checking each other’s privilege to become famous chick lit writers / US secretary of state / vice-important person of a multinational company (basically, anything mega-successful, as long as there’s at least one man above you). American feminists, on the other hand, are ace at this.
You can see where Mensch is coming from, or rather, you guess see why she takes the position she does. Partly it’s sucking up to the inhabitants of a country she’s just moved to, but there also seems to be something a bit more personal. Basically, if you have a go at feminism for being too focused on the achievements of white, middle-class women, it sounds like you’re having a go at Louise Mensch. And that’s not fair! Cos she’s worked really hard and stuff!
As Mensch writes, it’s been a long, hard slog to the top:
Aged 14 I had big glasses, was nerdy, feminist, ambitious, idolising Thatcher, and determined to be famous, to be an author, and to be rich. I was at private school my parents couldn’t really afford because I bust my ass and won a 100% academic scholarship. I always believed in myself and I had and have no intention of checking my privilege for anyone. I earned it.
Yeah! Go you! No such thing as privilege – it’s just other people not being willing to engage in an appropriate level of arse-busting (as someone still based in the UK, I’m sorry, but I refuse to use the term “ass”).
The thing is, I do have sympathy with Mensch’s position. I didn’t have that easy a time in my teens but then got degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. Hence whenever I hear people griping about “the Oxbridge elite” and their dominance of pretty much everything in which I don’t dominate, a bit of me thinks “well, hang on a minute! I’m ‘Oxbridge’ but it’s not as though I was in the sodding Bullingdon Club!” Then again, for all I know, David Cameron’s thinking “well, it’s not as though I was a founding member of the sodding Bullingdon Club!” And then there’s everyone in between, who attended a private school but “not a very good one” or “on a scholarship” or “while wearing glasses” (funny how those who complain the most about “the Oppression Olympics” indulge in it without even noticing). Anyhow, what I mean is, it hurts if you think all people can see is your privilege and not your value. Even so, there’s a difference between that and the “I earned it” attitude – an attitude which presupposes that other people just haven’t, despite the inequalities you’re claiming to acknowledge. You might have earned it, but maybe other people have, too, even though they’re finding themselves empty-handed.
Mensch’s narrative of “successful” American feminism is a familiar one. Woman, whose name may or may not be Hillary, Melissa or Sheryl, is clever. Woman does well at school and college. Woman fights her way to top job, before making cursory remarks about equality and work-life balance. Hooray, Woman! Good for you! The End.
It’s not a bad story, as stories go. A tiny minority of women are getting to do the things a slightly larger minority of men have done. And if these women are challenging sexism along the way, so much the better, but let’s not kid ourselves this is revolutionary. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say “It does nothing. It accomplishes nothing. It changes nothing” (Mensch’s own reading of intersectionality), let’s just say that the trickle-down effect of this version of feminism is proving pretty minimal. Indeed, in the same issue of the Guardian, a report shows that the life expectancy of women in the US who didn’t graduate from high school is dropping. This too is a feminist issue, linked to poverty, inflexible employment and a lack of adequate childcare, all of which starts to sound a touch “intersectional” (why talk about poverty when the topic’s meant to be women?). But if Mensch is truly interested in “reality-based feminism”, here it is, intersectional warts and all.
Mensch may seek to shock faint-hearted British feminists by going all Gordon Gecko on us and telling us it’s all about money, but the thing is, we’re none of us about to choke on our custard creams. We knew this already! Intersectional feminism, or whatever you want to call it – that feminism which requires us to acknowledge that disadvantages, well, intersect – most definitely “sees where power lies” and “realises that actual empowerment for women means getting more money”. It just also accepts that the solution to this isn’t one individual becoming “COO of Yahoo or Facebook”. That’s not activism. It’s an achievement, yes, but it’s also an avoidance of any real engagement with the roots of economic inequality as it affects women. A woman who becomes one of life’s “winners” isn’t necessarily standing up for female empowerment, unless we’re to believe the Onion was right all along.
This shouldn’t need reiterating, but I’ll do it anyhow: money offers freedom but women are not poorer than men because they do not work. They are not poorer because they are not clever. They are not poorer because they lack fight and guts and all the things a “striver” such as Mensch seeks to celebrate in alphas such as herself . Women aren’t financially and hence socially disadvantaged because they fail to “lean in”, instead wasting hours discussing whether Caitlin Moran is the devil incarnate. Louise Mensch may have worked hard, but billions of other women around the world work hard, too, and they’re not rewarded, and partly that’s because they’re women. “Women’s work” is traditionally low-paid or done for free. That’s a feminist issue and it’s not one that’s solved by propping up a system which over-rewards the work of a certain class of men. Someone still has to be washing dishes and wiping arses (although ideally at different times in the day, with hand-washes in-between).
If you’re Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg, that’s the kind of work you can flee, but that’s not true for everyone. I’m not saying it has to be other women picking up the pieces. I’m not saying that wealthy women are more complicit than wealthy men in the outsourcing of domestic labour. I’m just saying that it is, by and large, less wealthy women who are doing the cleaning and childcare. This is a serious issue for anyone concerned with equality. If your work brings no direct financial reward, you can’t choose where you live or whom you live with. You don’t have choices. You can’t just go out and grasp the world by the bollocks. Not when there’s no one else to take care of your child or elderly relative. This is a reality. It’s to do with the status of women, but it’s also to do with class and wealth.
By suggesting that an organised, effective feminism is one in which the deserving alphas rise to the top, Mensch fails to acknowledge the intrinsic value of the work all women do. It’s not necessarily that we’re in the wrong jobs. The definition of inequality isn’t “not being COO of Yahoo”. Inequality can mean not being rewarded for the value you bring even if it’s in the domestic sphere (and not having access to the freedom that comes with adequate reward). Real feminism is messier than “alpha” feminism because it ultimately comes up against the fact that almost all our systems of reward are flawed. It’s a pain. Switching jobs, working that bit harder, would be so much easier, if it worked. But it doesn’t.
Meanwhile, in real-life feminist land, it strikes me that feminists in both Britain and the US are still able to achieve things together, miles away from caricatures of British hand-wringing and the Yankee can-do spirit. Jolly good for them! *raises china cup of tea* Now let’s do even better.