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Sundlee '16: Selling out to the patriarchy

Being a feminist is chic. After centuries, it seems we’re finally winning the culture war. Long gone are the days of feminism being seen as the domain of frumpy, grumpy spinsters. We’ve got Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and, of course, Emma Watson in our ranks. We have sex appeal. We have commercial appeal.

But there’s something unsettling about seeing the feminist banner so eagerly scooped up by corporations and sold to us in trendy soundbites. Feminism is embraced, but most thoroughly as an aesthetic — an accessory to identity that is designed to go in and out of vogue like the tides. It’s a shallow interpretation tailored to consumption and made to be communicated in 140 characters.

And with that, we have enshrined ourselves in capitalist identity politics that hobble mobilization and pacify us with feminist kitsch. We have given up on revolution.

I am by no means complaining about gay marriage legalization or Caitlyn Jenner’s success. But these advancements all take place in an arena circumscribed by androcentric capitalism. We’ve lobbied for entrance into a boys’ club, rather than striving to strip it down.

What we’re seeing at work is a grand compromise with oppression. One theory of the perpetuation of patriarchy by theorist Deniz Kandiyoti is the notion that women work within patriarchal systems in order to maximize their livelihoods. They make bargains and tradeoffs with their society that they think will give them the best possible outcome. This explains why many women cling to policies and traditions that oppress them, such as abortion restrictions. Anti-abortion activists can be seen as strategic instead of illogical actors. Many women see the separation of sexuality from domesticity and reproduction as contrary to their best interests since it lessens the responsibility men have for their sexual actions. They are trying to play the game the best they can, rather than rewriting the rules of the game.

Women of the 21st century have agreed to work within neoliberalism in exchange for being allowed to participate in it — albeit, for less pay. Indeed, this phenomenon is not at all limited to women in the Bible Belt. Examples of prominent feminists making patriarchal bargains abound. Margaret Thatcher or Jeane Kirkpatrick come to mind. In the words of renowned feminist theorist Cynthia Enloe, “When a woman is let in by the men who control the political elite it is precisely because that woman has learned the lessons of masculinized political behavior well enough not to threaten male political privilege.” It is not that these women have broken the bonds of patriarchy. Rather, they have worked within the structure to achieve what power they can while inadvertently fortifying an oppressive system.

We feminists here at Brown are poised to do the same. We proudly sport “F*** the Patriarchy” shirts, while simultaneously courting mega-corporation employers. In focusing on cultural recognition instead of economic redistribution we are making one big bargain with patriarchy. I don’t blame anyone taking this path — we’re just looking out for ourselves in a dog-eat-dog world. But it’s worth it to bear in mind the compromises that we make.

Complacency and overemphasis on identity politics have also undercut efforts to organize and fight for economic redistribution. This is because identity politics is atomizing. The extreme concern for recognizing difference has made it difficult for the left to create the necessary unity for revolutionary tasks. Indeed, many popular feminist intellectuals, such as Judith Butler, have condemned attempts to transcend divides among the left. But if some common ground cannot be found, the left may fall to factionalism and infighting.

Besides, certain scopes of study do allow for feminists to transcend differences resulting from class, race, religion and so on. For instance, Kandiyoti’s study on patriarchal bargains offers a means: “Such analyses dissolve some of the artificial divisions apparent in theoretical discussions of the relationships among class, race and gender, since participants’ strategies are shaped by several levels of constraints.” By viewing the way women and men relate to each other through certain lenses, we can find shared strategies and understanding that could provide a basis for mobilization.

Feminists must seek foundations for unity and return to the fight for economic justice. Single-minded focus on issues of recognition will lead to the feminist agenda being perverted to serve the interests of capitalism. It is crucial that we be suspicious of the commoditization of ideology and recognize the instances in which we, in our enthusiasm to promote our cause, fall prey to patriarchal bargains.

Robyn Sundlee ’16 is concentrating in international relations.


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