Kicking Back, not Leaning In

Image courtesy of Labour Youth via Flickr Commons

Fortunes of Feminism:
From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis

by Nancy Fraser
Verso, 2013, 256 pp.
Work, and in particular white, professional woman’s work, is at the center of contemporary feminist discourse. Newspaper articles discuss the glass ceiling and the inner lives of female CEOs; opinion pieces advise on proving oneself at the office without neglecting a family. Fall in love with your job so that it doesn’t feel like effort, they say. But don’t neglect your family: too much time with that BlackBerry could make your child a “smartphone orphan.” A sampling of articles in the past year might lead a person to conclude that the key problem facing women today is how to become better workers.

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. “More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her recent work manifesto Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Power, like a tax break, trickles down, you see. If women gain a strong foothold in the market, they will achieve the liberation that generations of feminists have demanded.

Yet that premise and promise are fraying at the edges. 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.


Tensions between feminism and the changing marketplace are at the center of Nancy Fraser’s discerning new book, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. Fraser, a professor of political science at the New School, has collected here her essays on feminism from the last three decades, mostly from publications such as the New Left Review and Political Theory. Tracing the path of feminism in the second half of the twentieth century, she posits a “dangerous liaison” between feminism and neoliberalism, one that must be understood for the movement to regain its emancipatory promise.

Fraser works in the tradition of critical theory, and her writing has aimed to direct social movements back toward the large-scale, radical thinking about political economy that defined the New Left. In particular, she aims to reintroduce socialist and redistributive goals to a Left that she sees as preoccupied with questions of culture and identity. Her 1995 essay “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age” called upon social theorists to reintegrate new projects of cultural “recognition” with the Left’s earlier mission of economic restructuring and parity. For feminism, this means a turn away from identity politics and toward questions of political economy.

In Fortunes of Feminism, Fraser addresses feminism’s trajectory in the twentieth century. According to Fraser, feminism has unfolded “in three acts.” From an offshoot of the New Left, where it “engender[ed]” the socialist imaginary and questioned the politics of the welfare state, the movement turned toward the politics of recognition. Here, feminists advocated for the acceptance of cultural difference, setting aside their former priority of material equality among and between women and men. The politics of recognition had unintended consequences: feminism’s third act has featured an unholy alliance with neoliberalism. The focus on recognition, Fraser writes, “dovetailed with neoliberalism’s interest in diverting political-economic struggles into culturalist channels.” Feminist critiques of the welfare state helped support the deregulation of work and of economic markets. Feminism and neoliberalism also dovetailed in their political goals. Feminists’ condemnation of the androcentric state converged with neoliberalism’s own rejection of state regulation; international efforts to promote gender equality were used to divert attention from issues of poverty and globalization. Entangled in this alliance, Fraser asks, how can feminists regain their movement’s revolutionary promise?


Central to Fraser’s narrative is the mid-century debate over the family wage: the monetary sum by which a man, as sole breadwinner, could support his wife and children, and the ideal of worker compensation at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Feminists criticized the family wage because it imagined the work force as divided by gender: while men earned money, women were expected to take over domestic tasks, without choice or compensation. The arrangement aimed at protection and stability for the heterosexual, two-parent nuclear family, but it curtailed women’s freedom. Women’s dependency on men was normalized and accepted. Even as many women took on market work to supplement their husband’s earnings (which often fell short of this family-supporting ideal) their place as secondary breadwinners meant smaller wages and exclusion from lucrative jobs. Women’s work was thus exploited in both the household and the market. Promoting liberation from the confines of domestic life and equality in work, liberal feminists pushed for the removal of barriers to participation in the workforce, embracing the idea of waged employment. The percentage of women in the work force jumped from 33.9 percent in 1950 to 58.6 percent in 2010.

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. Women’s entrance into the work force coincided with the international deregulation of markets and crumbling job protections. Women’s labor was used to ramp up this assault on the working class. Women’s entrance into the labor force was key to expanding low-wage work. It provided most of the workers in the fastest-growing areas of poorly paid employment.

Many feminists explicitly promoted workplace flexibility. Flexible work—part time or contract-based—would be the perfect solution for women who wished to retain traditional domestic roles while embracing the freedom a job provided. 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.

Although working-class women held jobs outside the home long before second wave feminism, and organized for better conditions alongside their male peers, liberal feminism’s celebration of the “working woman” provided a moral façade to give value to women’s waged labor, no matter its flaws. “Endowing their daily struggles with an ethical meaning,” Fraser writes, “the feminist romance attracts women at both ends of the social spectrum.” Contemporary pop feminism encourages women in the boardroom and in low-level jobs to see their work as a facet of their independence. What is “leaning in” but an exhortation to see labor as liberation?

What was won from challenging the family wage, then, was only a compromised form of emancipation. In the place of the male-breadwinner household, the new ideal of a two-earner family has brought a reality of “depressed wage levels, decreased job security, declining living standards, a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, exacerbation of the double shift.” The fight against the family wage has inadvertently lent moral credence to changes in the work force that weaken working people. “The cultural changes jump-started by the second wave,” Fraser argues, “have served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society that runs directly counter to feminist visions of a just society.”


As Fraser turns the book’s argument toward challenging this cooptation and reinforcing the centrality of political economy, she paints with a broad brush. She wants to take a sweeping look at feminism in general, she writes, “not at this or that activist current, nor at this or that strand of feminist theorizing.” This sometimes obscures important aspects of the movement’s evolution. Fraser is vague about how the different facets of feminism colluded to endorse neoliberal ideas. Buried in her throwaway “this or that activist current” are real questions of race and sexuality, priority and goal.

Indeed, questions of identity did not merely surface as a shift away from redistributive politics. Feminists such as bell hooks or Barbara Smith who questioned the racial biases of the feminist movement had socialism and political economy in mind. Even as they argued that the analysis of white radical feminists was biased and incomplete, they shared many of the same goals of material and institutional change. For instance, hooks criticized the narrowness of white feminists’ understanding of the family—where white women saw the family as a source of oppression, women of color often experienced it as a safe haven in an oppressive world and recognized black men as allies in the fight against racism. Such criticisms did not aim to reduce feminism to a debate about cultural difference, but rather to expand its goals. By presenting the shift toward identity politics in such general terms, Fraser obscures important tensions in second wave feminism.

Fraser’s account thus possesses a slight nostalgic quality for a coherent socialist feminist project. Asked about feminism in 2010, she said, “Just about everyone claims to be feminist now, but what does that mean? And what does that have to do with the social movement that I was part of?” The critique in Fortunes of identity politics threatens to obscure the lessons learned by a movement that Fraser hopes will be for everybody.


To enable a new unity among feminists, and restore the radical promise of the movement, Fraser develops a new framework for understanding the current economic crisis. For this, she looks to the work of Karl Polanyi, the Hungarian economic historian whose 1944 book The Great Transformation analyzed the economic and social breakdown at the eve of the Second World War. Polanyi’s analysis is useful to us, Fraser argues, because it “transcends the cramped confines of economistic thinking” to scrutinize both economic movements and the disintegration of social structure. His ideas, she writes, provide us with the beginnings of a just and feminist vision for society.

Central to Polanyi’s analysis is the distinction between embedded and disembedded markets. The former is a historical norm, markets controlled and regulated through institutions. By contrast, disembedded markets are a fictitious ideal, impossible to achieve. The invention of the ideal of the disembedded market in the nineteenth century set two forces into motion. One—“marketization”—pushes for greater freedoms of the market. Against it, the force of “social protection,” attempts to uphold the fabric of society. When the force of marketization overcomes social protection, it creates not only a capitalist crisis but a social one. As aspects of society become commoditized, the forces of marketization endanger the ability of humans to maintain social bonds.

Fraser is on to something here: Polanyi did not realize, she argues, that “social protection,” was not an unequivocal good. Rather, social protection can also preserve inequity and entrenched hierarchies. By treating women as the weaker sex, social customs and laws aimed to shelter women. Regulations of decency and financial independence also curbed their mobility. Recognizing this tension, Fraser adds a third motion to Polanyi’s “double movement”: emancipation, the force of non-domination. With this third movement, she proposes a more nuanced social analysis in which emancipation serves as a corrective to both marketization and social protection.

Fraser’s analysis helps explain feminism’s current bind. Fraser argues that feminists did not realize that by rejecting social protection, they might be allying themselves with marketization. “Focused on opposing oppressive protections, it [the feminist movement] was not always sufficiently aware of the triple movement’s third prong, namely, efforts to extend and autonomize markets.” By contrast, socialist feminists “tended to have an intuitive grasp of the logic of the triple movement,” and pushed for a transformation, not destruction, of protectionist forces. To these socialist feminists, she credits activism such as the valorization of care work and attempts to transform welfare.

Fraser synthesizes her values and concerns into a solution that is a successor to socialist feminism: the universal caregiver model. In Fraser’s ideal, work would be set up to accommodate caregiving. Everyone would have a shorter work week and support of services such as child care would ensure that parenting and domestic work did not overwhelm women’s lives. This model would promote gender equality by dismantling the opposition between bread-winning and caregiving. Under Fraser’s plan, both sexes would perform both duties. Further, by reducing the time spent on both of these activities, Fraser’s model promotes non-work time as well. In her ideal system, “citizens’ lives integrate wage-earning, caregiving, community activism, political participation, and involvement in the associational life of civil society—while also leaving time for some fun.”

In many ways, this model provides the clearest answer to the exhortation to “have it all.” Fraser’s proposal offers a straightforward reconciliation of waged work and family in which everyone should participate in every facet of life. By performing less labor, people could rearrange their lives around a slower pace and a gender-blind redistribution of work. Fraser’s model indicates that in order to have control and autonomy in their lives, women need access not to work, but to more time. Time, her work suggests, is a feminist issue.


Fraser makes clear that she aims to raise questions, not provide a road map for contemporary feminists. Rather, she offers a compass, pointing feminism toward a reckoning with political economy after identity politics. For this reason, it is fair to see many of her proposals not as prescriptive models but as challenges for a new set of feminist innovations. Fraser’s book asks, how do we stop giving priority to work over the fullness of social life, individual success over collective justice, and men over women?

One answer may be to build upon Fraser’s proposed model and look at the category of time itself. We might ask, How do we structure our time? What activities do we consider worthy of our time, and why? How might we think of time in a way that allows for greater freedom over our lives and actions?

The popular answer, as we know, rests upon work. Work structures the makeup of individual days and the course of our lives; preparation for work forms the backbone of our education and upbringing. Work’s impact on our use of time is deeply embedded in how we think about our goals and ideals, what type of person we are. Fraser herself speaks to two kinds of work—waged and domestic—that pull upon women. To extract ourselves from the punishing motivation that drives women to “lean in” in order to self-actualize, we may need to cease to define ourselves as workers altogether.

Fraser’s recommendations, bearing a strong similarity to the models put forth in Nordic social democracies, could use a utopian kick. One potential source of inspiration is the recent anti-work theorizing of Kathi Weeks, a political scientist at Duke University. In The Problem With Work, published in 2011, Weeks argued that autonomy can only be achieved in a movement that acts against work instead of centering on it.

Weeks directly addresses one of the largest ideological obstacles arrayed against the massive redistribution of money, labor, and leisure that Fraser advocates: the work ethic itself. “The social role of waged work has been so naturalized as to seem necessary and inevitable, something that might be tinkered with but never escaped,” writes Weeks. Beyond mere economic necessity, work forms the cornerstone of our value system and the foundation of our sense of possibility. It is understood as the expression of individual value and the site of collective obligation. (Think Sandberg telling women to “keep a foot on the gas pedal” when facing difficulties balancing their work and family or the rhetoric of welfare-to-work.)

Weeks argues that in order to fulfill their ideals of freedom and autonomy, feminists must develop a framework that moves against work. She proposes politics of “life against work” through a feminist reclamation of time. Instead of acting to improve working conditions, Weeks suggests fighting for less work. Rather than structuring demands around control of our work, we might structure them around control of our time. To this end, she advocates, for example, a universal basic income, which would provide redistribution that was not filtered through social programs related to employment, pregnancy, disability, and so on. Many of the particulars of Weeks’s proposal may underestimate the need to combat sexism in its specifics. Research done in Nordic countries, for instance, indicates that redistribution of money without gender-conscious incentives may not bring gender equality. But as a new idea for feminism, a politics that pushes aside access to work in favor of access to time is extremely promising. The utopianism behind this vision flies in the face of popular feminism’s deference to an ideal of the working woman. A movement fighting for access to and control of time would also allow feminists to frame goals not as a balance between waged work and care work but through radical inquiry into the makings of a better life.

Both Fraser and Weeks note that the nature of work has changed since second-wave feminists first articulated their demands. Much work today takes place far from the office or even the desk. Employment has plummeted due to the global economic crisis, and workplace flexibility benefits only the boss. New technologies commodify social life. By developing a critique of work in the twenty-first century, feminism can build a deeper understanding of the new ways in which work is restructuring every part of life.

Fraser’s analysis, and her vision, are a welcome contribution. Her call for a re-incorporation of political economy into contemporary feminist discourse and for policy changes that would give women more control of their time are sorely needed. In order to realize both emancipation and social protection, we will need to move beyond the idealization of work as represented by liberal feminism and into a fuller vision of the emancipatory project of gender justice. “I am suggesting, then, that this is a moment in which feminists should think big,” Fraser exhorts. And well we should.


Madeleine Schwartz is a writer living in New York City. She last wrote for Dissent about internships.

View the full article here